Last week the following missive appeared on my Facebook wall:
I’m not sure if you remember my Grandfather, Robert Bryenton? You once did a story/column/article about him. He is a World War II veteran. Lived alone in his home on St. Pothier Road in Whitefish.
The reason for this message is to inform you of his passing. You may not even remember him, but you were very important to him.
Over the years, your name and the article have been a topic of discussion, frequently.
Thank you for telling his story.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of Bob in years, but I remembered him vividly. His granddaughter Melissa was kind enough to send along a PDF of the original column, which I’m sure I hadn’t read since it was published in the summer of 1995. I believe I can see why the old man apparently treasured it so.
Here is that column, complete and unabridged:
“Are you the fella who writes in Northern Life?” the voice boomed over the telephone. I said I was.
“I just read your story on the Vermillion River. I’ve got a farm on the River out on Highway 17 West. Bryenton’s the name. I’ve been readin’ your stuff for years. You’re a helluva writer.”
I thanked him.
“Ya oughta come see me some time. I’ll show ya the old Chicago Mine Road, runs all the way to Cartier. Great fishin’, if you like trout. I could tell you a few stories.”
Try me, I said.
“Well, I’m originally from Prince Edward Island, eh? Not far from Cape Wolfe. That’s where Wolfe trained his men at climbing before the attack on Quebec. Cliffs there are only sixty feet high, but I guess they got the job done,” he chuckled. “My ancestors fought in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. They were rewarded with the farm where I was born. Been in the family over two hundred years.”
“I shipped out on the Norwegian Line durin’ the War. To Lagos, Nigeria, then up the Congo, and to Lobito, a little Portugese port in Angola. Pretty little place.”
“We carried fifty nurses over that time. Fifty women. They were from Quebec. I didn’t see much of ‘em because they were ‘midships and it was off limits, but I liked one of ‘em pretty good. I guess she liked me pretty good, too. Maybe I should look her up.”
“Anyways, I got a lot of stories I could tell ya. Did I tell ya my ancestors fought with Wolfe?”
I thanked him for the call, thought about it, and on Wednesday morning I climbed into my car for the hour long drive to the farm of one Bob Bryenton.
Robert Jacob Bryenton was born on PEI on September 22, 1932. At 72 he’s a little hard of hearing after spending nearly forty years underground at Creighton Mine. But he still sports a little toothbrush military moustache, and still stands straight and tall, almost as tall as the day he shipped out of New York City, bound for Africa.
“We shipped aboard the Tamerlane, a twelve thousand ton armed merchant carrier. She had a ten thousand horsepower Mann diesel. And she was fast, a cruisin’ speed of twenty two knots. We didn’t need an escort, and travelled alone.”
“Me and this other fella from the Maritimes missed our first ship outta New York and spent two weeks in the Plaza Hotel, eh? It was a good thing, too. We found out later the ship we missed was torpedoed off Greenland.”
U boats were taking a terrible toll on Allied shipping in the North Atlantic in those days. The Norwegian Line, owners of the Tamerlane, had entered the war with sixty eight vessels. By 1941 only thirty eight bottoms were left, and fully half the Tamerlane’s crew had jumped ship in New York to avoid what they had come to regard as inevitable.
The southerly crossing was uneventful, save for a hurricane off Bermuda that washed one crate of the Tamerlane’s precious cargo into the Atlantic. The crew fought for days to save their ship, and for Bob that meant standing “watch and watch”—going days without sleep. When the weather cleared and he was finally allowed to tumble into his bunk. Bryenton slept like Rip Van Winkle “and when I woke up the ship was swarming with black longshoremen.” The Tamerlane’s cargo was already being offloaded with the help of an old farm tractor. The second the crates hit the shore they were torn open by engineers from the Royal Air Force. “They were planes, eh? Lagos was the back door to Montgomery. You didn’t have to go through Gibraltar and get bombed. Six hours later and those planes were in the Med. They needed ‘em bad, eh? Rommel was there.”
From Lagos the Tamerlane steamed up the Congo to pick up a shipment of diamonds. They travelled up river for two days to the port of Metadi. “You’d see the crocodiles slidin’ down into the water, disturbed by the noise of the pilot boat.”
Bryenton returned to Canada, enlisted in the Royal Navy, and spent the rest of the War on convoy duty in the North Atlantic, sailing to Belfast and Londonderry, and, occasionally, Iceland.
He never was torpedoed.
“So show me the Chicago Mine Road,” I said. “I never heard of the Chicago Mine. Is it still there?”
We piled into my car and headed north across Highway 17, up the Fairbanks Lake Road. We passed the Crean Hill turnoff, through Worthington, and turned off the pavement onto gravel.
The Chicago Mine Road runs parallel to Cameron Creek, and past a chain of lakes, all but invisible from the road. But Bob knew them all, spoke of them lovingly. 10 Mile Lake, Poleline Lake, Cameron Lake.
We stopped at 10 Mile, hiked down to the water, and Bob showed me his favourite fishing spots. On the way back we stopped at the Chicago Mine site. Or at least what had been the Chicago Mine site.
Bob remembered an old slag pile and an old shaft that had been planked off. We trudged through the bush on both sides of the road, but every last trace of the Chicago Mine had disappeared, the victim of the mine reclamation program.
I had hoped to find an old square nail or rusty scrap of crusher, but nothing remained to show that men had once moiled here for nickel-copper ore. I wasn’t sure if I was happy the land had been so completely restored or sad that the old Chicago had, in the end, come to so little.
At last Bob emerged, beaming. “Well”, he said brightly, “we solved the mystery.” He had something in his hands. Two chunks of old slag, before me as I write this, are all that remain of the old Chicago Mine.
On the way back to town I thought of Bob and the Tamerlane and the Congo, of Cameron Creek and the lost Chicago Mine. Clearly Bob is an old man “haunted by waters”, in the fine phrase of the American poet Norman McLaren.
And I thought of how we live our lives, hurrying to accomplish and accumulate, and how so very little of it endures. Even the outcome of The Battle of the Plains of Abraham may soon be reversed, albeit peacefully.
The next morning I phoned Nancy Thurston, the Chief Librarian of the Ontario Mines Library, to inquire about the Chicago Mine. She called me back a few minutes later.
“The Chicago Mine was mentioned in the very first Annual Report of the Bureau of Mines, in 1891. It opened that year but was short-lived, closing in 1897. Fifty-five ‘hands’ were employed when it closed.”
The site once boasted an aerial tramway, a shaft 160 feet deep, a smelter, crusher and boiler. That first report also mentions nearby Cameron Creek, though not by name.
Today, only the creek remains.