An historic gold mine in a tiny Ontario town could be the epicentre of Canada’s next great gold rush
ELDORADO, Ont. — Kim Woodside was ready for a change, a mid-life pivot, and a 100-acre rural property in Eastern Ontario seemed like a good place to start. It had two grey barns she hoped to paint poinsettia red, a woodworking shop full of tools, a woodlot thick with mature cedar trees, a rocky hill out back and a bungalow in need of renovation. It would be a fix, in her calculations, that would take the custom furniture maker about six months to complete.
“All the tools were there, there were no neighbours and the price was right,” she said.
The property in Eldorado was perfect, but then Woodside, a history buff, asked the old codger she was buying it from about the blue historical plaque on the highway nearby. He answered with a question: Was she a “gold digger?”
Woodside didn’t appreciate the comment, but it wasn’t entirely uncalled for, not after he explained that the place she hoped would change her life had changed other lives when the Richardson gold mine, Ontario’s first, was discovered beneath it in 1866.
“I didn’t know anything about rocks or mines or the story of Eldorado,” she said. “I grew up in Prince Edward Island on a sandbar. Rocks for me basically meant the Rockies.”
Canadian mining lore is fired by stories of the Klondike rush of the 1890s, of Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie, Bonanza Creek, brave Mounties, starving prospectors, pack mules, scallywags, women of ill repute and savage winters, all stirred into a character-rich stew the poet Robert Service — the so-called Bard of the Yukon — mythologized with lines about the “strange things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold.”
Even stranger still, perhaps, is an enduring belief among some that Ontario’s first gold mine could be the epicentre of Canada’s next gold rush, a mere two-hour drive northeast of downtown Toronto.
But first, about that blue historical plaque: it is obscured from view by a pine tree and directly across a two-lane highway from a dilapidated hotel, a ghostly looking white two-storey joint with busted-out windows. It is among the few physical reminders that once upon a rush, Eldorado, population 50, was briefly home to 4,000.
Before the boom, the inhabitants were typically poor Irish immigrants, working rocky tracts of land, living in rough log cabins and presumably cursing the fates, since the rock gave way to fertile fields a few kilometres south.
Such was the lot of farmer John Richardson before Aug. 15, 1866. On that date, Marcus Powell, a part-time prospector and sometime county court clerk, was in a hole 15-feet deep on a hill overlooking the Richardson property, whacking away at a seam of copper with a pick and shovel, when he broke into a cave.
Years later, he described it as “12 feet long, six feet wide and six feet high.” The cave walls dripped with golden “leaves.” The largest nugget was the size of a “butternut.” The rush was on.
Miners, speculators, scam artists and more poured into the region from as far away as California. A place that hadn’t been marked on a map suddenly became known as Eldorado, Spanish for the “golden one.” Hotels, shops and saloons sprang up. Fights broke out. Sergeant-Major William Foxton, hero of the Crimean War, arrived with a troupe of mounted police to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing on Richardson’s hill. Whispers suggested there wasn’t any gold. John “Cariboo” Cameron, a veteran of previous rushes in British Columbia and California, took it upon himself to investigate, heading a march of 150 concerned citizens to the mine’s entrance. Negotiations ensued.
Two professional miners were finally granted access to the cave. Their verdict, as reported by the Belleville Intelligencer on May 2, 1867, was unequivocal: the Richardson mine was of “unparalleled richness.”
Only, alas, it wasn’t. Richardson’s cave was basically it. By 1868, the boom was bust. All that remained was for a historical plaque to be erected a century later.
“There was a lot of excavation at the Richardson mine, but there wasn’t much tonnage produced,” said Peter LeBaron, a geologist with Ontario’s Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines.
LeBaron works out of an office in Tweed, not far from Eldorado. He drives a white Ontario government pickup truck with an interior light that won’t shut off. He is tanned from working outdoors and looks the part of the 21st century prospector, with a red mineral vest, beat-up blue jeans, hiking boots and a reinforced backpack for carrying rock samples.
Thirty years ago, when he was working in private industry, he went poking around the cave. The entire hillside is pocked with antique mine shafts, now fenced off with rusty wire and marked by danger signs.
Different accounts of the boom attach differing values to the amount of gold dug from the earth. Some say it was as much as $100,000 at the time, others say $60,000. LeBaron settles on $1,500-$2,000, about 100 ounces of gold — peanuts considering the buzz the find initially generated.
But just because there wasn’t much gold found way back when doesn’t mean there isn’t more gold to be found now.
Ol’ Marcus Powell relied on dynamite and a shovel to burrow into the rock, reaching depths of 100 feet. Modern diamond drills bite a kilometre or more beneath the Earth’s surface. There is geomapping and geochemistry. It is not 1866, which is a not an insignificant point, said John McCance, president of the Southern Ontario Prospectors Association.
Geographically speaking, McCance’s position makes him the Rodney Dangerfield of his profession. Images of Ontario’s northern reaches — Timmins, Sudbury, Kirkland Lake, perhaps a remote bush camp or two — are what spring to mind when people speak of mining in the province, and not an almost-ghost town 58 kilometres north of Belleville on a highway favoured by city slickers looking to escape to a lake.
In McCance’s view, southern Ontario’s mineral potential can’t get any respect.
“My concern is that modern technology has never been applied to look in the area,” he said. “We obviously had gold near the surface of the Richardson mine, so is there anything bigger down below?”
LeBaron, the ministry geologist, pulls his truck onto a property five kilometres north of Eldorado. He grabs his backpack and starts walking, heading through a tangle of prickly bushes to a rock that looks like any other rock to the untrained eye until viewed up close through a hand lens. Lo and behold, there it is, a pinprick of native gold, undisturbed, yellow, enchanting, Mother Nature’s gift to human vanity.
Almost 80 per cent of the gold mined annually worldwide is used to produce jewellery. Gold never tarnishes. It can be hammered, drawn into a wire, pounded into a sheet, stretched and shaped, melted and reformed and worn as rings by lovers until death doth do them part, and even when it does do them part, the gold persists in its perfection.
The Egyptians loved the stuff. Still do. The markets have, too. Gold is trading near record highs of $2,000 an ounce, and McCance and LeBaron can’t understand why resource companies don’t appear more interested in taking a much closer look at the region around Eldorado.
“There is a favourable horizon for gold deposits in this area,” LeBaron said.
For instance, the property north of the old Richardson mine is estimated to have about 145,000 ounces in gold reserves, according to a 2016 Ontario Geological Survey report. It is not the motherlode — after all, a modern mine cranks out 40,000 ounces a month — but it is something, especially if viewed as an indicator of perhaps bigger things to come in nearby places, and at greater depths.
Kim Woodside has her own thoughts on where the gold horizon lies. After buying a property with a historic mine on it, she went looking for the mine. She read historical accounts, checked records, thumbed through books, studied rocks and, ultimately, climbed down into the cave using an old cellphone tower as a ladder.
She cleared brush, marked trails with red plastic flashes, erected some display boards detailing the history and started a small business taking “rock hounds” on tours of the property for $20 a head, an operation she recently shuttered after receiving an offer to sell the place “that was too good to be true.”
As for the gold, Woodside believes it never left the hill.
“The gold is still there,” she said, sounding certain.
John Richardson, the poor Irishman of days gone by, netted $21,000 from the mine. Not directly from the gold, per se, but from selling the mineral rights to the property. He died in 1882 having never left the farm, and is buried in a local cemetery. He had sons and daughters, though, who had sons and daughters, and as generations of Richardsons moved on from Eldorado, the story of the mine moved with them.
The gold is still there
One of the descendants, John Richardson, six generations removed from John R. the First, is a Toronto-based venture capitalist. He remembers his father, a pediatric dentist, telling him of the mine’s existence, a childhood story he suspected was untrue and mostly forgot until his brother, Paul, a private investment adviser at Toronto-Dominion Bank in Guelph, Ont., phoned him in 2005. Paul had met a distant relative at a running race. The fabled mine wasn’t fatherly fiction after all.
“It turns out, we were a missing family link in the Richardson family tree,” John said.
Before long, he was up to his eyeballs in genealogical records, and on his way to the first of two Richardson family reunions he has attended in Eldorado.
The event attracts descendants from across North America. Locals cook, a band plays, stories get told, people dance and the whole group, perhaps as many as 150, make a pilgrimage to the mine, peering down into the darkness from whence prospector Powell’s golden cave first came to light.
Invariably, a couple of attendees will notice they’re wearing identical gold rings: simple, thin bands passed down through their respective families. As the story goes, the rings were gifts the original John Richardson gave to his children — along with cattle — to encourage them to go forth and make lives for themselves.
In this way, the mine serves as a common thread, tying past to present, binding family, sustaining a belief in the power of gold. Richardson and his brother can’t escape the precious metal’s attraction. Both hold it, as did their father, in their investment portfolios.
“It is like you can’t deny the family heritage,” John said.
The brothers view the old mine as an opportunity, not to start drilling and blasting into the rock in search of more bounty, but to build upon the work Woodside started and transform the site into a more legitimate, government-funded heritage destination. LeBaron, the government man, has the same wish.
“The mine tells the story of the Irish that came to the area in difficult times and had a stroke of luck,” Paul Richardson said. “That is a story worth preserving.”
Woodside is now 60, and past her mid-life crisis. She is reluctant to disclose details about the mine’s new owners, but offers a few hints. One is named Kenny. They operate restaurants in Toronto. They are not interested in giving tours to the public.
“That property will give them everything they need,” she said. “It was hard for me to leave it.”
With the loot from the sale, Woodside purchased a heritage home in Summerside, P.E.I. She is fixing the place up, and plans to display her rock collection on the main floor, including, of course, some bewitching yellow samples from Ontario’s oldest gold mine.