Relicts of a past age

Rusting mining equipment

An interesting thing about the countryside is how many old, discarded pieces of equipment and other junk seem to be found in the middle of the woods. Cars are a favourite, or piles of rusty buckets, farming equipment such as plows, and other abandoned items. They’re often deep in the middle of the forest, and at first you wonder just who went to the trouble of dragging the stuff all the way into the forest to dump it, but probably at the time it was abandoned the area wasn’t forest, it was farmland. So much of southern Ontario’s forests are reclaimed farmland, perhaps not seen the plow for some 70 or 80 years or more, and now grown trees stand where once crops or cattle used to be. This is especially true of marginal areas such as the Frontenac area, with its rocky, granite Shield country.

So it was that while wandering through the woods yesterday with Raven I came across this long-abandoned bit of metal. A rather large bit of metal, actually, being nearly as tall as I am at the highest corner. I’m fairly certain it’s the remains of an old ore cart. Even more than farming or logging, this whole area saw a lot of mining activity as the primary means of support for several decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most closed in the 1920s and 30s, and the last of them (at least of the ones on the park map) shut down in 1949. There are several mining sites marked on the map for Frontenac Provincial Park, although I’m not aware of them having developed any of these for tourism. Not far away, though, in Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, you can take a guided tour of the Silver Queen mine during the summer months (Bev over at Burning Silo, who also lives in eastern Ontario, wrote a bit more about the Silver Queen mine).

Rusting mining equipment

The only thing that didn’t say ore cart about the remains was the big wheel that still remained propped up on one side. If you do a Google search for ore cart you get containers that have the same shape this one does, but that ride along on wheelbases designed for sitting on rails. The wheels on this thing looked more like wagon wheels, and most definitely didn’t ride on rails. I wonder if the ground in this area was too uneven or rocky for laying down track and so they used wagon wheels to move the carts.

Rusting mining equipment

It wasn’t just the ore cart there, but also a few piles of random metal bits, rods, contraptions, and other unidentified pieces that presumably once held some purpose related to that of the ore cart, but now sat anonymously scattered on the ground. The only pieces I could assign a purpose to were these: two wheel rings (one with the wood-and-metal hub still in the centre) and a shock-absorbing cradle, perhaps the remains of a wooden wagon that has now mostly deteriorated.

Biotite mica

It was while I was poking around the other odds and ends, trying to decide what, if anything, they had been used for (I figure they must have all had a purpose, but maybe just not singly, by themselves), that I happened to notice some glinting in the dirt and snow at the edge of the slope the items had been dumped beside. I peered closer and cleared some of the snow from its surface. I wasn’t sure what it was. The way it glinted at first I’d thought it was fool’s gold, a type of mineral, but when I looked closer it clearly wasn’t very rocky. In fact, the way it was layered and sort of flexible made it look like some sort of man-made substance, like foil paper or shiny celophane or something similar. It flaked off in my hand when I tried to pick up a piece, which made it seem even more like something semi-degraded. I finally decided it must be partly-decomposed fancy cardboard or something similar – this was a junk heap, after all – and didn’t think too much more about it.

Biotite mica

When I got home I looked up the history of mining in the Frontenac region. One of the results that came up was the Silver Queen mine post at Burning Silo. It said it was a mica mine. Not having any idea what mica was, I looked it up. It turns out it’s a mineral that is usually gold or brown, shiny, and forms in flexible, flaky sheets. And, it’s found abundantly through the Frontenac region. Mica mining was very common in the late 1800s and early 1900s in New England and surrounding areas, and while some still does take place here, most of the mining for this mineral has now shifted to China. Interestingly, the largest sheet of mica ever found was from a mine in Denholm, Quebec.

Biotite mica

There are two types of mica found in this area, biotite and phlogopite, differing primarily in their colour. Biotite is nearly the same compositionally, except that it also contains iron atoms, which phlogopite doesn’t, and so tends to be darker than phlogopite, although the descriptions are vague enough that I wasn’t sure which mine was. I finally settled on biotite, but I know phlogopite was mined from the park nearby. Mica is found in three main forms: sheet mica, which as the name suggests is large, continuous sheets of the mineral, and scrap and flake mica, which are obviously much smaller, and tend to be mixed in with other minerals. Because of the way the mineral is layered, thick chunks are sometimes called books of mica, as they resemble little stacks of pages.

Biotite mica

The neatest thing about this mineral is the way you can peel the layers apart from each other. It’s like lifting a piece of brittle celophane. It’s flexible enough that it bends as you peel it up, but if there’s a nick or weak point it will tear. Each sheet is paper-thin and transleuscent, so that you can see through it, in a distorted sort of way. Indeed, early windows, before the discovery of glass, were often made of various types of mica (there are also pale types, which wouldn’t give you this yellow tint). It was used as such in some applications right into the 20th century, for instance as windows in early cars like the Model T, and can still be found as such in some stoves and lanterns.

Most of all, though, mica is a great insulator. It’s heat-resistant (hence its use in stove windows), withstanding temperatures up to 900 °C (1,650 °F) and some forms, such as phlogopite, don’t conduct electricity and so are used as electrical insulators in many electronics, as well. The iron in biotite conducts electricity and means it isn’t useful for electrical insulation. On the other hand, biotite can be altered to produce vermiculite, which is used as insulation in many things such as gypsum wall board. Vermiculite is sometimes added to potting soil to improve drainage and to absorb liquids such as fertilizer and various -icides. Among many other uses, mica is sometimes ground up for use in makeups (its shimmeriness lends a translucent “glow” to the skin) or in toothpaste (as an abrasive and for the same shimmeriness).

Biotite mica

Mica has a long history with humankind. The most interesting note I found was that the Pyramid of the Sun in the ancient Mexican civilization of Teotihuacan contained hand-mined blocks of mica up to a foot thick in the building’s structure. More locally, mica mining was a big part of the daily life of people here during the late 19th century. An article written for the Friends of Frontenac Park newsletter describes a typical day in the life of one of these mines.

I thought it was interesting to stumble upon this little bit of the past hidden in the forest, something that was so much a part of the history of the region, and even neater to find some of the mineral they were looking for beside the equipment they used in finding it. They’re funny things, these relicts in the forest – forgotten, perhaps, but not gone.

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9 responses to “Relicts of a past age

  1. Very interesting post!

    Mica– I’d forgotten all about it. When I was a kid, spending summers not far from your part of Ontario, we all knew what it was–at least what it was called–and we hoarded it. I had a tackle box half full of mica. It meant so much at the time, but I have no memory of what happened to it, how it disappeared. Mom, probably.

    Great shots too. I can smell the cold.

  2. By your title, I was hoping you found a frozen wooly mammoth buried in the tundra!

  3. One year in grade school, we had to memorize the three components of granite: quartz, feldspar, and mica. I’ve never thought of it as being anything other than little shiny flecks peppered throughout pink gravestones. That’s fascinating that it was used as window glass!

  4. Mica is something I remember from geology class in college. We don’t have any of it around here in our mountains–mostly limestone and sandstone.

    I too have found very interesting old things in our forest which was once farmland–usually buckets, old tractor parts.

    Enjoyed your post!

  5. That was a really interesting read, nice find!

  6. I love those places where we can almost touch the past — like archeaology on a small scale. it looks like you’ve done a wonderful job putting the pieces together to imagine the landscape in a previous time.

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  8. When I was a youngster I had a candle lantern with fairly large windows of mica. The candle lantern folded and as it was used on my camping trips the mica windows gradually got cracked and began to separate. My parents probably put it in the trash at some point in my teen years.
    While in college I lived in an old homestead camp that had a large pot-bellied stove for heat. The stove had a small window on the door that was mica that was cracked and dark in its translucence but would still let through a flicker of light from the fire. We used to stoke up that stove but the mica never flaked or the cracks in the window never got larger.
    Very interesting post that not only brought back memories but also taught me a lot about how we have used mica and some human history of its use.

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