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History of the Spanish River Area

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I Fur Traders(click here)

II Systematic Exploration

By the middle of the 19th century, the trade routes of the Spanish and its tributaries were well established (the successful legacy of John McBean). Beyond the main routes, the traders displayed a remarkable lack of interest in the detailed topography of the river, its twists and turns and the myriad lakes and streams that flowed into it. Since hunting was in the hands of the Indians, canoe trips upstream were undertaken only in exceptional circumstances as a necessary nuisance, or at best on fishing expeditions. The La Cloche journals of the time reveal a keen interest in fishing and precious little interest in exploration.

Government surveyors provided the best early maps of the Spanish River. In the early part of the 19th century Colonial (later Dominion) and provincial governments mounted a program of surveying the North Shore. This interest in mapping and exploring the region,. was primarily motivated by a need to assert sovereignty over an area that was contested by the United States during the War of 1812. Later, interest in the area was sparked by the need to establish the exact provincial boundary between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Of a further interest was the potential for agriculture, settlement, lumbering and mining.

H.W. Bayfield, an Admiralty surveyor, mapped the Lake Huron and the North Shore from 1819-1822, and was the first to officially register the river as the Spanish River. The early voyageurs, so went the story he' was told, encountered Spanish speaking Indians in the area, hence the name of the river. An improbable but intriguing explanation, for this story comes from the Ojibway Indians of the Spanish River Reserve:
   "who tell of a raiding party, which many years before, returned from a foray south with a Spanish woman captive. This woman, who became a member of the tribe, had several Indian children to whom she spoke Spanish". It was these children, the story goes, that "astounded French voyageurs who had not expected to hear a European language spoken in the Georgian Bay wilderness. Their amazed exclamation, 'Espangnole', was later Anglicized ..." and in time became their name for the river, replacing 'Sagamak' which was its original Indian name."

When the provincial geological surveyors arrived on the scene, they used the less-than-perfect Bayfield maps of the region. They kept the name of the river, but redrew the maps extensively, so as to conform to more exact standards of cartography, a hard task undertaken with primitive instruments in near-impossible conditions. The provincial surveyors, in particular, had to work against the natural obstacles presented by the landscape while cutting the township lines. Even Robert Bell, who in 1890 was able to enjoy the use of the railway as a means of getting into the district, complained that,

"there (are) scarcely any common roads or even trails (which) existed and there are fewer canoe-routes than usual in the Laurentian and Huronian regions of Canada, so that it becomes necessary to examine a large portion of the area by forcing our way through -the bush, which in most of the district, was unusually difficult to traverse."

The earliest geological surveyors were Alexander Murray (1848 and 1856) W. Logan (1848). Logan's survey examined the Spanish River in a cursory fashion, Murray however, devoted a considerable amount of time in 1848 to the river after examining, about sixty miles of the Spanish River with about fifteen miles of two of its tributaries". And Bell, forty years later, stated that Murray had surveyed the Spanish River "from the mouth to a point a few miles past the Great Bend", or what is High Falls today. Murray formed a favorable impression of the land around the Lower Spanish and writes in his report:

"while the coast line exhibits this uninviting appearance, the interior in many places presents a very different character, especially in the valleys of the principal streams, where there are frequently to be seen extensive flats of rich and deep soil, producing maple, oak, elm, birch and basswood, besides occasional groves of both red and white pine- of large size. Various places of this description have been cleared and cultivated by the Indians, and where such has been the case, as at Spanish River, notwithstanding the rude state or aboriginal agriculture, the crops of maize and potatoes are nearly equal in both quantity and quality to those usually seen in the more favored latitude, and under the more enlightened system of tillage in Canada West."

In spite of this agricultural promise, Murray foresaw that the real importance of the region was not going to be its agricultural or timber potential, but its mineral resources. His survey in 1846 gave the first detailed analysis of the Sudbury mineral deposits delineating what is called today the Sudbury Basin. "That the north shore of Lake Huron", he wrote in 1849, "is destined sooner or later to become a mineral region of importance, appears very probable. Although the whole district is covered by a dense forest, still in its original wild condition, already at the time of my visit, had the researchers of the first explorers, (only a short time previously commenced) been rewarded by the discovery of copper lodes some of decided value, and others of considerable promise."

One of the locations was near the Spanish River, where "....a party of miners were employed at the spot who had opened out the lode for a short distance along the surface, and had begun to sink a shaft". The mine, operated by the Upper Canada Mining Company, proved an expensive failure and was soon shut down. Murray's report received little attention as the North Shore was regarded as remote and hostile region. It was only with the building of the railway through the district, that the deposits were accidentally rediscovered, during blasting.

The need for a more complete survey of the area was answered by Robert Bell, who in 1890 explored the gaps that had hitherto been left in the topographical description of the Spanish River. Bell's survey began north of the intersection of the Canadian Pacific Railway, near Spanish Forks. . This was necessary as the Spanish River was •topographically unknown above the township of Hyman. Bell's survey is detailed and meticulous. Tracing the exact course of the river, he noted various outstanding topographic features, rapids, falls, and tributaries. His meticulous geological study revealed no outstanding mineral potential, a judgment that has withstood the test of more recent geological studies of the Spanish by Inco.


III The Lumber Industry (click here)

An article about the history of the Spanish River area was written by Joseph Lampel when he worked for INCO, sometime in the 1970's. I think it is of value to anyone who is interested in the area, and thus have decided to put it on a web page. My thanks to INCO for giving the permission to "reprint". And special thanks to Bill Blight from Espanola, for salvaging the report and passing it to me.

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