An outcrop and the Vermillion River, ca: 1947Source: Private collector
The massive iron formation at Moose Mountain was first discovered during the sporadic placer gold rushes that took place along the Vermillion River. As early as 1887, Henry Ranger had actually found a small profitable deposit, which in turn became the Vermillion Mine.
This first experience with gold in the Sudbury area prompted a number of prospectors to scour the banks of the Vermillion River up until the late 1890s. Although free gold was found along certain areas, none of the deposits were ever found to be commercially viable. Some prospectors stumbled on to a large magnetic anomaly at Moose Mountain in Hutton Township some 70 kilometres (50 miles) north of Sudbury. A group of prospectors then settled close to a native encampment and a small temporary community evolved.
By the close of the 1890's, a number of firms had been started in order to explore properties in the area. By 1901 John W. Gates had begun to develop the future site of the Moose Mountain Mine. Another firm, known as Moose Mountain Mining Company, was incorporated shortly afterward to develop the claims. It quickly outlined over 90 million tons of ore. William Mackenzie and Donald Mann, owners of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR), purchased a large block shares and effectively became the controlling interest in the venture.
Encouraged by the large reserves of iron, Mackenzie & Mann acted quickly to consolidate their holdings. Mining had actually begun in 1906. Ore was stockpiled until Mackenzie & Mann built a line from Toronto to Sellwood in 1908. The two men had such high hopes that they actually built large ore shipping facilities at Key Harbour situated about 42 kilometres (30 miles) south of Sudbury on the Georgian Bay. They even planned to build a smelter and refinery site.
The method of extracting the ore was mainly done through large tunnels (adits) that were driven through the side of the mountain to a distance of 400 feet. An internal shaft (winze) was sunk to a level of 350 feet. Eleven major ore bodies were mined during Sellwood's main production years. A crushing plant was erected in 1907, a year prior to the railway's arrival. By 1908, nearly 300 men were needed in order to carry out these activities. Operations however would be plagued with production problems during the early years.
The first shipment of ore was shipped out as soon as the rails reached the mine site. Unfortunately the ore was found to be of a lower grade and the shipment was sent back. Ore was stockpiled again until a concentrating mill was built. Once the mill was erected, ore had to be sorted out manually (literally by hand). In 1910 power was finally strung in and the hand sorting was replaced by magnetic cobbing. Even these new improvements weren't enough to overcome the weak steel markets and in May 1911 the mine closed, throwing 250 out of work. Some were subsequently rehired to install a Crondahl concentrator, and briquetting plant. Trials showed that the average grade had improved considerably and the mine reopened once again in 1912. Almost two years later, in 1914, the mine shut down, once again for lack of viability. Iron markets improved following the advent of the First World War and the mine subsequently reopened in 1916. Full production was quickly achieved and the number of employees grew to over 600 men.
Even though the town was extremely isolated, there was plenty of accommodation available for visitors. There were two bunkhouses, one of which was known as The Club House. The Club House, run by a Mrs. Munser, was extremely elegant. The town doctor who was under contract to the mine often resided there during his visits. The three-storey Warren Hotel, with its 100 rooms, offered additional accommodation. A post office was established in 1909.
The arrival of the CNoR. in 1908 broke the community's isolation, and brought additional industry and employment to the town. The CNoR. had established terminal facilities, complete with roundhouse, station, water tank and coal chute. Initially there were two regular daily departures for Toronto. The following year, after the Warren Lumber Company established a lumber mill in Sellwood, a new influx of workers settled in town. Lumber camps were established in the area and lumberjacks and jobbers worked ten-hour days, six days a week. Sellwood was humming with activity.
Around 1913, the CNoR, brought survey crews to the area and extended the line from Arnprior to Thunder Bay. However two years later, a divisional point, that contained much larger facilities, was established at Capreol. The main line bypassed Sellwood which was about 12 kilometres east. Sellwood was now the terminal of a spur that was linked to the main line at Sellwood Junction (later Milnet).
A well-organized community, with emphasis on law and order, was established. Even the most common man could hold the highest of civic duties. For example, Donald A. Cogell, the mines cashier, was the legal officer and Justice of the Peace. The town's barber, a Mr. Lafleur, acted as a police officer. Local services such as electricity, telephones, were available in many homes. Streetlights were added later on. Many residents lived in sturdy frame houses, which dotted the extensive town plot, that had been surveyed by the mine.
Although Sellwood was a company town, many residents owned their lots and/or buildings. Situated in complete isolation, 70 kilometres (50 miles) north of Sudbury, it had a peak population of 1,500 residents. During its heyday, it was able to support up to eight stores, two bake shops, four poolrooms, a bowling alley, two restaurants and a Chinese laundry. A schoolhouse with two rooms that doubled as a theatre and a Protestant church was built in 1913. A Protestant preacher, Rev. J.A.Godfrey, came to preach on occasion. A Catholic Church, which in reality was merely mission, received its spiritual enlightenment from Fathers William and Fawcett. Social activities often took the form of celebrations where residents would get together with music and dance. New residents were often welcomed to the community in this way. Unfortunately the good times couldn't continue.
By 1916, as a result of the mine's erratic activity, some residents began leaving. That same year, Henry Bilborough (Plexman) moved his store brick-by-brick, re-establishing his business in Capreol, where he opened the first post office. Most remained, to work in the bush or the lumber mill, while others gambled on the mine's reopening. The gamble paid off for some, but only for four years.
The post war period was hard for the firm. The slowdown in steel demand meant cheaper prices for iron. The Moose Mountain Mine fell on hard times and began to cut back its payroll. The mine finally closed in November 1920 after producing 472,000 tons of iron ore. In 1923 the property was officially abandoned. A few short years later the lumber mill also closed and the lumber camps soon grew silent. Only a few people remained and by 1926, the post office, the town's last institution, closed for good. By the 1930 not a soul was left in Sellwood.
For the next two decades the townsite sat unused and complete. In April 1947 Lowphos Ore moved into the townsite and began to set up operations in some of the old buildings. From 1954-56 Lowphos Ore commenced explorations again. The National Steel Company erected a new mine and mill buildings in 1959. A pelletizing plant was added in 1963 with an annual output of 600,000 tons of processed iron pellets. Unfortunately in the process, the old townsite was levelled to make way for the larger mining operation planned at Moose Mountain.
In 1978 the mine closed again, this time for good. Today there is virtually no evidence that a large community even existed here. Since tailings and waste rock were bulldozed all over the townsite, no debris remains to tell the tales. The only evidence may be the cemetery, which is rumoured to have survived. Today the site is off limits.