Art exhibition unearths area’s iron mining past
By Jenn Watt
Without knowing what you were looking for, you might not see the striations on the rocks, the fragments of ore, and the discarded rock in Gary Blundell’s paintings. The oil paintings, created on a routered wood surface require context to understand – a telling of the artist’s purpose and methods.
It’s similar to the subject matter the Tory Hill artist is exploring in his upcoming exhibition, Navigation of Iron, at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery: the remnants of Haliburton County’s iron mining history, more than a century old, found beneath deep vegetation growth and down roads that no longer function as such.
“You need to know [the background]. If you just went there, you’d [say] oh there’s a hole in the ground … but if you know this was basically moved by humans without any big equipment, it changes the whole thing,” Blundell said. “All of a sudden, there’s a whole other layer of information there that … really adds to just being a hole in the ground.”
Blundell, who holds a geological engineering degree, did research on the iron mining history of the 1870s through 1890s when he worked on the cultural plan for Highlands East several years ago. During that process, he learned about the discovery of iron ore in what is now Minden Hills, about the arrival of industrialist Charles Pusey, the founding of Furnace Falls and the origins of the I.B. & O. Railway.
The high hopes and dashed dreams of these prospectors struck a chord with Blundell, who could see parallels between their physical struggles with mining iron ore in the wilderness and the artist’s struggle to create.
“The big wood pieces [in the art exhibition] are all about a fight with the surface and I kind of feel that’s what these guys were doing – they were fighting with a surface, and I’m fighting with a surface – and that’s what those paintings to me are,” he said.
Kinmount-based historian Guy Scott took Blundell on a tour of the various sites left behind from the bygone era, and said that the men who worked the mines would have been engaged in heavy, unpleasant work.
“If you go to the mine, you can actually see the drill holes in the rock and see where they blasted. In the age before big machinery. It’s painful loading those rocks on railway cars,” he said.
The brief period of iron mining could be summed up as unrealized potential.
“If you ever hear the history of mining, it seems to be they get excited and then there’s usually a crash and that’s what happened in the 1870s in our area. They started finding all this iron ore around and everyone thought we were going to be a big mining town and lots of money was spent over the next 20 years and lots of stuff and lots of hopes,” Scott said.
In 1987, Scott wrote the book, Kinmount: A Community on the Fringe, which includes a chapter on the iron mining past. Recently, he decided to take the research he had done for the book and more he’s conducted since and find some of the sites. What he found, he turned into a walking tour, which was featured on Hike Haliburton last year.
“It’s not a long tour. We did it in two hours round-tour. It’s a nice little walk, not very far. We visited two rail lines, countless mines including the big one, a smelter, a ghost village, a colonization road and we did all that in just a short distance,” he said.
The main mine is the Victoria Mine, which Blundell has painted both in representative drawings and in his more abstract work. It’s found off White Boundary Road and was accessed at the time using a special railway from Howland Junction north of Kinmount.
“It runs up to the mine site, boom, there it is. You can still see it in the bush. It’s quite impressive,” Scott said. “That railway operated less than a year and then they abandoned it all. But it’s quite impressive. That’s how we actually found the mine.”
Scott describes the mine as 40 or 50 feet blown into the side of a hill.
For Blundell, touring the mines and then documenting his observations about the workers and the marks they’ve made on the earth is a meditation on human motivation.
“There’s a lot of hope. It’s one of these things that was driving people to think that maybe rather than living in a backwater and dealing with the poverty issues they were dealing with and the hardships they were dealing with, there might be some money coming in to the community and it might help them all out financially to have better lives. There was a lot of hope, but the fact was the whole thing kind of went bust within a few years,” he said.
Due to coronavirus precautions, Navigations in Iron will not have an artist’s reception, however, Blundell said he intends to make himself available at different times to meet with people to discuss the work. He and Scott are also intending to host a hike to the mine sites when and as it is safe to do so. Find more information at http://hotspurstudio.com. You can view Blundell’s exhibition at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery at the cultural centre in Minden from Aug. 12 to Sept. 26.