MILNET, ONTARIO – Jeff, my co-sojourner, and I park the car and saunter over to the monolithic fireplace. Its river stone façade and chimney are still intact and soar several metres into the sky, but the building that surrounded it – the structure it undoubtedly kept toasty during the most hellish nights of January – has been reduced to the faint outline of a forgotten foundation.
Next, we venture into the woods, following a footpath that is nearly overgrown and marked only by a deserted, rusting swing set. We are looking for ruins and other relics of the past that point to the history of the small village of Milnet.
We find them a few hundred metres into the bush. It is precarious exploration, especially with a dog in tow – nails protrude from weathered two-by-fours and heaping piles of dilapidated equipment lay strewn on the floor of what was once a vacuous structure. We take each step intentionally, careful not to place all our weight on one foot. It feels like mountain goat territory, but we make our way through the spooky remnant and out through the back door onto another footpath.
Located about 13 km north of Capreol, Milnet blossomed in the early 1900s after the Marshay Lumber Company assumed ownership in 1917, in part because it was located along a spur of the CN line (formerly known as the Canadian Northern Railway). Life in the village revolved around the lumber mill, itself a short walk from the shores of Fraser Lake, and the railway.
While not much remains today of the tiny town, save for the mill’s foundations and that soaring fireplace, by many accounts Milnet was an idyllic community during its heyday, with clapboard homes, a rooming house, a post office and a school.
“For the people who lived there, that part of their life remains one of the most precious,” members of the Capreol Public Library board, authors of Capreol: The first 75 years, write. “With the buzz of the mill’s saw and the rumble of the freight trains, the harmony of man and nature was complete.”
At its peak, between 200 and 500 people called Milnet home.
“Two dozen look-alike company houses lined the neat streets opposite the two-storey railway station,” Ron Brown writes in Vanished Villages. “By the time the Second World War exploded, the timber was gone and the company closed its operations. Most of the houses were burned or removed.”
The accessibility of Fraser lake, which is basically a widening of the Vermilion River, as well as its proximity to the railway fed the booming lumber industry. Logging camps located upstream sent their product, powered only by the river’s current, to the mill at Milnet for processing, before being transported via train to points beyond.
“The logs would rush in and fill the lake. Men from the sawmill directed the new crop of timber toward the huge blade, then on to the planar mill for the finished product,” the Capreol authors continue. “Boxcars came right up to the mill where they were loaded with the fresh lumber. … The lumber-laden boxcars were transferred onto the mainline for shipment by freight train.”
Life unfolded in a communal way in the self-sufficient hamlet. A local band staged a weekly dance in the village hall and while a sewer system was never installed, inhabitants congregated around the community water pump, conveniently located in the centre of town.
On Christmas mornings, Father Williams and his altar boys would board the train in Capreol to serve mass in Milnet and then in Sellwood, another abandoned town located a few kilometres north.
Milnet was a busy hub for two decades before disaster – and the Great Depression – struck hard.
The sawmill was reduced to ashes in 1933 under mysterious circumstances. A year later, the planar mill burnt to the ground. By 1940, the town had been gutted – jobs were scarce and demand for lumber had plummeted. Most residents chose to leave.
A commune still stands at Milnet, which today is a collection of fewer than 12 ramshackle dwellings, some seasonal and others permanent. The whistle-stop has a bustling population of nine nowadays, most of whom are extended members of the same family.
Jeff takes shade under a buoyant tree to wait with his sweet pup, Trixie, while I poke around one of the homes that appears to be occupied. The buildings resemble the Lego dreams of my childhood – frenetic colour combinations, a patchwork of building materials and heaving piles of haphazardly-placed wood. One shack even has an outdoor shower overlooking Fraser Lake – very practical I say to myself, and romantic under what must be ink-stained night skies.
Bill Castonguay and his son, Jerry, come out to greet me and it seems I have caught them mid-task. In fact, they tell me as they offer me a tour of Bill’s home, they were repairing a stove, which looks older than the hollowed-out mill.
I learn from Castonguay Sr., who retired from Falconbridge mine in 1991, the stone-covered chimney that first caught my eye belonged to the town’s general store.
“Me, I come and go,” he says. “I come out here for a week, then go back home for a week.”
He has been a regular visitor since 1966. At that time, a few houses still stood, along with the schoolhouse. As a boy, summers in Milnet were a dream. Senior spent his time fishing and hunting partridge, and being spoiled by his grandmother.
“Everything’s gone now,” he says. “My dad worked in the mill when he was about 13 or 14 years old. I think my dad was born in Chelmsford, but then they sold the farm there and moved here.”
When Bill’s father was a youngster, the town was quite isolated. With no road, residents relied entirely on the railway. It was the only way to get to and from Capreol, the closest town with amenities.
“When they’d get their old-age pension cheque, they’d go shopping in Capreol,” he says of his forbearers. “They’d take the train, then come back later in the day. By train, it would have taken about a half hour.”
Castonguay Jr. lives in the hamlet year-round.
“I like it. It’s fun,” he says simply. “It’s very quiet. The best part about living out here is the fishing, and nobody to hassle or bug you – nothing like that. It’s perfect.”
It may be peaceful, but there are challenges. Junior, who admits “it’s a little rough; it’s tough here and there” has no indoor plumbing, and instead relies on an outhouse and sauna. He heats his home with a wood stove.
“It’s toughest when it gets really cold,” he concedes.
While most residents moved away after the mills burned, a few stalwarts remained, including Senior’s grandparents.
“People stayed here for a while, especially people who worked on the railroad – they stayed here,” he explains. “A lot of people who worked in the mill moved out. My grandparents stayed here for years, until they died. They were all in their 80s when they passed away.”
Robert Beaudry, a paranormal investigator who runs the website The Eastern Ontario Truth, believes the mill was built on sacred Aboriginal ground.
“There’s a lot of history back there. A lot went wrong back there,” he says. “People died under bad conditions. Back then, conditions, including the tools and facilities, were (not good). People were getting hurt and killed.”
He explains that safety standards fell short in the early 1900s. Tools had no safety guards. Fingers were sliced; limbs were lost.
“The tools would cause more accidents than anything else,” he adds.
Beaudry believes restless spirits may have played a role in the fires that devastated the mills and effectively eviscerated the town.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but there was something else (involved),” he muses. “The property itself sits on native ground. There’s more sacred land than anything else.”
Beaudry grew up in Sudbury and explored Milnet as a younger man, about 20 years ago. At that time, the general store – the structure belonging to that magnificent fireplace – still stood.
He says the experience was unsettling.
“You get the feeling you’re being watched, like ‘what are you doing here and why are you here bothering us?’ There are all kinds of those feelings on that property. They’re all over the place,” he recalls. “We were unable to go further than the mill itself. We wanted to go further … but at the time there was so much energy and so much going on.”
While Beaudry attributes that energy to the unquiet dead, Ted Roque, chief of the nearby Wahnapitae First Nation, is skeptical.
“I have not heard of this before but you never know,” he tells me by email. (Milnet is not part of the first nation’s territory).
Likewise, Dale Wilson, a local railway historian, advises against jumping to conclusions.
“Mills burn down very easily because they have sawdust – with all the wood around, and sawdust and everything else, they were fire traps,” he reasons.
I do not feel anything odd the day Jeff and I explore the mill. Certainly, the building was eerie, but that could be attributed to the overgrown trees, disembowelled innards and collapsed floor – which gave way in spots to a dark void below – as much as to restless spirits.
Following my tour of Senior’s home, itself a sprawling two-storey centenarian, Jeff and I bid farewell to our hosts and return to the car. While researching this story, I read on several websites that once the summer homes are vacated, they will be torn down. That seems a bit melancholic, but the general store’s solid fireplace, I am certain, will remain as an ageless talisman for ruin-gazers yet to come.
Published Oct. 24, 2015 in The Sudbury Star