Ontario’s First Gold Mine, Eldorado Ontario
Eldorado is located right on Highway 62 a little over 9 kilometres north of the junction of Hwy. 7 (The Trans Canada Hwy.)
Nothing much is left of Eldorado now, but in 1866 the story was quite different. When rumours of gold discoveries such as “gold the size of butternuts” began to surface, the town, not surprisingly, grew from nothing to some 80 buildings almost overnight. Prospectors and speculators arrived in droves to have their pickings of the anticipated riches.
Eldorado’s infamous history began with John Richardson, a middle-aged farmer, who had fled from Ireland almost 30 years earlier. Richardson’s land was thin and rocky and he’d been surviving on subsistence farming for years. According to an 1861 census, his net worth, including log cabin and livestock, was valued at about $1,000. Richardson was tired and fed up when he decided to give it one last shot in the hope that the many outcrops on his land would yield something of value. In the summer of 1866 he hired Marcus (Mark) Powell, a young court clerk and part-time prospector from nearby Malone, to begin explorations on his land.
There are several different legends floating around about the initial Eldorado gold discovery. The most colourful one is claims that when Mark Powell was prospecting on the Richardson farm, he fell into a cavern where he found walls covered with a metallic substance that he believed to be copper. Several weeks later, a Madoc jeweller informed him otherwise. According to another version, both Powell and an elderly prospector known as “Snider” were working together. Later on they showed their samples to one Fred Murchall who gave them the news that what they thought was copper was actually gold. A third refers to two Madoc men, Lyman Moon and Robert Gray, who grabbed two shovels full of decomposed sulphurites which they cleaned and delivered to a Madoc jeweller named D. Rawe. Rawe gave the substance a blow-pipe test and pronounced it to be gold.
Whichever version is true, Mark Powell has been largely credited with the initial gold find. Things were kept under wraps for a while but by November the cat was out of the bag and the area was hit by a fierce attack of gold fever.
Digging began in 1866 but was halted shortly afterward due to numerous disputes over ownership of the mine. Options had been purchased on the basis of pure hearsay. In addition to the questions on ownership, the Richardson mine was plagued with start-up and financing problems from the very outset. Digging resumed in the spring of 1867 after the first court case was settled.
Meanwhile it was party time for merchants from Belleville all the way to Madoc, who cashed in by charging inflated prices for just about everything. Extra stage lines were added from Belleville to accomodate the influx. Madoc was bursting at the seams. New hotels were quickly added in both Madoc and Eldorado. A post office was opened in June 1867. As the rumours of overnight wealth continued to grow, the inundation of would-be billionaires seemed endless. During those heady days, it was estimated some 3,000 people gravitated towards the area. In the spring of 1867, it was necessary to station 25 mounted policemen at the Richardson shaft in order to maintain law and order.
John Richardson reportedly sold his rights for $10,000 and Mark Powell sold his for $15,000. Both of these men were probably among the few that came out on top. Investors in the Richardson Mine had sunk a considerable amount of money into the latest and greatest machinery. Their efforts were in vain. Although the gold was supposedly extremely pure, the deposits were small, isolated and sporadic. When the returns were tallied up at the end of the year, they turned out to be a meagre $15 dollars to the ton. The investors quickly bailed out and the mine was shut down. The company eventually went into bankruptcy.
It took a couple of more years for the lustre to wear off. In 1869, shortly after the Richardson Mine was closed, Eldorado still boasted four hotels, two grocery stores, a dry goods store, a lawyer and a physician. By 1871 the hotels were gone but three stores and two taverns were still in operation. Dreams were kept alive with renewed efforts to rework the mine. Records show the Phoenix Gold Mine, employing about a half a dozen miners, was operating during 1871. However by the 1880s the party was over and almost everyone had left.
Eldorado was able to reinvent itself as a railway centre during the early 1880s. The construction of the Central Ontario Railway, which began in 1882, offered employment to 200 men. When the line was opened in 1883, Eldorado was designated as the junction point between the COR and BNHR (later the GTR), all of which were later amalgamated under CN.
During the mid 1880s, Eldorado’s population stood at around 75. Gone were boisterous hotels, taverns and brothels. By then the village included three churches, Methodist, Presbyterian and the Bible Christian, just north of the village, as well as a school. One hotel continued operating along with two general stores and a butcher shop. The seed of a new industry was planted with the opening of S. Thompson’s cheese factory.
The railway attracted new businesses and by the end of the decade Eldorado saw modest growth in the form of a blacksmith, Sylvanus Wright, a wagon maker, Thomas Lindsay and a second hotel, owned by Mary Vanleek. Other enterprises included a shingle mill and box factory and a new store built by E. A. Strebe around 1915. By the dawn of the 20th century, Eldorado had returned to its roots as a small railway and farm-based centre.
Today Eldorado has been reduced to a rural backwater although it is showing signs of rejuvination. The village still contains a few homes, some of which are occupied and others that are abandoned. One of the early general stores still stands and remains partially occupied. A combination gas bar and general store remains open. Although the cheese factory stopped producing cheese in 1991, the retail outlet remained open until 2011. It is now closed and for sale. An historical plaque alongside the highway tells the story of Eldorado and the famous Hastings gold rush of the 1860s.
Close to: Vanderwater Park, Price Rapids, High Falls on the Skootamata River, Hell Holes