Between Darkness & Light | Ross Mine

Something is fascinating about exploring Northern Ontario; it is a whole different world, with different people and a totally different way of life. Even the towns feel different, almost as if Northern Ontario is a different province from Southern Ontario once you’re past North Bay and Sudbury. Historically, northern Ontario is entirely different, having only been added to the province in 1874, and it wasn’t until 1912 that the modern boundaries of Ontario were established. But this is not a post about Ontario history; it’s about a mine, the Ross Mine. Located in the small, mainly French-Canadian town of Holtyre, the entire area was founded for gold mining. The Ross Mine was my first experience with a truly abandoned mine that was left almost entirely intact. I had only a few adventures here, but I fondly remember them.

It took a lot of walking, but eventually you got this beautiful view coming through the trees, the head frame for the Mine.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G

The entire history of Holtyre is directly tied to the gold mining industry, and the town’s founding is thanks to the Ross Mine. The area had seen settlement in the 1910s after the silver and gold rushes in the early 20th Century. On the official survey maps, the area where Holtyre grew up is the District of Cochrane, Township of Hislop. The first settlers in the region were farmers; six families were living in the area by 1916. Life this far north was rough; access was limited, and travel to the nearest town was no small feat. And it all nearly ended during the Matheson Forest Fire of 1917. Of the area’s population, thirteen died in the fire, but the residents soldiered on. Many only spend the minimum amount of time needed to maintain ownership of their homestead. Edouard “Ed” Ross would be one such owner; he purchased Lot 1, Concession 2, in 1919 and erected a small log cabin. He would live on the land during the summers and work on clearing the land, working first alone, then later with his son Antonio “Tony”. During the summer of 1930, the pair cleared an area with a cliff face and found a vein of quartz. Breaking out a chunk, found a deposit of sparkling minerals. The Ross men knew they had found something of potential value and contacted a prospector friend, Frank Trembly, in Kirkland Lake. Trembly confirmed that their find was gold, high-quality gold. Ed and Frank, along with capital investment from David Baptiste, formed a small partnership to explore the area further. After three years, the men sold off their interests and land to the Hollinger Gold Mine Company in Timmins. By December 1933, Hollinger arrived and set up a survey camp under Field Engineer W.P. Murdoch and Foreman George Gibson. The survey team found the region had great potential. In 1934, the project fell to Vetrin Hollinger engineer J.J. Catey, who began to prepare to sink a mining shaft and construct a proper mine. Hollinger was not the only company operating a mine in the area; further north, Macintyre established a second gold mine, so the community that began to form took the name Holtyre, a conglomeration of Hollinger and Macintyre. Drilling the new shaft at the Ross site started in 1934 and, by the end of the year, reached a depth of 150 feet. Tents would give way to buildings, and the town grew as the mine grew. Work restarted in April 1935, the shaft went deeper, and a new mill began to take shape along with a smelter. At a depth of 450 feet, ore began to make its way to the surface, and the mill started operations in December 1935, processing 80 tons of ore per day and yielding 5.88g of gold per ton. The mine foreman, Ed’s son Tony, who had stayed on to help expand the mine on his father’s former property. Hollinger would build a recreation hall and a curling rink through the remainder of the decade.

The Ross Mine was my first real mine exploration, the headframe being perfect and iconic.
Nikon D300 – Sigma DC 18-50mm 1:2.8 EX MACRO
When the mine shut down, they basically left everything, including the parts room with all sorts of goodies.
Nikon D300 – Sigma DC 18-50mm 1:2.8 EX MACRO
The Shaft
Inside the head frame with the elevator down into the mine, everything was locked and sealed up.
Nikon D300 – Sigma DC 18-50mm 1:2.8 EX MACRO
The old mine carts all nicely derailed.
Nikon D300 – Sigma DC 18-50mm 1:2.8 EX MACRO
Tailing Pond
The tailing ponds at the back of the mine where the leftovers from the mining/cleaning process are dumped.
Nikon D300 – Sigma DC 18-50mm 1:2.8 EX MACRO

At its peak, the Ross Mine employed 184 men through the Second World War. Miners were often exempt from conscription due to their industry and the need to extract precious metals for the war effort. Some volunteered, and the workforce dipped in population during the height of the conflict. However, in the post-war, a drop in gold prices would see the number drop to under 100. A federal subsidy in 1948 and the increased use of mechanisation in the mining industry would stabilise the workforce to 100 to 110 workers through the mid-century. The small size and quality of gold would keep the mine afloat; the mill could process 460 tons of ore per day, and by 1975, the mine yielded 4.64g of gold per ton. Hollinger would sell off the Ross Mine and many of the other mining assets through the 1970s; the exact date of the sale of Ross eluded by reading, but it took place in the mid-1970s. Mining continued under the new owners, Paramore Porcupine. The cost proved a burden to Paramore, so to help cut operational costs, they moved all ore processing and smelting to more extensive facilities in Timmins and demolished the mill and the smelter by setting them on fire. The smelter and mill, having operated for almost four decades, were filled with gold dust, enough that after the fire burned out, there was enough gold in the ruins to cover the purchase cost. Operations continued for another decade; when the reserves ran out, the mine shut down in 1988. Between 1988 and 2009, the mine appeared to have been left alone; the town itself continued, although many residents moved away, and the second mine continues in operation today. The Ross site came into the news in 2009 when St. Andrews Goldfields began investigating the possibility of reopening mining operations. Still, I wonder if that went beyond the exploratory stage. It was in the late 2010s that demolitions took place through the site, knocking down many of the outbuildings. In 2022, the owners contracted J.L. Richards to investigate the remediation and recovery of trace minerals from the tailing ponds. Thanks to my good friend Julie, there is only the headframe left at Ross. In 2012, most of the outbuildings were demolished and hte hoist house burned down in 2013. Currently the site is still present but has a permanent security presence as work continued on the tailing ponds.

On the second trip managed to get into a former office building and found all sorts of documents including plans and some of the original journals.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
The massive motors that drove the elevator down into the mine.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
The main switch to power the 1000HP hoist motor.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
the basket room
Any good explorer who visits a mine needs to get a shot of the basket room.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
A Mess
Looking down a few steps up into the headframe room.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Northern Ontario is a totally different world. My first trip to Holtyre and the Ross Mine came in 2009; it was a weekend-long trip through several sites north of Sudbury, with four of us packed into my car. Our original plan had been to camp out at the Ross mine. But the town itself gave me some weird vibes. There needed to be a better place to park my car. Holtyre is a quiet town; there isn’t anything there outside of run-down houses, a church and a community centre. I ended up parking at the town’s edge at an abandoned baseball field. From there, we walked into the mine property; the entire town was quiet. Being in a quiet, small town in a strange car parked seemingly abandoned in a field can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because we weren’t bothered by the locals; the curse is that the locals will immediately know we’re outsiders. Thankfully, on that first trip, we weren’t bothered; we walked into the site without any trouble. The weather was drizzly and warm, but suddenly, a cold wind blew out, and dark clouds pushed in; it was a unique and scary sight because we were still on a fair hike back to the car, and if the storm hit, our only shelter was the buildings on the site. Which, in hindsight, would have provided the needed shelter. The storm never hit, and the skies cleared bright and cold. Needless to say, we did not camp in Holtyre that night. The second time offered up many more people on the site, which again seemed weird because the town remained super quiet, two whole cars with at least eight people and not an issue. The second trip was one of my favourites because a couple more buildings had been opened since I was in 2009. One proved to have a treasure trove of documents, including mine layouts and maps, and even transit notebooks, which were part of the original survey of the Ross Mine. There was more climbing through the headframe (I took the stairs) and got fantastic views from the top. Although this trip was also fraught with drama, thankfully, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the place, and I even managed to shoot a roll of film here through my Pentax 645. The third and final trip proved far quieter; it was a friend and me, and we took our time to capture the place. During this final trip, I also went on a weekday; we noticed some people working further away on the tailing pond. As it turned out, efforts were underway to start recovery and remediation of the tailing ponds to get the trace amounts of gold out and remove the contaminants that come with heavy-duty ore processing. Ross proved to be a wealth of photography and history; having left everything behind, it gave us an insight into how mining was done, a little more than sanitised tours offered in Sudbury and Timmins. Sadly, after that third trip in 2011, I never returned, and I cannot find any recent photos of the place online. When they say fortune favours the bold, that certainly is true about all three trips. We boldly parked in the town and walked right in; no one batted an eye. But there’s also a chance that the locals realised what was happening and we didn’t cause any trouble.

A closer crop of the main buildings of the Ross Mine.
Pentax 645 – SMC Pentax-A 645 75mm 1:2.8 – Fuji Velvia @ ASA-50 – Processing By: Silvano’s
Massive spools that held spare hoist cables. Always good to keep these spares this far away from civilization.
Pentax 645 – SMC Pentax-A 645 75mm 1:2.8 – Fuji Velvia @ ASA-50 – Processing By: Silvano’s
The Overgrown Truck
An overgrown mine vehicle.
Pentax 645 – SMC Pentax-A 645 75mm 1:2.8 – Fuji Velvia @ ASA-50 – Processing By: Silvano’s
The Mystery Building
The building that housed the offices and treasure trove of documents.
Pentax 645 – SMC Pentax-A 645 75mm 1:2.8 – Fuji Velvia @ ASA-50 – Processing By: Silvano’s
Mining Complex
Looking back at the head frame from the lip of the tailing ponds.
Pentax 645 – SMC Pentax-A 645 75mm 1:2.8 – Fuji Velvia @ ASA-50 – Processing By: Silvano’s

The Ross Mine, in fact, like all the locations I visited in Northern Ontario, is focused mainly on exterior work rather than interior. The one thing I noticed about my work between the three visits was how I shot and edited my work based on the weather conditions. The first trip was under overcast skies; here I went with more moody edits and lots of under-exposure to enhance the feelings of loneliness. Harsh, hard contrast and lots of added saturation. Once the weather cleared up, the images got brighter, had lower contrast, more pops of colour and even a shot with the dreaded selective desaturation (yes, that was a thing; it wasn’t cool then, but it was a thing). The following two trips were under brighter conditions, so the colours and exposures were brighter; even my interior shots brightened up, pulling out more shadow details. In all the cases, I also did some more work with HDR images; thankfully, by this point, I had nailed down the process to the fact I wasn’t creating overbearing images. Say what you will about HDR; it was a handy tool in my kit for helping deal with the lack of dynamic range with the cameras I used then. While my approach to photography didn’t change, Ross pushed me a bit more to work on my skills in exposure and editing to bring out the mood of the days I visited. For the film, I only shot a couple of rolls, which is a shame because Ross seemed like a place asking for sheets of 4×5. On the second trip, I shot a roll of heavily expired Fuji Velvia (the OG stuff), and it showed that the colours were not nearly as saturated as you would expect from the film stock. I also shot some of my first 52-Roll Project here but never included many of those images in my final results.

A year later from the first photo, the truck is even more overgrown.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
Little did I know this would be the last time I saw the Ross Mine. I did notice this time of people working further away on the tailing ponds, thankfully they didn’t see us.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
A close up of one of the many baskets used to store miner’s equipment.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
A dirty leftover hard hat, probably long expired.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
The Peg Board
An easy way to tell which people are on each level of the Mine.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G

It’s interesting because even now, a little under twenty years later, I’m still learning things about the Ross Mine. I had yet to learn that the name Ross came from the original homesteader family that struck gold here. And I really have the folks over at the old Highway 11 blog for their wonderful piece on the early history of Holtyre and the mine. This document formed the basis for my written history piece. The story of Ross and Holtyre typifies many northern communities that relied on a single business. Once that business closes, many other things start to close off as the population drifts away. I have found that there is still an active online community for those who live and used to live in Holtyre. Should I go back and visit, if not to take in the village and see what it looks like today compared to those first few trips. But I don’t see myself driving that far north any time soon. You can check out all my images over the Flickr Album. I also came across this 1971 documentary about the village of Holtyre that features the Ross Mine.

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