History: Black Donald
Please find the following historical stories:
- Black Donald Mines - by Bill Graham: The Madawaska Highlander
- Memories of Black Donald By Garry Ferguson
At one time, a vibrant community named Black Donald Mines flourished in Brougham Township. Today there is no evidence of it-it has been literally removed from the face of the earth. The name Black Donald is now used for a lake but once referred to a mining village located on the shores of White Fish Lake, 13 kilometres from Calabogie. Like the village, White Fish Lake was also removed from the map with the creation of the hydro dam at Mountain Chutes in the mid-1960s. The back water from the dam flooded 8500 acres and placed both the town of Black Donald Mines and White Fish Lake under 80 feet of water.
All that is left are an historical plaque, a few old photographs; a book entitled The Black Donald Story by Rita Quilty and the memories of a few people who lived there. One of those people is Garry Ferguson who was born there and has many boyhood memories of the place. He shares some of those memories in an accompanying article.
When you look out over Centennial Lake, which was formed from the back flow of the hydro dam, it is hard to believe that hundreds of people lived and farmed on land that is now lake bottom. Local ghost towns, like Glenfield, can be visited and a feeling for what the village was like can be imagined. But no one will ever visit Black Donald Mines. It is lost forever.
BLACK DONALD CREEK
Before Black Donald Mines and the village that sprung up around it, there was the settlement of Black Donald Creek. The village was created by the river drivers who built their shanties and homesteads on the shores of the Madawaska and White Fish Lake. The assessment rolls from as early as 1871 show that Black Donald Creek was probably a French speaking village. When the graphite mine opened around the turn of the century many left the river for the less dangerous work in the mines. It is another lost village.
BORN FROM GRAPHITE
The village of Black Donald Mines existed because of the discovery of a large and high grade seam of graphite that was discovered in the vicinity of White Fish Lake in 1889. The story goes that a homesteader named John Moore literally tripped over rock containing graphite while searching for his cows. It took until 1895 to interest "money people", but in that year Moore sold the mineral and surface rights to the Honourable George McKindsey for the princely sum of $4,000. This made Moore and his wife very well off compared to their neighbours. However, the very next day McKindsey sold the same rights and land to a group of men who would form the Ontario Graphite Company for $42,000. The interest of "money people" had definitely been engaged.
Mill block at Black Donald Mine (1905)
Graphite is used for lead pencils, stove polish, metallic paints and especially as a lubricant for heavy machinery. The graphite at Black Donald was one of the largest deposits in North America and was extremely pure-84% pure. The graphite was also in the flake and compact form at one site; which was very unusual. Graphite mines usually produced one form or the other, but not both.
Power house for Black Donald line at Mountain Chute on the Madawaska
During the first year of production, the Ontario Graphite Company produced 100 tons of refined graphite and 200 tons of crude. In these first few years, the company treated the ore chemically at their plant in Ottawa. However, in 1902 a three-story refinery was built at the Black Donald site and a 400 horsepower power generation plant was constructed two miles to the south-west on the Madawaska River. It is amazing to consider that the village of Black Donald Mines had electrical power for the mine and all the residents in 1902 and electrical power didn't reach the neighbouring townships of Griffith and Matawatchan until the early 1950s.
A SELF-SUFFICIENT TOWN
According to the Canadian Foundryman in 1919, there were 77 buildings in Black Donald Mines. They included a three-story refinery, boiler house, compressor house, hoist house, warehouses, a blacksmith shop, machine shop, garage, three barns, a granary, unloading storehouse, superintendent's house, kitchen, dining room, three sleeping houses for the single men and 36 dwelling houses for the married men and their families. There were 118 workers at the mines.
There was also a commissary building, which handled food and supplies, a barber shop, public school house and a Catholic church. For entertainment in later years, the village boasted an amusement hall where plays were staged and motion pictures were screened. The seating was removed for the Saturday night dance. It became a magnet for attracting the local farmers and homesteaders from miles around.
MANY UPS AND DOWNS
With over a half century of mining in its history the village of Black Donald Mines had many ups and downs. The years of war during 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, were good years for Black Donald since graphite was in increased demand. However, there were other years when the mine was closed seemingly for good, only to be reopened when the demand for graphite rose. There were other years when the mine, which followed the seam of ore right under White Fish Lake, caved in. Collapses in the mine happened in 1902, 1905 and again in 1950. The cave in of 1950 sealed the fate of the village of Black Donald Mines. Luckily it happened on a Sunday and no one was killed. Within two years mining operations came to a standstill and without the mine as an employer the town also diminished.
Right stope of mine 700 feet from mouth (circa 1934)
Gradually the town was deserted and Ontario Hydro moved in with plans to buy property for a multi-million dollar dam project. They recognized the potential for hydro electric power that was demonstrated in 1902 at the same site. From 1959 onward Ontario Hydro implemented their plan for the Mountain Chutes dam. Property that was to be flooded by the headpond of the dam was purchased, buildings were bulldozed and the land was cleared.
When the dam was built and flooding commenced it took six months to fill and enlarge White Fish Lake. Eighty-five hundred acres were flooded, in some places to a depth of 150 feet. In 1967, the new lake was renamed Centennial Lake in honour of Canada's 100th birthday. A new landscape had been created, but Black Donald Mines was lost forever.
A plaque is the only reminder of an era when Canada was a major producer of graphite. The village of Black Donald, built around the mining operation on the shores of Whitefish Lake in the Madawaska Valley, was burned down, obliterated to make way for the headpond of a hydro project.
The waters of Black Donald Lake, part of a larger reservoir raised by Ontario Hydro, have added eighty feet to the depth of Whitefish and cover the spot where our house once stood.
In 1889, a farmer named John Moore discovered graphite ore on his land. Mining operations began in 1896 and ran sometimes intermittently, through a depression and two world wars. A village, with a company boarding house and a store, grew up around the operation, but the digging ended on a November Sunday in 1950. With a roar, heard throughout the village, the lake smashed through the roof of the pit. Fortunately, the miners had observed the Sabbath so no one was killed.
My maternal grandparents earned a down payment for their farm by working at that boarding house in its early days. My father was working in the mine when the stork appointed me the first new 1937 addition to the village. Since my birthday is in August, I can only speculate that the good folk of Black Donald stuck mainly to the fishing and fighting that year. R.F. Bunting, owner and president of the graphite company drove to the Renfrew hospital to bring me home and terrified my mother by insisting on carrying her precious firstborn out to his car.
We left Black Donald before I became interested in more than warm milk and dry diapers but moved back again in 1943 when my father took a job in the refinery. It was here that I had my first introduction to book learning at the one room schoolhouse. In the spring of 1945, we moved away again.
Given my ties to this place and the memories relating to it, I still remember every house and the people who lived in it. You can bet I was delighted when I was given a book called The Black Donald Story. This well-researched record of an era, written by Rita Quilty, is an interesting mix of historical narrative, anecdotes and photos. It not only provides an insight into the graphite industry as it existed then, but portrays the joys and hardships of our lives. It didn't really matter that we were all poor. We didn't know it.
I don't imagine that any of the older kids in the photos, including Rita, remember much about a little white-haired ankle biter who got into his share of trouble. I remember though, her older brother hauling my young brother out of a hole filled with water. Probably saved his life. I also remember her older sister catching several of us skinny-dipping at the Swimming Rock. We tried to submerge, but since we were afraid of depths beyond a foot we couldn't have been too successful.
The book permitted me to put faces to the names of people who were my parents' best friends during their first stay at The Mines and to that of a man who went back into an evacuated pit to carry my father out after he'd been knocked unconscious by falling rocks.
There are pictures of Irving Moore, grandson of the man who made the first find, and of George Kelly. These patient men, along with Leonard Leclaire, allowed a mob of us urchins to ride on their sleighs as they went about their work. Irving was the milkman, so he was stuck with us during his morning rounds. George and Leonard, who did hauling jobs for the company, ended up with us in the afternoons. Those people who we considered old now look so young in those photos. The soldiers going off to war, such as Walter Brydges the boy from next door, who never came back, were, in truth, children.
Canadian communities often change so gradually that they serve as constants against which errant natives may return to gauge their own personal change. It is possible for several consecutive generations to share a relatively unaltered setting for their childhood memories. For the expatriates of Black Donald, this setting exists only in the mind's eye. There will be no sharing with succeeding generations. This realization seems to have turned them into rebels against time and circumstances. They had an historic marker erected and maintain contact with each other by holding periodic reunions.
When the last of the Mines people are remembered only through faded images in musty photograph albums, Rita's book might be all that tells of our time in this place. It's somehow reassuring to know that scrawled on some corner of our history's austere wall will be the message: .We were here.