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Ghosts in the forest---a story.

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  • Ghosts in the forest---a story.

    The Ontario northwoods are full of ghosts. Its true. I have met them!!! No, not the ghoulie kind of chain rattling ghosts that you find hanging around old castles, but instead, ghosts of Ontarios recent past.
    Walk with me, if you will, through an old logging road, filled with second growth timber large enough to discourage the four wheelers and the weekend explorers. There in the distance, vaguely seen through a curtain of Elderberry and Hazlebrush, you will see a line that simply doesn’t occur in nature. On closer examination, you will first see the tops of a pair of four or six foot diameter flywheels, black and massive against the background. Then, a cement footing that sticks up above the ground by five or six foot , topped by a great iron casting that was once the heart and soul of a massive steam engine.
    The remains of this collosus will be in what is left of a clearing. Probably there will be nothing else, save for the crankcase housing and cylinder, which were all cast as one unit, the flywheels and crankshaft, and perhaps a massive connecting rod, still in place. Everything else will be gone, either decayed and returned to the earth from whence it came, or carted off by opportunistic scavengers.
    During the 1980’s, I was involved in the engineering and development of high production sawmills. This consisted of redesigning old circular saw and carriage mills that were designed and built during the early 1950’s to cut 20” white pine. Ripping out the old circular saws and putting in double cut bandsaws, ripping out doublecut bandsaws and installing gang saws, known as “bull edgers”. I was based out of Eganville in the heart of Ontario’s Ottawa valley. My travels took me all through the Ontario northwoods, and I was amazed and awed by the remains of these old mills built during the mid to late 1800’s.
    Many of these early sawmills were built on water, generally at the end of a big lake, where a fast running exit stream could be damned and forced though a water turbine to generate power for the mills. Due to the proliferation of cottagers during the 1950’s and afterwords, and the very accessability of these mills, there is absolutely nothing left to mark that mills were ever there. Such is the case in L’Amable where I spent my childhood. You would never know it now, there is nothing left to see, but at the end of L’Amable Lake, the Brown brothers had a water powered sawmill that ran all summer when I was a boy in the early 1950’s. Contrary to what a lot of people now think, these water powered mills did not run on a waterwheel. A waterwheel simply didn’t generate sufficient power to run a 54” mainsaw thru a 20” white pine log. Instead, most of the early sawmills ran on a patented water turbine that generated about 3 times as much torque as any waterwheel ever produced. Waterwheels were used mainly for grinding grain and corn into flour---grist mills.
    The forest ghosts that I write about in this story were mills that were built where there was an abundance of “big timber”, but no watercourse to be damned for power. The steam engines would be shipped in by horse drawn sleighs in the wintertime, after the ground has frozen hard enough to support the massive sleighs, often drawn by 3 teams of horses in a tandem hitch.---There were no roads as we know them now. The mills would be built around the steam engine and would run untill either the area was logged out, or more frequently untill the mill burned down. If there was still a lot of good timber to be had in the area, the mill would be rebuilt after it burned----if the area was logged out, then the mill was abandoned. Everything that could be salvaged and moved was taken away, but generally the main engine (these were not portable steam engines) was left behind.
    I don’t know if it is still there or not, but there used to be a big old engine like that at the foot of the hill in Wilno, Ontario, on the highway heading north towards Barrys Bay from Bancroft.---There was another one on the access road to Kinesis Lake near Haliburton.---and many more that I have seen, in little places that no longer even have names, nor any human habitation for miles around.
    Walk into the overgrown clearing with me. Close your eyes for a moment. Feel the hot sun on your face, and hear the call of a bluejay.----and listen. Listen really hard, and if you are one of the fortunate perhaps you will hear the scream of the mainsaw as it bites into a knot in a big old pine---the ratchet and clack of the carriage as it is dogged over another six quarters for the next pass. Smell the pine pitch and the sweet smell of fresh sawn lumber. Maybe even a hint of smoke from the sawdust pile, which was always on fire at some level and could never be totally extinguished.---Maybe you will even hear the shriek of the steam whistle, which signalled starting time, lunch break, and end of the days work.
    Yes, there are ghosts in the northwoods. And those ghosts touch my heart on a level that even I find hard to understand. May I always carry those ghosts with me, and feel just a touch of sadness for the times that are gone forever, and a generation of young people growing up now that know there are no such thing as ghosts.

    Brian Rupnow---March-2009
    Brian Rupnow

  • #2
    Interesting, nostalgic read Brian. Thanks.

    My youth years were in the 50's, and there was almost always at least one sawmill operating in the woods somewhere around close that we kids could go hang around and watch (cheap entertainment ).

    These were all circular saws. None were steam driven tho ...all run by either gas or diesel truck engines I think.


    • #3
      Great story. I've often described myself as a "treasure hunter", in that I love finding old relics that take you back to a different place or time. That's why I love old machines. I'm young enough that WWII vintage machines seem "old" to me. So, although I don't know much about the old sawmills you grew up around, I do know the feeling. I don't know what it is about old machines sitting abandoned in a field, but they touch my heart too. I would love to see some of these great old steam engines - or what's left of them, anyway.


      • #4
        I love the story Brian. Do they have paragraphs in the Ontario bush?


        • #5
          Back in the late 70's I was at a fly-in fishing camp on the Windermere River north west of Chapleau Ontario. We were supposed to be in a place where we could find Pike, Walleye, Whitefish, Black Bass, Brown and Speckled Trout.There were 4 of us at a cabin with 2 indigenous people of the north who were repairing the ice broken dock.
          The Saturday we arrived at Chapleau it was 67F and the next morning when we were to fly out it was 12F. We waited 'til 2 pm when it was above freezing and flew to the camp. We were the 1st fishing party there that year and there was still considerable ice on the shore. It never got above 35F the rest of the trip. We had seen a small ice free pond across the river from camp and after stowing our gear in the cabin we set forth to the pond to catch our fill of Great Northern Pike. I was the 1st to hook up using a Mepp's Black Fury on my ultralight rig with 6lb test. As I drew a little "Hammer Handle" in towards the shore he darted towards a rock and broke my line. Away he went with my Black Fury glistening in his jaw. THAT WAS THE 1st AND LAST BITE WE HAD FOR 7 DAYS, We ate freeze dried food we brought with us that we rationed after the 3rd fishless day. We put up with the Indians laughing at us until Wednesday when they too got skunked.
          During this time we explored the river from the waterfall that feed it to the rapids that drained it. A total of about 6 miles. Across the falls was one of those platforms that guys used to pole timber as it came over. Along the banks of the river we found all kinds of logging camps and 2 very old Indian settlements. Old saws that were little more than layers of rust. square spikes like railroad spikes but smaller and a 6 foot length of chain with links the size of small donuts and a ring and hasp that locked the ends together. (I brought that home.). We didn't disturb the Indian sites but instead told our guests about them and they promised to let the Ministry of Natural Resources know where to find them. An absolutely fascinating way to pass the time when there seemed to be no fish alive in the river.
          The weather turned bad and the pickup plane was a day late. That morning we headed back to the pond and I cast in. I hooked up and brought in the same little 22" pike with my Mepps still in it's jaw. It didn't get away that time and we eagerly consumed it for breakfast. The plane arrived and took us out to base camp where after 7 years of flying with that service we told the pilot he would not see us again. It was over to Nakina and then 10 years of trips in Northern Quebec. We never saw any more ruins or sites like that again.
          Illigitimi non Carborundum 😎
          9X49 Birmingham Mill, Reid Model 2C Grinder, 13x40 ENCO GH Lathe, 6X18 Craftsman lathe, Sherline CNC mill, Eastwood TIG200 AC/DC and lots of stuff from 30+ years in the trade and 15.5 in refinery unit operations. Now retired. El Paso, TX


          • #6
            In Skaneateles, NY, there is a nature trail you can walk along the outlet river from the lake. You can see the old dams that were used to store water for the water wheels and turbines. The trail itself is on the old railroad bed of the Skaneateles RR. It is pretty nostalgic to see how much has changed since the late 1800's


            • #7
              Story Time?

              Well up north in Ontario a few of the Guys swear they saw a Large UFO? come out of a Lake and a few weeks later a large hairy creature tall and was holding a glowing white thing in its hands, They have stayed away from that area and wont go back>> I suggested a Hunting trip but really didnt want to start a Galactic War> LOL Mike


              • #8
                Originally posted by quasi
                I love the story Brian. Do they have paragraphs in the Ontario bush?
                quasi--When I set my stories up, they are set up properly with paragraphs and indents. When I hit the post button, this all dissapears and you end up with what you see posted. Believe me, it is not a lack of skills in the English language nor paragraph composition.--It is the way this website appears to work.---Brian
                Brian Rupnow


                • #9
                  Thanks for that Brian,I've worked in or around sawmills since I was a teenager.Nothing quite like the sound an inserted tooth saw makes tearing curls from a pine log.

                  There's ghosts in the woods here too.The mill my dad worked at part time 30 years ago used to get gifts left over by those ghosts.Sinker Cypress logs,some 50"+ in diameter.Cut down in the 1880's that never made it out of the swamp until the advent of diesel power.

                  Longleaf Pine near here,circa 1900

                  Great Southern Lumber Co. Bougalusa,La mill,circa 1910-1 million board feet per day production.
                  I just need one more tool,just one!


                  • #10
                    When our kids were younger we used to go looking for plane wrecks in the Derbyshire hills.
                    The UK is only a small country and very crowded, the result is there is a lot of stuff crammed in a small area and you don't have to go far to find it.
                    The Glossop Moors aren't that big, part of the Peak District National Park, about as big as 5 of Lazlo's Texas hail balls

                    Around this area there are about 50 crash sites.


                    Even Youtube footage of one.


                    I know these are reasonably modern but we still have ruins going back to the start of the Industrial revolution.


                    Sir John , Earl of Bligeport & Sudspumpwater. MBE [ Motor Bike Engineer ] Nottingham England.


                    • #11
                      If you wander around the UP(The Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan) you run across all kinds of stuff. Old cars from the thirties and forties and fifties rusting away in the middle of the woods. Logging and mining equipment. We once stumbles across a POW camp from WW2 for german prisoners. Only the foundations and some iron from the kitchens remained.

                      Interesting fact; There are so many waterlogged old growth logs on the bottom of Ashland harbor in Ashland Wisconsin that the actual bottom hasn't been reached by divers yet.


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Rustybolt
                        If you wander around the UP(The Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan) you run across all kinds of stuff. Old cars from the thirties and forties and fifties rusting away in the middle of the woods. Logging and mining equipment. We once stumbles across a POW camp from WW2 for german prisoners. Only the foundations and some iron from the kitchens remained.

                        Interesting fact; There are so many waterlogged old growth logs on the bottom of Ashland harbor in Ashland Wisconsin that the actual bottom hasn't been reached by divers yet.
                        About 15 years ago I took my 2 sons fishing up on the Ottawa river, near Beachburg, Ontario. While we were out on the river fishing, I seen a big old barge with a winch, a pile of logs, and a couple of divers. I was very curious, and went over and asked what they were doing.--Turned out they had a very profitable business going, "mining" logs off the bottom of the Ottawa river. The Ottawa was a prime conduit for logs being driven downstream to mills for many, many years, and a lot of them sunk. Apparently white pine takes no damage from being submerged in water for many years, and like the bottom of Ashland harbour, the bottom of the Ottawa river is many layers deep in logs from the ninetenth and twentieth century logging in the area.
                        Last edited by brian Rupnow; 03-28-2009, 04:49 PM.
                        Brian Rupnow


                        • #13
                          I have a great old sawmill steam engine hike that I will do again this summer -- I will get some pics to go with your story --- its the engine/flywheel and boiler minus the mill


                          • #14
                            Sorry Brian, I did not realise that. I do like the story.


                            • #15
                              Here in New York we have a nuclear power plant called Ginna Station. I got family who works there... its in my town.

                              Back In The Day when they picking the site there was a HUGE estate out at Smoky Point, where they eventually built the plant. They purchased the land and the estate for building the plant.

                              The old mansion survives today, it's been rebuilt as office and training space from what I was told. Late 1990s I was part of a group that went out into the exclusion area around the plant looking for information on the old estate.

                              Our group found references to a generator and pump-house. We got out there, it was about an hour's walk through overgrowth... it was remarkably well preserved... a big old old vintage petrol engine, generator and water pump for drawing water in from the lake and powering the estate.

                              We drafted plans to whack a path out there and dismantle it and bring it out for restoration and display at the Heritage Square site here in town.

                              Sadly lack of funding delayed everything then 9-11 happened and they blocked access to the exclusion zone. It's still sitting out there.

                              The Historical Society has photos, but they aren't digital.
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