Chasing the Ghosts of Ontario’s Pioneers
In a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
If ever there was a vehicle that was an anti-hero, the Jeep Wrangler is it. Coming from humble roots of a go-anywhere war horse, the Jeep Wrangler has evolved into the ultimate automotive lifestyle purchase. The rough and rugged nature of the Wrangler makes drivers feel free and adventurous, due in large part to it’s hard core off road talents.
The challenge then is that very few owners actually make use of their Jeep’s inherent rock crawling, mud slinging nature. All too often, former Jeep owners whine online about things like wind noise and the rough ride. Features that are at the very core of the reason they bought the vehicle in the first place.
The folks at FCA are pretty smart cookies, and they knew that the newest generation of Wrangler had to not only be better off road than the outgoing model, but that it had to satisfy the comfort cravings of potential buyers who will never leave the pavement.
All new for 2018, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon promises off road capability greater than any other vehicle on the market, along with improved amenities such as an easier to use soft top and class leading infotainment. I was determined to find an Ontario adventure worthy of the Rubicon’s off road prowess, within a reasonable drive of Toronto.
For years, I have been reading about a stretch of road in the north end of cottage country that I have wanted to explore, which is known as Ontario’s ghost road. Detailed on a website dedicated to the Rosseau Nipissing Development Road by authors Sam and Helen Stewart, the Nipissing Road was one of a collection of colonization roads created in the 1850s in an effort to lure pioneers to Ontario’s north country.
Across the region, tiny towns sprang up, often supported by the business generated by railway construction, mining or forestry. Land grants were offered to provide agrarian families an opportunity to build their own farms.
The soil, often only a few inches deep on top of Canadian Shield bedrock proved to be less than fertile and the winters were brutal. Mines dried up and forestry related towns moved to follow the work. Cut down the forests and the workers move with the equipment.
Some railway towns lasted a bit longer, but the arrival of the automobile made the entire area more accessible and most of these junction communities dwindled to nothing. Gradually these homesteaders moved away, leaving just the empty shells of their homes and businesses, their dreams shattered.
The Stewarts describe portions of the route, which begins in the town of Rosseau and ends in Nipissing, as “a bush trail that is suitable for hikers, mountain bikes, 4 wheel drives or Winter snowmobiles.” Since 1997, much of the old route has been part of the Trans Canada Trail. This was beginning to sound like exactly the adventure we were after. With an end to end distance of about 120 km, I hatched a plan to explore the area in one leisurely day.
I did some research with the Ontario off roading community to make sure that these trails were suitable for a single, solo truck. My inquiry turned up a number of different routes that bypassed much of the original route described by the Stewarts, but also the assurance that we would be fine in the more than capable Rubicon.
I was determined to stick as close to the original route as possible, as my plan was to explore ghost towns and maybe get the truck dirty along the way, not the other way around. My wife and I decided that we should make a mid-week weekend out of it, so we booked a night in a cheap Huntsville hotel for the first night and then another in North Bay for the end of our adventure.
Our day started in the town of Rosseau, home to a general store, an interior design studio and a high end restaurant that is likely pretty busy during the height of cottage season. Just a few hundred meters outside of town is a sign post remembering the village of Ashdown Corners. Founded in 1868, the thriving community had already become a ghost town by the early 1900’s. Not surprisingly, there is nothing left of the town to be seen here.
Heading north on the gravel road, one soon comes to a fork, where most modern travellers take the left branch. The original route follows the right fork and while the road disappears into the bush and an impassable swamp soon enough, it is well worth the turn-a-round detour to visit the Bear Cave Church which sits a few hundred meters before the end of the road.
This charming little log cabin church, properly known as Christ Church Anglican, dates back to 1880 and in the spirit of the pioneer life, the door is always open to those in need of shelter or a spiritual boost.
When heading back out towards the fork, we noticed a falling down shed next to an Eighties era pickup which is dissolving into the lawn in front of a house that is seriously creepy. I stopped long enough to take a couple of photos, but no longer.
The next stop on our drive is the tiny hamlet of Orrville. The Stewarts describe a turn of the century blacksmith’s shop as being the first thing one will see in town. All we could see was quite possibly the province’s largest garden gnome, outside of the delightful Orrville Bakery. The folks at the bakery tell me that the blacksmith’s shop was torn down years before they opened the shop. Another stop with no ghosts and no mud, but loads of yummy treats!
I was excited to visit the remains of Seguin Falls, just a few minutes away, as I figured we might actually find some ruins. Seguin Falls was a lumber town that had shops, a church, school and even a hotel named after King George, which thrived until 1933 when a train bridge collapsed in Algonquin Park. Traffic to the town dwindled and most residents moved away, creating a ghost town. All we could find of the original town was the school, which is now a private residence, and the chimney from the hotel’s fireplace. The rest of that building burned in a fire in 1989. Some stories online claim that more relics can be found along a trail network to the south of town, but as motorized vehicles are not allowed and since this was a driving trip, not a hiking trip, we hit the road headed to the hamlet of Spence.
On the way, we came across a ramshackle cabin, just barely visible in the forest, atop a chunk of Canadian Shield. Adorned with a stenciled plywood sign that read “BEETON HUNT CAMP SINCE 1958”, one can only imagine how many stories (and beers) have been shared next to that tiny wood stove over the years.
In Spence, the circa 1872 Orange Hall is still standing, on private property and looks every bit the ghost town survivor. There are a few rough looking structures lurking in the nearby woods that may well be of the same vintage. The tiny town once had a hotel, which was known as Halfway House, which now gives visitors a glimpse into the pioneer era at Muskoka Heritage Place, in Huntsville.
Just north of Spence, we turn right at the intersection of Burks Falls Road, at the Cornball Store. Our destination, while potentially spooky, has little to do with the region’s past. Midlothian Castle, the creation of artist Peter Camani, is known not only for the resident dragon, but for the presence of giant screaming heads. We expected the place would be cool, but had no idea that this would prove to be the most exciting part of our drive.
On arrival, it was clear that a crew of people who could easily have been called hippies decades ago, were cleaning up the aftermath of a huge festival. It turns out that just a couple of days before, the place had hosted the annual Harvest Festival. A quick look around social media told us that this festival was basically Ontario’s answer to Burning Man, complete with EDM, massive dome tents and laser shows.
The one time farm is heavily populated with these creepy looking screaming heads, which range from just a a meter high to close to five meters. There are farm animals and albino peacocks wandering around, not to mention the giant stone dragon overseeing the whole place.
As we toured the art installation, we became aware of little tent cities which had been assembled in the woods around the property, each with creative and elaborate decorations including entry archways, banners and thousands of fairy lights. Several of the camps appeared to have people still recovering from the previous weekend’s party.
We have vowed to return to explore further and you should really make an effort to visit too. We couldn’t stick around longer, as a long forgotten place called Bummer’s Roost was hopefully waiting just up the road. Named after a lazy do-nothing guy nicknamed “Dick the Bummer”, there was a hotel here from 1865 until a fire in 1926. Today, the foundation of that hotel lies under a very regular looking house. Nothing exciting here except for the juvenile pleasure some derive from saying Bummer’s Roost.
Next up is the remains of the Rye School. Built to replace an earlier log cabin school in 1914, the building housed students until the late Fifties. Today it looks like little more than an old tar paper shack, somewhat sadly complemented by an Eighties era camper languishing in the background. As it sits on private property, we didn’t explore any further.
About a hundred meters or so down the road, we found the hulk of an Eighties era Ford passenger van. One can’t help but wonder if it once pulled that Prowler trailer.
From here, things get a bit sketchy. The road narrows to the width of a single vehicle and Trans Canada Trail signs become more prominent. Then, a hand scrawled sign appears that reads “trail closed”. I stopped for a moment and considered my options. I mean, I was driving a Rubicon, right? How much weight does a trail closed sign carry when you are driving the most trail capable vehicle available on the market. Then, a half ton pickup loaded full of guys came out of the trail, followed by another. They had to come from somewhere I figured, so I forged on ahead.
After winding through the brush on the narrow gravel road for about 20 minutes, we came to a 5 meter long puddle. Finally a bit of dirt! The only problem was that just on the other side was a small wooden truss bridge, deliberately wide enough for an ATV and certainly not wide enough for the Wrangler. In fact, the Jeep was wider than the bridge. On the plus side, after executing a 12 point turn on the trail, I got to sploosh through the water again!
Retracing our route, we drove back out to the pavement, wondering where the guys in pickup trucks had come from. Our next and final stop on the tour was the Commanda General Store. Built in 1885 to supply provisions for travellers on the Nippissing Road, the building is considered by many to be one of the prettiest buildings in Northern Ontario. It remained in operation as a store until the late Seventies and was converted to a museum in 1981. Our detours throughout the day meant that we arrived after closing time.
As the sun dropped low in the sky, we meandered north towards the town of Nippissing to complete our goal of following the entire route in one day. Along the way however, we came across a tiny picnic area on the shore of an equally tiny body of water known at Wolfe Lake. It was simply too pretty to pass up the photo op.
While our day of adventuring in the new Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon did not turn out to include as much ghost town action as we had hoped, nor any real off-roading, it was an adventure. We explored a part of the province we never would have known about otherwise and had a great time doing it.
A lot of auto manufacturers forget to upgrade a key component when they offer an open roof: the audio system. I can’t tell you how many convertibles I have driven in which you might as well just forget about listening to the radio once the top is off. In addition to offering up a massive touch screen infotainment system, Jeep has stuffed the Rubicon with just the right number of speakers and amps powerful enough to drive them. It might seem like a little thing, but at highway speeds with the roof panels stowed neatly in their carry bag and the heater cranked, occupants can listen to tunes easily. It is special because so many others don’t get it right.
Another observation from our drive is the ability to report that the “Jeep wave” is alive and well, especially when one is driving a Firecracker Red Rubicon. Other Jeepers knew immediately what this truck was and sometimes would wave frantically with both hands to make sure I saw them! It was pretty comical.
Life in the real world can be a bit grim these days, especially if one listens to the news on a daily basis. It is important to have some balance between being a responsible adult and getting out and having some fun on a regular basis. One doesn’t need to crawl over mountains to have fun in the most capable Jeep ever, one simply needs to get out and explore. Come to think of it, driving the Rubicon makes one feel like going on adventure during every drive and maybe that is the point of it!
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