Ghost Towns of Ontario
Imagine you're on a road trip, driving west along the Trans-Canada Highway toward Sault Ste. Marie. Being the passenger, you're tasked with handling the GPS device. As you go, you see the towns ahead threaded along the highway on the screen. You begin passing through Bruce Mines, the historic mining town on the shores of Lake Huron in the Algoma District. The mining industry here went extinct in the 1920s, but a stop at the museum or public library will inform you that Bruce Mines was the first successful copper mine in Canada. There is still a small town here of around 500 people.
Browse a bit north on your GPS, however, and you will notice something strange. Branching out along Highway 638 are a line of town names with seemingly nothing there. Ophir, Havilah, Rock Lake and Rydal Bank catch your interest. Why not take a detour?
The road from Bruce Station yields the familiar sights of rural Ontario: fields, farms and side roads to private residences. But the further north you go, the more things change. All you see is the road stretching ahead between the wild growth of bushes and evergreens exploding from every crevice of jagged grey rock, hallmarks of the Canadian Shield. These towns must be remote, indeed!
Some homes appear along the highway, a few are active and well-kept but many are clearly abandoned. Stopping at the location of Ophir, you decide to have a look around. Surprisingly, the area is strewn with relics of an old mining town — the Ophir gold mine, to be exact. Dilapidated log houses, sunken farms, mining equipment and partially-collapsed mine shafts abound. Cool!
Congratulations — you are now a certified ghost town hunter.
Ontario’s colonial history stretches back to the 17th century. In the 19th century, emigration from England intensified as poorer families in overcrowded towns learned that the government would provide them with farm land in Ontario. The conditions were that they would clear the plot, build their own home and develop a farm. Many early immigrants to Ontario exploited the plentiful natural resources to set up lumber and sawmills. Often, a settlement would consist of no more than a single family working a mill until the family became large and prosperous enough to build a school and quarters for workers. The settlement would then find itself on a map, usually under the family name: “Horaceville,” “Patterson,” etc.
Many factors would determine the success of a town, including the fertility of the soil, its location relative to a river, available lumber and ore supply, and, crucially, whether a rail line was built nearby. Bustling towns rivaling the size of York (old Toronto) have disappeared into obscurity when other towns were chosen for a railway stop instead. It was also shockingly common for a whole town to disappear after an unfortunate fire. The result is that Ontario has seen hundreds of colonial settlements come and go over the past two centuries. Some are lost to the ravages of time, but others are available for the enterprising ghost town hunter to find. Below is a sample of them with historical photos and maps .
Oro (now Oro-Medonte) lies on the Northwestern shores of Lake Simcoe. Originally it marked the site of the Wendat village of Cahiagué, the capital of the Ahrendarrhonons territory. Samuel de Champlain noted that the village contained at least 200 structures around the year 1615. 200 years later, Britain was in control of the region and preparing to send settlers to the New World. Oro was chosen to be the site of the first and only government-sponsored settlement for African loyalists. After the War of 1812, black loyalist soldiers were settled in Oro with the dual purpose of rewarding the soldiers who fought against the Americans for Britain and of having those soldiers at the strategic point between Lake Simcoe and Georgian Bay. Shortly thereafter, settlers from Britain arrived and began taking up farming plots in the region. However, the land was not particularly fertile and many left to make a life in the surrounding areas.
Between 1830 and 1850, Oro became a site of African-Canadian history again when around 24 families fleeing the United States through the Underground Railway made their way to Oro. The African Episcopal Church that they built there in 1849 still stands and may be the oldest African log church in Canada. The site of their settlement was called Shanty Bay, named after the small wooden homes they built.
While the Township of Oro-Medonte and Shanty Bay have a small population today, the original settlements are long gone and the area is mostly a tourist site for outdoor recreation.
The town of Burwash was built under rather unique circumstances. In 1914, the federal government chose the remote site south of Sudbury for the location of a new type of prison — the Burwash Industrial Farm. The farm was designed to be the first prison system focused on reform rather than isolation of the prisoners. Inmates were men with prison sentences of less than two years for minimum to medium security offenses.
The town that sprung up to support the facility grew to between 600-1,000 people. As the facility grew, so did its output, and the inmates eventually ran a mixed farm, tailor shop and logging operation.
Although hailed as a revolutionary approach to rehabilitation, in 1975, the government reformed its entire prison system and the facility was shut down. Many of the buildings were demolished, but there remain substantial ruins for the intrepid ghost town hunter to explore.
Morrisburg was one of the nine villages on the St. Lawrence River that were destroyed in the 1950s to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. These villages were some of the earliest loyalist settlements in Ontario. The hydroelectric power project required the construction of an artificial lake, Lake St. Lawrence, which flooded the villages located on the old shore front.
Homes were either demolished or uprooted and moved along the highway to the new planned communities meant to replace the ones bound for flooding. Parts of the historic Grand Trunk Railway were also flooded and the rails rerouted north of the lake. Many cemeteries were left with their gravestones intact at the bottom of the lake. If you check satellite imagery of Lake St. Lawrence closely, you will see the old highways snaking through the lake just below the surface.
This is one ghost town that cannot be visited!
A town does not need to be completely abandoned to become a ghost town. Ontario’s countless mining towns are good examples of this fact. When the original buildings, industry and population fade, sometimes the only recognizable feature left is the town’s name. Arden, near Kingston, became an attraction around the 1930s when gold was struck on the land. Some of it had been settled as farmland already, but it was quickly bought up by large mining companies and individual prospectors alike.
This gold rush was relatively short-lived, and today many of the buildings erected to house the miners and their families are gone or abandoned. Arden is now incorporated into Central Frontenac and is enjoyed as a cottage getaway featuring several pottery shops and galleries.
Gold isn't the only ore to be found in Ontario. In the early 1910s, Cobalt put itself on the map after silver veins were discovered underground. The name of the town is derived from the mineral that was considered a by-product of processing ores like silver and copper, which the site was also rich in. In its heyday, Cobalt was one of the highest producers of silver in the world and it supported a population as large as 10,000 people.
However, tragedy struck in 1909 when a fire tore through and devastated half of the town, leaving thousands homeless. Mining activity continued into the 1930s when the mines, through careless destruction and overall depletion, began to fall into disuse. The population dwindled over the next few decades until another fire destroyed much of the town in 1977.
A small population of around 1,118 remains, but the past two years have seen a renewal in Cobalt for the mineral after which it was named. Cobalt, at first thought to be a cumbersome by-product of silver, has soared in value for its use in lithium-ion batteries. Prospecting is underway in Cobalt once again.
The port of Depot Harbor is a perfect example of how misfortune can bring a prosperous town to ruin. In the 1890s, the lumber tycoon John Rudolphus Booth began building a railway from Georgian Bay to Vermont to transport his lumber. To save money, rather than purchasing land from residents in Parry Sound, Booth expropriated lands from the Anishinaabe people using a provision in the Indian Act which allowed the requisition of Indigenous lands if it was for the purpose of laying a railway. Indigenous peoples had no recourse against this situation and so Booth’s line was built.
By 1898, Depot Harbor had two large grain elevators, a town of at least 1,500 people, and was at the center of commerce for goods travelling as far as Montreal, Portland (Maine), Chicago, Duluth and Milwaukee. Booth sold his Grand Trunk Railway line to the federal government in 1904 and it was incorporated into the Canadian National Railways. Depot Harbor continued to prosper until an ice floe on Cache Lake in Algonquin Park damaged a trestle supporting the line. The trestle was not repaired and so the entire line to the west was abandoned. With no transportation of goods, ships disappeared from the harbor and the town fell into ruin as people looked to make their livelihoods elsewhere.
In 1945, the warehouses on the harbour were being used for storage but the grain elevators were abandoned. It was decided to tear them down, but the demolition process sparked a flame that ended up destroying entire warehouses of merchandise. Depot Harbour was as good as dead.
After its brief but intense life as a trading hub the land containing Depot Harbour was reclaimed by the Anishinaabe, from whom it was taken, in 1987. Permission must be acquired to visit the site.
Ready to find your own ghost towns?
There are plenty of resources available for the burgeoning ghost town hunter from those who are more experienced. Communities may be found online detailing the locations and histories of Ontario's ruins. If you want to make a ghost town discovery of your own, check out some maps of Ontario from the 19th century and pay attention to those small towns on major roads and railways that no longer appear on Google Maps. Local libraries often contain historical materials on townships that have faded away. Next time you take a road trip, bring a manual like Ontario's Ghost Town Heritage and explore some of the more well-known haunts. Just remember the cardinal rules of ghost town hunting — stay safe, and don't trespass!
- Bruce Township Five Ghost Towns by Ann Judd, 2012
- Ontario Ghost Town Stories by Andrew Hind, 2009
- Ghost Towns of Muskoka by Andrew Hind, 2008
- Ontario's Ghost Town Heritage by Ron Brown, 2007
- Vanished Villages of Middlesex by Jennifer Grainger, 2002
- Ghost Towns of Ontario: A Field Guide by Ron Brown, 1997
- Ontario Abandoned Places
- Ontario Ghost Towns
- Ghost Towns of Ontario, Canada
- Wikipedia list of ghost towns in Ontario
- Map of Upper Canada, 1818
- Upper Canada around Lake Superior, 1832
- Map of Upper Canada, 1836
- Map of the North Simcoe Railway, 1874
- Map of the Grand Trunk Railway, 1901