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Natural Heritage of the Vermilion River, by Ruth Svensk

Natural Heritage of the Vermilion River, by Ruth Svensk

areal view of vermilion

Areal view of Vermilion River

The First Nations people here called the River a name that means Whitefish River.  Depending on who pronounces it, the name sounds like “Atikamgzib” or “Dikmegzubi”.  The ‘zib’ or ‘zubi’ means “river”.

(The Europeans misunderstood, and thought that Atikmazib was the little river that runs through Lake Lavase into Penage.  That is why you see it marked as Whitefish River on the maps.)   And an 1827 McBean, Hudson’s Bay Company map indicates the River was called Matawungun back then.

1827 McBean HBC map_Detail 5, Vermilion River

The Vermilion River rises in a small lake called Tramp Lake, about 70 km north of Capreol.

“Probably much of the gold in the Vermilion has come from the winnowing of glacial till by post-glacial rivers and modern rivers.  I suspect that the Wanapitei and Vermilion River areas where placer gold is known may have been the site of some of the early Norse washings.”[1]

Boyle’s credentials are as a geologist, not a historian, but others have speculated that, when Greenland was a viable colony, in the 11th and 12th centuries, Norse were entering Hudson’s Bay and trading up the rivers into Northern Ontario.

The Ojibwa, Odawa and Beaver peoples who lived near the Atikmagzib moved throughout the year, living in a succession of seasonal camps.  Their territory of use stretched from MacGregor Bay to the headwaters of the Vermilion, and I think from the Spanish to the Sturgeon Rivers.

The river was their road.  In winter they traveled by snowshoe, and when waterways were open they traveled by canoe.  Travelers often made camp at the top of a portage.

Ken Buchanan, an archaeologist at Laurentian University, studied pre-European camps[2] of these people along the Vermilion River.  There are registered archaeological sites on the Vermilion that turned up bits of broken native made pottery, and flakes of chert.  As no chert is local, that is evidence of trade.

In 1850 Shewana-Keshik signed the Robinson-Huron Treaty on behalf of the Atikameksheng people, but they continued to use all their traditional territory.

In 1884 the Whitefish Lake Reserve was surveyed and designated, and wherever possible the reserve boundary is water, part of it the Vermilion River.

CPR construction crews reached what would become Sudbury in 1883.  At the same time track was being laid from the port of Algoma Mills to Sudbury, so that supplies for the main line construction could be fed to the head of steel.  Soon the line along the north shore of Lake Huron was completed to Sault St. Marie.

Expecting that settlement would follow the railways, the Ontario government had townships surveyed.

The Marquis of Lorne became Canada’s Governor General in October 1878, when he was thirty two.  His wife, the Princess Louise, was a daughter of Queen Victoria.  His term ended in October 1883.  The next year two townships along the Vermilion River were given the names of Louise and Lorne.

At first, interest in minerals in the Sudbury district centred on the country along the CPR Soo Line.  The first mine was the Vermilion Gold Mine (lot 6, concession 4, Denison Township, a little south of the 20th century Crean Hill Mine.)  It seems to have started in 1887.

At the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century, there was a heavy demand for wood – for railway ties, sawn lumber, mine timbers, poles and fencing, wood for roast beds, for the Sudbury District, southern Ontario, and for export.

By 1890, logging was being done in the Vermilion River/Lake Penage area.

Between 1901 and 1930 two billion, 520 million board feet of saw log timber were taken from the Sudbury District, “without taking into consideration railway ties, pulpwood, etc.”[3]  From Morgan Township (six miles by six miles) 67 million board feet of sawlog timber was taken in the years 1901 to 1910.  These logs and logs from all the surrounding townships were driven down the Vermilion River.

My father Olva Svensk (born 1901) said of these days, “l’ve seen the River full of logs for three, four days on end, when there was no wind to hold them up.  One year logs were being driven down this river until the first snow came.”

The first settlers in Louise Township were French Canadians, about the end of the 19th century.  They took only the lots that were closest to the CPR.  In the first decade of the 20th century, some Finnish immigrants went further from the rail, and took lots along the River.  Some of the early families settled on land across the River.

About 1924 the settlers in Louise Township worked together to build a timber bridge over the River at lot 3, concession 4.  The bridge was 190 feet long.  In the summer of the same year, a new school was built for school section #3, replacing one that had been on the “north” side of the River.  The new location may mean that already the community felt that their control point was on the far side of the river.  SS#2 Louise school opened a few months before the first #3 school, was also south of the River.

Ten years later the Road Commission of Louise Township extended the road to Lake Penage, building a bridge across the narrows of Little Penage.  Private camps were built on Lake Penage, and for most of the campers, the road to the Lake was the road through Louise Township that crossed the Vermilion.

In 1956 the timber bridge was replaced by an iron bridge.  In 1983 a concrete bridge was built across the River.

In Lorne Township, Finnish homesteaders settled on both sides of the River.  People used scows until 1960.   I do not know if there are any permanent residents on the south side of the River now (in fact there are still some permanent residents).

Lines from Bob Ruzicka’s song “Big River” (written about the MacKenzie) are true of other rivers.

Their lives revolve around her,
            the River makes the rules.

           She helps the wise to stay alive,
           They say she kills the fools.

Written by Ruth Svensk:

[1] The Geochemistry of gold and its deposits, 1979, by R.W. Boyle, Canada’s “guru of gold”, published by the Geological Survey of Canada

[2] An Archaeological Survey of the Sudbury Area and a Site Near Lake of the Mountains, 1979, K.T. Buchanan.

[3] History of the Sudbury Forest District (1967), published by Ontario Department of Lands & Forests.

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The Lower Vermilion Source Water Quality Program is a 3 year study to characterize the lower Vermilion River to identify all negative inputs and outputs affecting water quality, and to ultimately recommend a course of action to protect and restore water quality on the Vermilion River system.