Once upon a Cheminis
by Richard Buell
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of HighGrader Magazine (www.HighGrader.com)
The pufferbellies of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway stopped
here once. They didn't just stop here, they turned around and went back
to where they came from, back to Virginiatown, to Larder Lake, back to Dobie
and West Dobie, and to King Kirkland and Kirkland Lake, and to Swastika.
|After the train stopped here, after the few passengers
lumbered to the ground and got their bearings, after the freight for
the lumber mill and the general store, the school master and the little
churches was unloaded, after the stationmaster punched what he had to
punch and telegraphed who he had to telegraph, the engine wheezed its
way onto a "Y" and pointed its sooty snout back toward the
west, back toward what was called civilization.
Steve carrying water
To a hardy few, this was home, the only home many of them
would ever know. This was the north, where children saw the first light
of day in the cold bedrooms of wood-framed houses, where those facing the
rigors of isolation for the first time laid the foundation for a lifetime
of memories. Today, it's the windswept home of the ghosts of the lumbermen
and prospectors, the healers and the bootleggers, the young lovers and the
railway road gangs.
This is a ghost town. It used to be Cheminis. It used to be home.
Aboriginals gave their unique name to ghost town
Cheminis didn't become Cheminis just because of the railway,
the twin ribbons of steel that the T&NO pushed eastward out of Swastika
in 1927. Eventually, the railway would reach Rouyn-Noranda in Québec,
but in the 1930s Cheminis was the end of the line. Before the railway came,
however, there was considerable activity in both logging and prospecting,
and before that, a wonderful history that remains locked in the legends
and tales and the minds of a century's roll call of too many dead and scattered
Stories handed down to people of the Beaverhouse First Nation, a remote
people settled on Howard Lake a little to the northwest of what was Cheminis,
reveal that even the name of the once-busy logging and railway community
comes from an Algonkian word for "healer."
Marcia Brown and Gloria MacKenzie of the Beaverhouse First Nation band office
in Kirkland Lake recall being told that the name is derived from the word
"Chamminis," which Anglophones would most probably recognize more
readily as "Shamanis," or "the place of healing or healers."
A Shaman, of course, is legendary as an Aboriginal healer in many different
It might have been too much to expect the earliest settlers to call the
settlement by its Aboriginal name, so the likelihood that it was simply
Anglicized to Cheminis can't be discounted.
The former railway stop and lumbering village is just a half-mile or so
from the Québec border, so some have speculated the settlement got
its name from the French word for road, chemin, or even from the word for
railroad, chemin-de-fer. The more adventurous even suggest it might have
something to do with the French word for chimney, chiminie, because of a
wart on the landscape a little to the southeast that pokes skyward like
a lost kimberlite pipe out of the boreal forest.
The geological anomaly known to Ontarians as Mount Cheminis and to Québecois
as Mont Chaudron (because it resembles an inverted chaudron, a cast-iron
pot used for cooking by early natives and woodsman) is part of a loose connection
of such anomalies in the region. But it is most certainly not a chimney,
as a volcano might have been described.
Still, whether the hill is called chaudron, sugar-loaf or Cheminis or the
community is named for an iron road or a healer, the years of growing up
and raising a family in a dead-end railroad stop are locked securely in
the hard drives of the mind of William Spack and his wife, Marilyn.
The Spacks are comfortable now in their tidy home in Kearns, on Highway
66, about a Mike Weir chip shot from the Québec border, about three
miles down the road from where once there was a Cheminis.
|Bill Spack was just three or four years old when he first
came to Cheminis in 1930, just three years after the railway arrived
from Swastika. His father was a railway man, but he also had a general
store, and at the back of the general store was a pool table, where
locals could squint through the cigarette smoke to line up a combination
in the corner or could lean against the wall and sip some illicit hooch
supplied by a local bootlegger. Illicit selling of spirits was common
in these early isolated communities.
Cheminis was a reality even before the railway arrived. Larder
Lake had undergone a prospecting rush earlier in the century and some of
the activity spilled over to the area a little to the north and east of
the lakeside village, north and east of what would become known as Virginiatown.
|The logging industry was also fairly active, and there
was a sort of cart or wagon path running between Cheminis and Rouyn-Noranda
that was used to keep the little community supplied with necessities
before the arrival of the T&NO Railway.
Kirkland Lake Timber was the longest lasting of the forestry concerns
in Cheminis, but there were many others, including a mill run by the
Kaplan brothers, although Bill Spack doesn't think it was the same Kaplan
family that developed a number of Kirkland Lake properties.
Charron's Lumber called Cheminis home in the late 1920s,
even though it was on the Québec side of the border. In 1930, Charron's
pulled up stakes and moved further into La Belle Province, to Kanusuta,
which was served by the Nipissing Central Railway.
Three other sawmills started up in early 1927, Pacey Brothers, Palmer and
Lalonde and Playford and Sons, but none were as long lasting as Kirkland
Lake Lumber. Cheminis Lumber, currently operating a mill near Larder Lake,
was never actually in Cheminis. For 40 years the company had operated at
Foxhearth Lake in the Virginiatown area before moving to its present location
As would certainly be the case in any small, remote northern community at
the time, communications, medical care, schooling and church buildings were
as vital as were pool halls and bootleggers. The father of current Kirkland
Lake surgeon Dr. Jim Rumball used to take the train to Cheminis, spend the
day treating all manners of illnesses and complaints, and return to Kirkland
Lake the next day.
Visitors to the settlement could stay at Kelly's Hotel (where Kirkland Lake's
Northern News reported in 1926 that Paddy Conway of Ansonville had backed
into a stove and ruined his suit of clothes), or at Jack Woak's Hotel, which
burned down in 1934.
Although the Spacks don't recall forest fires being
too much of a threat in their little community, fires within the remote
settlement were common and often devastating. In 1929 fire burned
down the Post Office, Emonds General Store (where Albert Emond's father
would take blueberries in payment for other goods) and three other
frame buildings before burning itself out. And in 1930, Edward Skehan,
the local chemist, saw his drugstore burn to the ground along with
a nearby shack.
There was no electricity. Wood stoves were used for heating and cooking,
while coal oil lamps gave the light.
Mysteries of the Cheminis mountain
The geological anomaly on the Ontario-Québec
border known variously as Mont Chaudron, Mount Cheminis and Sugar-Loaf
Mountain is part of a chain of such blips on the landscape in the
area. Technically, it's called a monadnock, and it's a remnant of
the last ice age. As the glacier moved southward to eventually even
cover parts of the Ohio Valley, it occasionally would run into resistance
in the form of these bulbous monadnocks, mounds of sedementary rock
that simply couldn't be scraped away by the relentless advance of
the ice. Seen from the air, it's obvious that the glacial movement
was diverted at Cheminis - the mountain itself sits at the point of
a V-shaped line of ridges, left intact as the ice was diverted to
the east and the west of the resistant mound of rock.
Long before Pierre de Troyes led his band of motley adventurers
through the area on his way to thump the British at their James and Hudson
Bay posts, legend has it that the steeply-sided mountain was used as a place
of sacrifice by the earliest inhabitants of the area, the forefathers of
today's Nishinawbe and Aski, the Cree and the Ojibwa. More provable, perhaps,
is the fact that in 1955, the Northern Daily News reported that "the
body of a man, minus a head, two hands and a right foot was found on the
top of Mount Cheminis. Nearby was a shotgun and an empty cartridge in the
chamber. The clothes were 'city clothes,' not bush clothing. There was absolutely
no identification and nobody has been reported missing in the area since
Cheminis had all the amenities of larger towns
When it's all you've ever known, growing up in a little place
like Cheminis isn't the challenge it might appear to an outsider.
"There was always something for us to do," said Bill Spack. "We
had our own ball field, and even though we didn't have a formal skating
rink, every winter we'd scrape the snow off Ginnets Lake and we'd do a lot
of the same things the boys and girls in Kirkland Lake and Larder Lake would
do on their outdoor rinks."
Both Anglicans and Catholics had their churches. The Catholic
church was a refurbished barn that had been moved from Barber-Larder Mines
using Kerr-Addison Mines transport equipment. Andre Dorfman, manager at
the Kerr-Addison Mine, was responsible for the donation of the old building.
A year later, in 1950, Rev. Ted Gray held the first services in St. John
the Baptist Anglican Church, using another donated building, an old 20'x30'
change house again donated by Andre Dorfman of Kerr-Addison. The Chesterville
Mine donated land for the church in Cheminis.
Kay Catherine Spack (1940s)
|After the railway arrived to serve the prospecting community
in 1924, an attempt was made to set up a school system, but it was 1926
before a public school was organized. It was a form of home schooling
- although a provincial government curriculum was used, there was no
school building. Teachers Mr. Speck and Mr. Moir held classes in their
By 1938, over the vocal opposition of the Cheminis residents,
the school was closed and the students were taken to a new school in Virginiatown.
When the Cheminis school closed, it was bought by Bill Spack's father and
converted into a family home.
"We didn't have anything like plowed roads in the winter until the
1940s," said Marilyn, "so winters were pretty isolated. All we
had was the railway and the wagon road to Rouyn-Noranda." (In 1926,
Walter Little ran a twice-weekly snow mobile trip to Rouyn.)
Although Cheminis had no power in the early years, by 1925 there was a telephone/telegraph
line under construction, which opened Jan. 9, 1926 and provided for communications
between Cheminis and Rouyn.
The entire settlement wasn't totally electrified until 1952.
Bill and Marilyn, married in 1956, laughed when they remembered how laundry
was done in the early days of wedded bliss.
"We had a gasoline-powered washing machine made by Beatty," said
Marilyn. "There was no gas station at Cheminis, so we had to get our
gas from 45-gallon drums that Bill's dad brought in."
They were fortunate to have a car - Bill had bought his first new vehicle,
a half-ton pickup, in 1952 for $1,875. After an accident with the truck,
he bought a new Ford in 1953.
Bootleggers were common, and Bill recalls one of the more interesting entrepreneurs
whose house straddled the Ontario-Québec border. When his dwelling
was raided by the Ontario Provincial Police, it seemed all his liquor was
on the Québec side of the house. When the Sureté raided, the
hooch was in Ontario.
"It was a pretty good place to grow up," said Bill. There are
lots of memories, lots of history. There was a mining property called the
Russian Kid back of Cheminis because it was staked by a young Russian prospector
who lived like a hermit. We had a radio so we could listen to the news of
the outside world, and hear the action when Joe Louis was boxing. We could
fish and hunt, even though most of our food was store-bought. And I can
still hear the trains.
"I can still remember the sound of the whistle, and the steam."
you to Richard Buell of
Frosted Forest Christian Publishing
for the above story and historical photos