Gold rush failed to produce any gold in Minitonas

by Bruce Cherney (part 3)

It was projected that the Minitonas turkey gold field might stretch to the Porcupine Hills, which were 80 kilometres north from the community.

The Brandon Daily Sun on January 25, 1912, reported that gold was found at the farm of A.H. Finch, “and the sample an expert analyzed was the richest yet.”

In another instance, a man brought in a nugget from the Fisher River, 126 kilometres east of Minitonas, “as large as a bean.”

The January 26 Manitoba Free Press asserted that all the miners remained optimistic that they would strike the mother-lode.

The January 27 Winnipeg Tribune reported that a 70-year-old man got the “bug” and tramped out each day looking for the “stuff.” He returned to Minitonas each evening, suffering intensely from his exertions, but would rise the next morning as determined as ever to strike it rich.

The 80-year-old mother of James Weir went out with a party of overall-clad women and staked a claim on Favel Creek (today’s Favel River).

For seven days, it was impossible to buy a shovel, axe or pick in Minitonas, as the entire village’s stock of these items had been sold out.

Aboard one train, Ernest Walker, a resident of Gilbert Plains, discovered he was the only one possessing an axe. “Henceforth he guarded his treasure carefully and slept with it nights for fear it should be stolen. He was the envy of all on board.”

In Minitonas, signs went up proclaiming, “Prospectors Supplies,” and, “The Prospectors’ Rest,” among others, which promoted plenty goods and services that quickly disappeared as hundreds flooded into the small community.

At the same time, prices for accommodations, food and supplies also rose with the influx of would-be miners.

A notice appeared in the village’s pool room, reading, “Dancing at nights has been cancelled as room is required for sleeping quarters.”

One man secured a bed, half of which was rented out to another prospector, and the floor in the same room was let to others as sleeping space.

“One of the men in the bed arose at 2 o’clock and went into the bush to stake a claim. One of the men on the floor immediately took the former’s place in the bed.

“As for meals — they stood in line for hours waiting to get a place at the table.”

The same January 27 Tribune article stated that a number of amusing incidents took place, including one involving a chambermaid who kept the sweepings from the prospectors’ rooms, hoping to find enough “colour” to retire.

“A group of ‘miners’ were discussing the incidents of the day around the stove in Minitonas’ hotel when one of them nonchalantly announced he would be retiring (for the evening). He backed away sideways dragging his foot with him. Under the foot was what he believed to be a nugget. Presently he picked it up. It was the brass head of a tack which had once done duty in keeping a section of the oilcloth fastened to the floor.”

What happened next put an end to the Minitonas gold rush. On January 27, it was reported that miners from California and the Klondike had returned from the alleged gold fields and declared there was no pay dirt to be found anywhere.

“I panned for hours about the place where the gold was supposed to have been first discovered, and also on the so-called ‘new discovery,’ and I found no indication of gold,” an unnamed miner from California told a Tribune reporter. “I did not find the slightest color.”

“I understand there is another trainload of prospectors en route,” said the reporter.

“Wire them not to come,” was the warning.

“I travelled from Swan River through to six miles east of Minitonas,” said another unnamed mining expert, “and about three miles south, and in no locality could I find any indication of the land carrying any mineral deposit.”

“When you say no ‘mineral deposit,’ I suppose you mean gold?”

“No,” said the miner. “I mean exactly what I said — no mineral deposits of any kind whatever.”

When asked how he thought the rush had begun, the miner replied that he believed the people of Minitonas had fallen prey to con artists, “who saw various ways of making money — one way to give certain claims an exaggerated value and sell them at exorbitant figures.”

The miner said that the rush may have begun with a joke that ran wild.

“I am not inclined to that view, but if it WAS (his emphasis) started as a joke, those responsible should be severely punished. I have seen many gold rushes and many hoaxes, but this is the worst yet. It is criminal. Hundreds of men who could not afford it, have come from long distances and spent their little pile in making a stake for fortune in the alleged ‘land of promise.’”

So many were ill-prepared to go into the bush seeking gold that they returned with frozen hands and feet. He predicted there would be bodies buried under the deep snow that wouldn’t be found until the spring.

“It’s a bad business,” said a Klondike miner.

With a grim smile, he claimed there was lots of gold, but none of it was in the soil, implying a number of people got rich by exploiting the would-be miners.

The fable of gold being found in turkey crops dates prior to the Minitonas gold rush. The Brownsville Daily Herald of October 10, 1893, reported that a hunter killed a number of turkeys in the vicinity of Eagle Pass, Texas, and found gold pieces in their crops. “None of them had less than 50-cents worth, while one had $4 worth of the precious metal. It is safe to assume that the nimrods of Eagle Pass will now hunt nothing but turkeys.”

Of course, it’s a tall tale among similar stories reported well before prospectors rushed to Minitonas. Did some enterprising individual(s) read the earlier reports in American newspapers (one U.S. article citing gold in a turkey crop appeared just before the alleged Minitonas find) and decide to use such tales to their advantage?

Another mining expert said all the specks of gold claimed to be found were actually mica flakes.

“The country is full of mica,” he explained. “You will find it in almost any parts. In the glacial periods the granite was crushed into millions of particles, and these little flakes resemble gold. But hold them to the light before your microscope and you see right through them. You can’t see through gold.”

When asked about the gold nuggets and pieces of gold in the turkey crop, the miner offered that no one had a valid explanation about how and where the nuggets were found.

“I understand there was an old house burned down near the spot. Those nuggets may have been among the ruins and later discovered by the turkeys. Anyway, the nuggets were certainly well worn and remarkably smooth.”

Experienced miners George Hunt and Eli Roberts of Bagot, Quebec, G.L. Kennedy, a stationary engineer and his son, G.W. Kennedy, bored down to bedrock within 300 feet of the first “discovery” and found no gold.  They then bored in other areas and still couldn’t find gold.

According to the January 27 Brandon Sun, an official communication was sent by Dominion (Canadian) mines recorder F. Herchmer, who was in Minitonas, to Dominion lands agent L.J. Clement in Brandon asking him to do everything in his power to make the public aware that the reported discovery of gold in Minitonas was false.

At an indignation meeting held at Minitonas, when news that the gold bubble had burst became public knowledge, several speakers claimed they had been duped.

Railway conductor Dan Cox of Winnipeg said he had travelled a considerable distance about the district and found nothing. He described the gold rush as “a fake.”

James Weir, on whose farm gold had supposedly been found, expressed the opinion that he had also been duped.

The audience at the meeting demanded the presence of assayer J.P. Hughes to explain his role in the reports of gold being found. Later, Hughes said he had no knowledge of the meeting until it was over.

A committee was formed to investigate the causes of the alleged gold rush, which included J.Bell and J. Beldfield of Winnipeg, and James Weir and Jack Henderson of Minitonas.

The Free Press claimed that those crying “fake” and  “hoax” were not from among the experienced miners, but the unsuccessful and inexperienced, “who have not sunk any holes on their own claims nor have dug or tried for themselves in any way.”

Albert McLeod, a Riding Mountain forest ranger and miner with experience in the Yukon, declared that it was his opinion that gold did not exist, and he would issue a report to the mining recorder in Dauphin to that effect.

“The regrettable feature of the whole affair,” McLeod said, “is the blind rush of inexperienced gold seekers. I had been looking into the reported finds a full week before the rush started, and had practically decided to leave the matter over until the spring when the work could be done properly, but scare stories got aboard and people began to rush in, expecting to find gold on the snow banks.”

(Next week: part 4)

Part 1 here • Part 2 here