“There’s Something Under Dufferin County”

As far back as 1886, for example, gold was discovered in Melancthon Township near Dundalk.

November 19, 2013 | | Historic Hills

Ontario’s history is full of tales about mines and mining, the successes, the failures and, of course, the scams. Stories come from all over the province, but some, especially in these hills, had more drama than others.

By the beginning of the 20th century, mining engineers and stock promoters had pretty much agreed that northern Ontario was the only truly logical setting for new mineral discoveries. Yet they continued to keep a keen eye on Dufferin County, because a steady number of new “finds” made the area impossible to ignore. It didn’t seem to matter that none of them ever paid off, the finds just kept on coming.

As far back as 1886, for example, gold was discovered in Melancthon Township near Dundalk. Four years later another gold discovery – silver too – made headlines, this time at Horning’s Mills.

In 1903 Mulmur Township got into the act in a more pedestrian way with the apparent discovery of coal near Perm. In the same year a syndicate was formed in Alliston to mine for diamonds near the Adjala-Mulmur border. And in 1906 a group of investors from Shelburne hired a professional drilling company to extract oil at Jelly’s Creek just outside town. The driller went down 1,900 feet before declaring the search a waste of time, despite the investors’ willingness to pay him to go even deeper.

Caledon’s Gold Rush

In the 1820s and early ’30s, rumours of a gold deposit near present-day Cataract triggered a gold rush out of York (Toronto) to the upper Credit River. Inadequate equipment and preparation combined with inexperience in the primitive, unsettled area led to total failure. Two men died in accidents and the remainder developed scurvy and barely made it back to “civilization.” There was no gold.

Did Conviction Overwhelm Science?

The 1903 alleged coal find in Perm is instructive. The rumour of its presence had long floated around the county, so in 1900 R.A. Rickey of Shelburne sent a sample of “Mulmur Coal” to the federal assay office in Ottawa. Undeterred by a most emphatic reply that coal beds “would be impossible in this part of Ontario,” local residents chose to believe a retired prospector who, after two brief visits to Mulmur, had once declared, “There’s something under Dufferin County.” And so a syndicate of Mulmur farmers and Shelburne residents paid a significant sum to bore into the township soil and learn the federal assay office was right.

That there must be something deep down in Dufferin County was a notion readily fostered by the local press which consistently offered enthusiastic reportage – and editorial opinion – about the county’s mining future. The certainty of “something” was reinforced by such news items as “John Levens continues to work in his silver mine on the 15th SR of Melancthon” (Shelburne Free Press, 1909) and “a company is digging for gold at Lavender” (Orangeville Sun, 1909). Whether Mr. Levens actually mined silver and whether the Lavender site produced gold were never reported. Only the searches made the news.

The sheer number of discoveries offered much opportunity for shady marketing. Among the more memorable was the “Reddickville Oil Scam” of 1906. Word had spread that oil was leaking into the water well serving the Reddickville hotel at a flow so strong a potential oil well just had to be nearby. What actually flowed into Reddickville was a flood of potential investors and curiosity seekers who, once they saw the oil light up lamps placed along the hotel bar, simply couldn’t resist buying a sample quart (for 15¢, several times the normal price of kerosene). Typically, they also bought a quart or two of whiskey from the hotelkeeper – at a dollar a quart, also an inflated price.

Before it came out that drums of kerosene were being dumped into the hotel’s well, promoters had driven stakes throughout a neighbouring farm and were selling claims. The draw of this alleged oil find was so powerful that the syndicate drilling over at Jelly’s Creek made plans to give up on that site and move its equipment to Reddickville, but learned the truth just in time.

The notoriety of the Reddickville affair, along with the consistent failure of the many other finds over the years, seemed to introduce a brief intermission in Dufferin’s mining history. It wasn’t until 1912 that the county topped the mining news once again, and thanks to promoters, made the national news as well. This time the hot tip was a coal mine in Melancthon Township.

The Melancthon Coal Mine

The supposed mine located at Henry Stoddart’s farm on the 4th Line of Melancthon had all the characteristics of a classic “seeding scam,” whereby samples are placed throughout a potential claim in order to be “discovered,” following which experts attest to the value of the soon-to-be mine, and promoters immediately begin marketing shares to investors.

In the fall of 1912, one G.A. Bonter, a mining stock promoter from Toronto, appeared at the Stoddart farm to investigate a rumour that coal abounded on the property. He was accompanied by a reputed expert, a mining engineer named Slater (all the way from Utah), who declared the coal on the farm to be of a quality found only in Wales. Bonter then partnered with an allegedly wealthy American named Colonel Waters, and the two began aggressively peddling this “wonderful mine in Melancthon,” not to the people of Dufferin but to the citizens of Walkerton.

Saved by a Vice

Promoters of the mine on Henry Stoddart’s farm declared they would sell shares only to “Christian people.” One of those in Walkerton was Miss Mary Glendening who, after buying just one share from G.A. Bonter, agreed to buy more. Bonter came to her house to complete this second purchase and while he waited for her to write the cheque, sat on her porch and smoked a cigarette. In Miss Glendening’s eyes this was an act so “vile and immoral” that she tore up the cheque.

Their success in that Bruce County town was considerable and might have continued had not a pair of unmarried elderly sisters, “the Misses McKinnon,” after handing over much of their savings, taken the unusual step of actually going to Henry Stoddart’s farm to see for themselves. Their disillusion triggered a high profile lawsuit (it failed) and a charge of “fraudulent conspiracy” against Bonter. (The county court in Walkerton dismissed the charge for lack of evidence when Slater could not be located and Colonel Waters was said to have died suddenly, although this could not be verified.)

Needless to say, there was never any mine, but then no one locally connected to the situation, including Henry Stoddart, had ever said there was! In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that Stoddart was involved in the scam in any way. He and his neighbours had always known that random pieces of coal would periodically surface on his farm when the land was worked – not an uncommon phenomenon in eastern North America – but there was never sufficient quantity or quality to interest them.

When court challenges over the non-existent mine petered out in 1915, leaving no one satisfied or remunerated, it was assumed the “Melancthon Coal Mine” was done for good, but hope springs eternal in Dufferin and by 1920 it was back in the news. This time it took a drilling company and a series of empty holes to prove there truly was no mine on Henry Stoddart’s farm.

Nevertheless, in November of that same year, yet another rig looking for coal came up empty on the farm of James Higgins, just east of Shelburne. Gold was also said to have been discovered on the 3rd Line of Amaranth, and down on Gravel Road in Melancthon, a crew was again drilling for oil.

It seems no failure was persuasive enough to blunt the conviction there was something under Dufferin County.

The Cobalt Silver Legend

In the summer of 1903, while working on a new railway line from North Bay to New Liskeard, blacksmith Fred Larose is said to have thrown his hammer at a fox and hit a rock instead, chipping off a piece that exposed a huge vein of silver. Within the next few years, what became Cobalt, Ontario, hosted the biggest silver mining camp in the world. The truth of this story is disputed, but it is the kind of tale that helped foster the relentless search for mines in Ontario.

About the Author More by Ken Weber

Caledon writer Ken Weber’s best-selling Five Minute Mysteries series is published in 22 languages. Ken wrote 103 Historic Hills columns for In The Hills over more than 25 years, capping his pen in 2022.

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