Robert Land searches old silver mine properties for treasures
Robert Land holds one of the best specimens of wire silver that he has ever seen. — Photo by The Canadian Press/Waterloo Region Record-Philip Walker
Guelph (CP) — Deep in the bush, Robert Land guides his old Chevy truck — 700,000 kilometres on the odometer — down the increasingly narrow road.
When the bush finally swallows what little road is left, Land leaves the truck and sets out on foot.
An onlooker might wonder where he’s heading. But Land has studied Ontario Geological Survey maps, books, diaries, archives and photographs.
He’s walking through the bush to the abandoned Hudson Bay silver mine in the Cobalt-Gowganda region of Ontario.
On this day, with the aid of a GPS, Land finds history — and a beautiful silver in calcite mineral specimen.
“That was one of the best preserved mines,” Land says. “It was locked up in the 1960s. When they locked it up, they walked away. It’s still sitting there.”
“I was looking at history.”
On a good day, Land, 49, an experienced mineral collector, amateur historian and a maker of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century replica footwear, is on the trail of treasure.
If he’s lucky, and luck is only a small part of it, he’ll find a prized wire silver specimen, formed when silver leaches through water and finds cavities in the rock. As a result, slender silver “wires” curve and intertwine in the rock.
He finds mineral specimens in the most likely and unlikely places — from abandoned mine sites to road fill that was formerly glacial till.
“It’s the thrill of the chase,” Land says.
“You never know when you turn the next rock over, what’s liable to be underneath it. It could be a rusty nail or the finest wire silver specimen uncovered in 20 years.”
Land is a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Gem and Mineral Club, a group of more than 70 people interested in collecting and learning more about rocks, minerals and fossils.
Whenever he can get away from work, Land loads up the truck and heads to the Cobalt area, once one of the largest silver-producing areas in the world.
Finding the time is a bit more difficult now that Hollywood film producers have discovered Land’s boot-making skills. He recently finished working round-the-clock on two big orders: 111 pairs of soldiers’ boots and shoes for a film set during the American Civil War; and another 70 pairs of 19th-century shoes for a TV series set in 1860s New York.
There are no active mines in Cobalt now.
But in the 1911 peak year, 34 mines in the Cobalt area produced about 30 million ounces (850,000 kilograms) of silver, according to a new exhibit of a replica Cobalt mining tunnel at the University of Waterloo’s Earth Sciences Museum.
Land is intrigued by what has been left behind. A metal detector helps him find historical relics, including arrowheads and buttons. A rebuilt 1950s radioactivity detector helps him locate uranium crystals.
But his first love is silver.
“I’m hooked on silver,” he says, nodding to the rows of silver specimens that share space in the basement of his Guelph house with original leather boots and shoes up to 160 years old.
“It’s not the dollar value. It’s because I collect coins,” says Land, whose past enterprises included a coin shop.
Sometimes Land’s son, Abel, a fellow mineral collector, heritage village volunteer and a veteran Civil War re-enactor, goes on his mineral-hunting expeditions. Other times, Land is accompanied by members of the K-W Gem and Mineral Club.
Abel, 19, has an eye for military relics and fluorescent minerals. His most recent find is a box lock from the 1700s.
Another tray containing Abel’s fluorescent mineral collection glows when he shines a “black light” or ultraviolet light over them. Using the ultraviolet light, he collects at night, or in daytime with “a blanket over my head,” Abel says, smiling.
A couple of times a year, Land searches near a former mine site, Keeley Mine, which is located in what is now the ghost town of Silver Centre, Ont., south of Cobalt.
“If you didn’t know there was a thriving town there in the 1920s, you’d think you were walking through virgin bush,” Land says. “You can see a row of foundations in the beaver pond.”
Armed with a tent, hammer, pick, shovel, metal detector and food, he hunts mostly for silver, though he keeps an eye out for historical pieces, including a broken gin bottle from the prohibition years of the 1920s.
The mine, reported to have produced some of the finest silver wire specimens in Canada, opened around 1908 and closed in 1965.
“The mines have piles of waste rock. I look for stuff the miners missed 100 years ago. Research tells you where the piles were, but now they’re flattened,” Land says.
He enjoys finding old mines, photographing them, collecting samples of minerals and researching their history, their companies and employees. He also collects old mine stock certificates.
Finding a wire silver specimen is uncommon.
“A lot of people think, ‘I’ll go buy a metal detector and go there and get rich,’” he says. “Good luck. Spend the money on a lottery. You have a better chance.
“I’ve done my homework. Even then, it took me several years to find one piece from one mine.”
This year, on Easter weekend, Land and another club member were off to Cobalt to satisfy their collecting “fix.”
“I’m addicted,” he says. “As soon as the snow is gone, I’ve got to go up for a dig around. It is part of the collecting bug.”
“We had three of the nicest days ever,” he says.
What did they find? “Not much,” he says, shrugging. “It was disappointing.”
Research and caution are necessary when looking around abandoned mines.
“I have original maps from the 1920s showing every shaft in Silver Centre,” Land says. “Never go into a shaft. It’s deadly. This hole,” he says, pointing to a photograph, “is 296 feet deep” (about 90 metres).
He’s a skilled searcher of minerals, but he doesn’t discount the possibility of a “fluke” find.
Once, he pulled his truck into the Keeley Mine area and set the metal detector on the ground. It started beeping.
“It was a piece of wire silver in the parking lot,” he says. “Sometimes mine waste is used for road fill.”
By Barbara Aggerholm/The Canadian Press