Published: August 23rd 2007August 23rd 2007
Ghostly Voices in an old Gold Mine
As we loaded our provisions into two canoes alongside the long wooden pier at Bare Point Marina, the smell of fresh cooked pork sausages filled the air. It made me hungry. The four of us had already drove half an hour west from Kenora, through an unkempt Indian reservation named Rat Portage, to the north east corner of the Lake of the Woods. I knew it would be another hour or more before we stopped for anything to eat.
It was Saturday afternoon and the world was bright and alive with the sound of children’s voices, dogs barking, and the ubiquitous hum of motor boat engines. None of us could fathom that our adventure would leave the land of living and descend into the darkness of the dead. This is a true story of how four Good Christians who do not believe in ghosts
paddled across Bald Indian Bay to hear the voices of four dead miners at the bottom of the Number Two shaft on Sultana Island.
I’m Russell Gainer, and I’m sometimes called ‘Russell the Relic Hunter’. Accompanied by Trixie Blasé, Jasmine Edu and Chester Huff (and two four legged friends, Theo and Poncho), I led the August 4th 2007 expedition to Sultana Island. This is the story of a forgotten gold mine, and one that’s not completely abandoned. My intrepid crew of fortune hunters set out with the best intentions.
The plan was straight forward enough - by canoe it would take us forty minutes to cross Bald Indian Bay. We planned to explore Sultana Island all afternoon and then return before sunset. It was our objective to find the lost gold mine and rummage around through the remains of some of the original buildings. Trixie and I have been trained by the very best dumpdiggers
and we know how to dig century old foundations to find important relics… It’s important to remember, this mission started as a treasure hunt.
Sultana Island is one of the most famous gold mines on the Lake of the Woods. The original claim was staked in November 1888 by Henry Bulmer, who sold the 27 acre property to a group of fifteen men that called themselves the Ontario Mining Company. This group, who did not even bother to register the claim, hired a prospector and a mining engineer from New York to assay their purchase. Unfortunately this ‘expert’ wrote an adverse report in the summer of 1889 and because of his document a third party named John F. Caldwell of Winnipeg managed to pick up the claim for a very reasonable price. He ignored the expert and truly believed there was gold in the greenbelt quartz - he was right.
Mining commenced in the summer of 1892 when three small veins were discovered in the rock. Caldwell must have found enormous profit in his first six months as he soon spent $30,000 erecting a five stamp mill on the island. This was a steam powered machine that crushed quartz to release gold nuggets from the ore. The machine was completed just before Christmas. The stamps weighed 850 lbs each and were dropped eight inches 92 times a minute in the standard order, namely 1,5,2,4,3.
When we arrived at Sultana Island we found the sandy beach deserted of all life and the shore absolutely full of driftwood. It was a Beachcomber’s paradise. Beyond the dunes there was long grass and a dense forest that obscured all signs of any previous development. Just beyond the trees we encountered a crumbling rock wall holding back a mass of rusty barrels. The fence was bisected by a narrow trail that snaked its way up a steep incline. A set of stairs had been cut right into the rock…
Chester found a small chunk of dark red ore buried in the soil here - a crumb of some really heavy metallic mineral. When I dug down into the rocky soil I dredged up barrel hoops and bucket handles, thick square nails, and rusty hinges… There was corrugated steel roofing lying in the grass beside the trail - this was all that remained of some structure no doubt integral to the operation of the mine.
As we continued walking up the rise the rest of the island came into view. At the top of the hill we each stared open mouthed at a century old rock cut that was the throat of the number two shaft. In the jaws of this stone cavity we could see moss covered timbers set right into the rock. At one time these tree trunks had supported a sturdy platform on which miners might have worked the hoists. With hesitation I threw a stone down into the darkness and we listened as it ricocheted off the sides of the passage - we waited almost ten seconds to hear the splash.
Unaware of any danger I climbed down the rock wall to stand on the bed of timbers. Immediately I felt a blast of very cold air rising from the cave - although it was the heat of the summer there was still plenty of ice down there in the darkness. Trixie was the first to hear it - dripping water echoed up the shaft and between each drip there were other sounds, less natural.
In December 1899 Caldwell sold the mine - he’d made his fortune and was probably aware that further mining would not produce more bullion than he’d already liberated from the island. The new owners kept the original staff; 12 miners, 1 blacksmith, 5 mill men, and 2 cooks were each employed at $3.00 day. The Sultana mine had been very profitable for many years and the new management was eager to maintain production - too eager.
When the gold seams faded away into the rock a few months later the organization hired explosive experts and ferried a mass of low grade dynamite to the site. As the TNT was lowered down into the pit there was an accident. History doesn’t record exactly what happened, but it does detail the deaths of four miners in 1901. Two men were buried in the rock at the bottom of the tunnel - rescue workers struggled in vain to move the debris in time. The log books state that it took a week to recover the bodies. Those are the two spirits who cries forever resonate in the darkness of the mine.
Trixie bade us all to shut up and listen and as I peered down into the darkness of the abyss, for just a moment, I could hear the rope squeaking and then I too heard the faint echo of a human voice… At first it was just a whisper then it sounded like two men issuing soft warnings to each other… The air grew even colder as their voices grew louder… Every member of the expedition was paralyzed with fear - we slowly backed away from the rock cut and then quickly ran down the hill and back to the boats. It was seriously scary stuff - fear pervaded our very beings and it wasn’t until we were back in our canoes and well away from shore that we could discuss the experience. We laughed about it then, but I think it’s safe to say that each of us was relieved and slightly ashamed of our terror.
Later in the week, at the Lake of the Woods Museum in Kenora, I learned that although the Sultana property was worked (intermittently) for another thirty years it was never as productive as before that accident. Indeed spooky incidents and recorded anecdotes speak of supernatural phenomenon; on two occasions in the 1920s the mine’s dynamite boxes were mysteriously emptied of all explosive material before they could be deployed. Equipment was found broken at the bottom of the pit and many new miners reported hearing voices calling out to them, begging for help. That passage always sends a cold shiver up my spine for I had been there, and I had heard those voices myself.