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Town site photo

The Blairton Iron Mines in 1873

Canadian Illustrated News, Vol.VII, No.7, Page 100

The seeds of Blairton's beginning were first laid in 1822 following the discovery of a rich bed of iron ore along the shores of Crowe Lake. In those early days it was simply not feasible to set up a full scale mining operation as there was no reliable means for transporting the ore out to the market. Everything changed following the arrival of the railways in the late 1860s and shortly thereafter, Blairton was established as a mining town.

The mine was owned by the Cobourg, Peterborough & Marmora Railway & Mining Company, a company with an unusual name and an even more curious history. The company was started in 1852 by a group of citizens and local entrepreneurs from Cobourg. Their plan was well-intentioned. They had hoped to construct a railway line from Cobourg north to Peterborough in the hope of attracting new business.

Unfortunately the project was a complete disaster from beginning to end. Marred by incompetence and complaints of shoddy workmanship, the railway company, after reaching as far as Harwood, attempted the rather ambitious engineering feat of building a crossing over Rice Lake using a combination of trestles and bridges. After being beaten back by ice jams in 1854, they achieved nominal success in 1855 and the bridge was opened for two successive winters. Their victory however was short-lived. By the third winter the span was destroyed, which in turn severed the line, rendering it useless. Sabotage was hinted at, especially when the owners of the rival Port Hope, Lindsay & Beaverton Railway immediately began construction of a branch line to Peterborough in 1858. Whatever happened, the Cobourg & Peterborough Railway Company was shut down in 1861 and completely bankrupt by 1865.

In 1866 the company was reorganized as the Cobourg, Peterborough & Marmora Railway & Mining Company, this time with a different focus. By the mid 1860s the mining industry had begun heating up and the company hoped to draw revenue by building a direct line to the Marmora Mines with a branch line leading to Blairton.

The company enthusiastically laid out a town site with 40 company homes, boarding houses for the singles, two hotels and stores, a church and school. By 1867, the mine was in full swing. By 1869, Blairton's population was listed at 500 and it was glowingly described as having the "richest iron mines in the Dominion." There were stores owned by Robert Sloan, John Turner, James Meikle and Thomas Learmouth, two butchers, Edmund Powell and William Leach, and a carpenter, Thomas Bell. Medical needs were met by Drs. D. Wilson and J. Brown. Blairton also included a clothier, shoemaker, bank, and money order office.

By 1871, the mine, under the direction of Superintendent Stephen Goodall, finally began to eke out a profit. The ore was transported by rail to the Trent Narrows and then lowered onto barges in the Trent River. From there it was transported to Harwood where it was transferred back to rail and onward to the Cobourg harbour, from where it could be shipped out to other ports. By then Blairton's population had dropped somewhat to around 350, but that was still enough to sustain a couple of stores, tavern, hotel and the school.

Unfortunately the company was hit hard by the economic downturn of 1873 and by 1877 they found themselves bankrupt once again. They attempted, without success, to revitalize interest in rebuilding the Rice Lake Bridge. With virtually nothing else going for them, they leased their track to the Grand Junction Railway in 1880.

By the mid 1880s, Blairton's population had dwindled to about 100. By then the mine was shut down and filled with surface water. However there was still a spirit of optimism in the air. The Ontario and Quebec Railway was expanding into the region and many hoped it would become the saviour of Blairton. The village continued to support two stores, run by Thomas Caskey and William Armstrong. John Purdy, a former butcher and farmer, was still running the hotel he bought in 1874. There was also a blacksmith shop and the telegraph service. The Methodist church and school, S.S. No. 9, were still flourishing.

In 1885 the company was purchased by a Belleville entrepreneur and reorganized yet again - this time as the Cobourg, Blairton & Marmora Railway & Mining Company. But there were no third chances for Blairton. Lack of investment and depleted markets took their toll and by 1893 the company was absorbed by the GTR and ceased to exist as a separate entity.

Blairton struggled on for a number of years. Thomas Caskey continued running the post office until his death in 1912. By then the population had dwindled to about 25. The post office and Methodist church (later United Church) both lasted until 1929, when they were shut down for good.

We made two very strange trips to Blairton. It's instructive to note that any effervescent spirit that may have existed in the latter half of the nineteenth century has long since evaporated. Blairton is just plain spooky and weird and it wasn't the lousy weather. Blairton has an unexplainable sense of unwelcome foreboding, further heightened by the presence of numerous large barking and snarling dogs chained up behind fences zealously guarding the paltry remnants of the old town. At some point we concluded we'd stumbled on to a set of the X Files and made our departure.

After being rained out on our first trip, we made a return trip to Blairton on a beautiful sunny day in October, 1998. Once again we experienced the same ominous feelings and decided not to return.

Recently, Blairton has attracted a number of new residents and the community is slowly returning to life. A number of new homes can be found in the area and a trailer park has thrived for many years. All the original mining buildings have been demolished.