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After the gold rush: The rise and fall of Ontario’s own Eldorado

You might blink and miss it if you’re travelling along Highway 62 today, but in the late 1860s, thousands went there in hopes of striking it rich
Written by Jamie Bradburn
Eldorado’s John Street in the early 1900s, with a shingle mill, box factory, and railway tracks. (Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County)

“Eldorado is one of those cities which American genius calls into existence in some emergency of speculation, which rise like a mushroom, sometimes attaining a world-wide celebrity, and often sinking as mysteriously as they have risen.” — “Orlando,” Hamilton Spectator, September 10, 1867

For a brief moment in the late 1860s, central Ontario provided visions of riches for thousands of prospectors, speculators, and others caught up in the province’s first gold rush. While our own Eldorado still exists as a small hamlet you might blink and miss while driving along Highway 62 between Madoc and Bancroft, it has yet to fulfil the dreams that continue to this day.

Iron-ore mining in modern-day Hastings and Peterborough counties began in the 1820s, when deposits were found near Marmora. By the 1860s, Belleville businessmen promoted the mineral-wealth potential of the region after discoveries of copper, lithographic stone, marble, and soapstone. Geologists and prospectors explored the land, hoping to strike it rich.

Ruins in Eldorado, pictured in 1962. (December 29, 1962, edition of the Hamilton Spectator)

Among those on the prowl was Marcus Powell, a local farmer and part-time prospector. Around 1865, he and several colleagues began exploring fellow farmer John Richardson’s property north of Madoc. Powell’s group and Richardson agreed to split whatever was discovered. At first, Powell suspected the property might have copper pyrites beneath it.

While digging on August 15, 1866, Powell and two other prospectors found something else.

In a government report issued decades later, Powell recalled that day. “I was following on a seam for copper, and at a depth of 15 feet I struck ore carrying free gold. The seam was six inches wide at the top and was decomposed for six feet, then it was solid rock to 15 feet, where it suddenly opened up into a cave 12 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 6 feet high, so that I could stand upright in it.”

The gold was mixed in with other minerals ranging from mica to talc: “The gold was found in all these rocks in the forms of leaves and nuggets, and in the roof it ran through a foot thickness like knife blades. The largest nugget was about the size of a butternut.”

Powell’s group was skeptical about what exactly they’d found and didn’t believe the first consultants who suggested it was gold. Digging continued, and by early September, when their shaft had reached a depth of 18 feet, another crevice of gold had been found. Their discoveries were confirmed by a geologist from the Geological Survey of Canada who had recently finished a two-month mineral survey of the Madoc area.

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Rumours about the discovery spread slowly and were treated skeptically. The September 8, 1866, edition of the Madoc Mercury reported that only a “very small portion” of gold had been found. “At one time,” the paper observed, “the announcement that gold had undoubtedly been found in the township would have created great excitement, however small the quantity discovered; but such intelligence is now received with more calmness that it would have been in the days of Californian and Australian gold fever.”

As more samples were discovered, skepticism turned into a sense of possibility.

Richardson was approached by a group of Boston-based investors led by Joseph Carr, who had been involved in oil speculation in the area. After an initial offer of $2,000 for the mine, Richardson eventually wrangled a $20,000 deal, along with $15,000 to be split by Powell and his fellow prospectors. But no money ever changed hands, as the deal collapsed, leading to months of legal wrangling over promised bonds to the Americans.

As stories of the find spread, an increasing stream of visitors showed up at Richardson’s farm. The early waves were rewarded with free ore samples, if they weren’t greedy (Richardson sent away one man who’d arrived with a large bag). “If gold is not soon found in quantity sufficient to make Madoc a place of note,” the Madoc Mercury observed on November 3, “it will solely be from the deficiency of the precious metal, and not for want of seekers after it.”

A certified reproduction of the Plan of Eldorado, Village & Mining Lots, as laid out on the northeast quarter of Lot # 17 in the 5th Concession of Madoc Township for John Moore. Surveyed by C. F. Aylsworth Sr., P.L.S. and signed January 2, 1867.  (Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County.)

By the end of 1866, nearly every farm in Madoc Township was being prospected for gold. “From what we can learn,” the Madoc Mercury reported on December 1, “it is probably no exaggeration to say that more than half the population out of the village are engaged, more or less, in seeking for signs of gold.” Transportation links were improved with increased stagecoach service between Belleville and Madoc, but many Americans who arrived in Kingston to seek their fortune were quickly disappointed to discover train service did not exist. Hotels in Madoc struggled to house new arrivals and overflowed to the point that guests slept against outdoor signposts. Madoc Township council was flooded with requests for hotel and tavern licences.

Early in the new year, Richardson’s neighbour John Moore divided his own farm into development lots. Moore called the new townsite Eldorado, after the mythical South American city of gold. By May 1867, around 80 buildings had been erected. The Richardson Mine split the boomtown into two sections, with each side claiming bragging rights over whose hotels were superior.

How many people might move into the region was the subject of wild speculation; some estimates suggested above 10,000 people. Modern estimates place the eventual influx at around 3,000 — mostly Americans who had participated in the gold rushes in California and British Columbia. Some feared there’d be an influx of Chinese migrants from those areas. The Madoc Mercury reprinted an excerpt from British journalist William Hepworth Dixon’s book New America on “the Yellow Race,” which was about as racist as you’d imagine. A mounted police force was established under the leadership of a Crimean War veteran, but it ended up doing little more than checking the validity of licences. Demand for knowledge of mineralogy was such that local newspapers published regular columns, local halls hosted lectures, engineers produced maps, and authors published educational pamphlets — all of which tried to simplify mining science for laymen.

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Those who journeyed to Eldorado during the spring of 1867 found miserable conditions, as steady rains led to impassable roads, flooded dig sites, and frayed tempers. Among the most infamous figures to seek their fortune there was Thomas Scott, who was later executed in 1870 by Louis Riel’s provisional government in Red River. He had an unhappy experience in gold country, departing after a legal dispute with a mining company over unpaid wages.

Legal troubles were the norm as land exchanged hands, scam artists attempted to make a few bucks, and mining operations came and went. Issues surrounding ownership of the Richardson Mine continued after an agreement was reached to sell the property to a consortium of local businessmen and Chicago-based bankers in March 1867; the Richardson Gold Mining Company was ultimately established that summer.

There were also rumours, spread mainly by newspapers in the rest of the province, that the gold rush was about to collapse. On April 30, a group of miners and local professionals met to discuss the negative reports and compare them to rumours of new finds. The next day, in what became known as the “Richardson Raid,” between 125 and 200 men marched to the Richardson Mine and confronted two officials. The mob said they wanted to do a peaceful, first-hand investigation of the shaft to determine whether there was still gold to be mined. They flashed a giant rope to indicate what might happen if they weren’t let in. Two miners were allowed into the shaft, where they found enough gold to satisfy their curiosity. When they resurfaced, they were cheered, as were the raid leaders and mine officials. Newspapers in Hamilton and Toronto charged that the incident had been a publicity stunt arranged by both sides. Later in the year, a second shaft proved as rich as the first and briefly caused shares in the Richardson Mine to skyrocket.

But the good times didn’t last. Expensive crushing mills were built with too much capacity for the limited amount of gold that was mined. Smaller mining companies gave way to larger ones that experienced financial difficulties. Scams abounded: some, for example, “salted” mines with a dusting of gold to mislead investors. By early 1869, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Eldorado “now presents a forlorn appearance.” The Richardson Mine, beset by lawsuits and diminishing returns, was auctioned that summer. The hunt for gold moved elsewhere in the region, eventually shifting to production sites in communities like Deloro.

By the end of the 1870s, Eldorado consisted of grown-over streets, unoccupied homes, and a landscaped scarred by failed digs. Numerous attempts were made to resume production, and some prospectors insisted well into the 1930s that there was still plenty of gold around, even if much of what might be in the ground was tainted with arsenic. Today, Eldorado is a quiet community of around 50 people. A provincial historical plaque commemorating the Richardson Mine hides under a tree along Highway 62.

Even into the 21st century, some geologists and mining companies remain convinced there could be plenty of buried treasure. Perhaps they should heed the words of a Hamilton Spectator correspondent named “Orlando,” who left these words of caution about Eldorado during its heyday: “Those who have faith and capital will probably make fortunes; but I fear that many industrious but over sanguine men will spend their all and be forced to abandon the enterprise in despair — even where the wealth really exists.”

Sources: Eldorado: Ontario’s First Gold Rush by Gerry Boyce (Toronto: Natural Heritage, 1992); the September 10, 1867, edition of the Hamilton Spectator; the February 3, 1993, edition of the Kingston Whig-Standard; the September 8, 1866, November 3, 1866, December 1, 1866, and February 23, 1867, editions of the Madoc Mercury; the October 16, 2019, edition of the National Post; the March 26, 1869, edition of the Ottawa Citizen; and the December 24, 1932, edition of the Toronto Star Weekly.