OVER THE HILL: 106 years and counting

Timmins Times columnist Diane Armstrong

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Three main factors influenced the development of Northern Ontario. There was the railway, precious metals and lumbering. While most think of the T&NO (later known as the ONR) railway pushing north from North Bay as the premier rail line, we forget the Canadian Northern Railway which was forging north from Capreol to Foleyet with a goal of reaching Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) and linking with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Canadian Northern reached the village of Westree in early 1913.

Meanwhile, along the Vermillion River system, placer gold was discovered in 1897, but not worked on until the Onaping Mining Company did serious drilling several years later. Also in the region, gold, along with silver, was being mined in Elk Lake and Gowganda as early as 1910.

That was the year that Phineas Coyne decided to leave Chelmsford with his wife Anne, a school teacher, and their family of eight children. Coyne had considerable experience in his youth working in his father’s sawmill. Phineas saw a future opportunity in farming and also supplying ties for the railway, so he applied for land surrounding “The Kashbah” (the former name of Duchabani Lake). He was granted 320 acres for agricultural purposes in 1912 and began clearing land and building a house in 1913.

Prior to 1918, the area along the rail line was known as Kashbah. Between 1918 and 1928, the community was called Coyne, after Phineas Coyne, that first settler in the area. The name changed again when the Canadian Northern Railway built a station and was known then as now, “Westree”.

Three years later, the Foley Brothers and the Northern Construction Company set up a tie mill on the west side of Deschenes Lake, adjacent to Coyne’s property. There weren’t a lot of people in the area, but with the mill plus the farm there was plenty of work to be had. They were followed by mills and timber operations by The Marshay Lumber Co. Ltd., The Crane Lumber Co. Ltd., John Campbell & Sons Ltd., The Westree Lumber Co. Ltd. and Barager Lumber Co. Ltd.

Long before Highway 144 and the western section of Highway 560 were built, the rail line was the only link to the outside world. But precious minerals have a way of changing the course of history, for once gold was discovered east of Westree, the road (Hwy 560) between Elk Lake and Gowganda’s mines was extended in 1928 when the Tyranite Mine was begun near Westree. In the 1930s, miners found jobs at the Lost Lake Mine, the Tyranite Mine, the Rhonda Mine and the Lake Caswell Mine near Shining Tree.

The future looked bright for the community. Because of the many lumbering companies and mills, as well as the nearby mines, Westree provided a good living for its residents.

The Second World War saw the closing of the mines, never to re-open again. Presently, IAMGOLD has discovered the gold potential and giving some hope to the village of Westree.

In its past history, from 1918 to 1969, letters and parcels were distributed at the local post office. In 1969, the post office closed and Westree residents get their mail at a community mailbox today. The train station and Station Agent’s home was once an impressive two-storey building, but by the 1980s, it was replaced with a very small one-roomed frame structure beside the tracks, just a shell of its former glory. The newest school, built in 1937, provided a good education for 22 students (in 1948) but closed in 1966 when the few remaining children went to school in Shining Tree. Massive mechanized equipment replaced hundreds of forestry workers, and manual jobs were lost. Slowly, the town seemed to be dying.

In its first 80 years, thousands of people came to work and live in Westree. They stayed a few years and left.  There never was an aura of permanence about the community. As proof, there has never been a cemetery, a church or a hospital. The biggest outflow of residents was in the 1970s and 1980s, and at one point, there were only two permanent families living there.

Old towns never die though, for the number of residents has recently seen a great increase. In 2013, there were 100 permanent residents and approximately 200 seasonal cottage owners. They tell me the fishing nearby is excellent.

The train still runs past the village every day, but you can visit this charming village by turning east off Highway 144 on Highway 560, or if you are in Englehart, you can travel west on that same highway. It is the only route that directly joins Highways 11 and 144. Either way, it’s an interesting drive into the heart and history of Northeastern Ontario.

That’s my view from Over the Hill.

Source: “Westree, 1913 – 2013 The first 100 Years”, by R. Latour, L. Meunier, D. Alexander and C. Benoit