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The mystery of a spa in the middle of nowhere (6 images)

This week Back Roads Bill is asking Village Media readers for help in solving this heritage spa mystery

You could help solve a million-dollar mystery, one that's not your ordinary old logging camp or mining adit.

It is one of those bush puzzles that, when you stumble upon it, you ask “What was going on here?” You could not drive there then or now, the questions have some answers.

The crumbling, concrete, rectangular-shaped cistern is covered in lichens and mosses. An old pipe sticks out at one end, severed but headed about 200 m in a linear direction, down a slope to where there was a health spa, cabins and a health clinic.

The water is clear and almost still but the artesian well continues to emanate from fissures deep with the earth’s crust, creating a subtle wave of movement on the surface. The aging cistern protects supposedly magical waters and an interesting timeline.

Bethnal Springs is a multi-element mineral spring that has been flowing consistently from recorded discovery in 1910. Even after there was a media mention of radium discovery at the site, radium at the time was thought to be a health benefit.

The name Bethnal was synonymous with distinguished health clinics in England and Germany.

Records indicate Bethnal Spring’s water was widely used for human consumption as a health spa with steam baths. In a 1930 business prospectus the proponent, Bethnal Mineral Waters Ltd. (Sudbury), called the water the ‘The Drink of Health’ and was heralded as the “purest water available” from tests undertaken at the University of Toronto.

“The waters are not only very palatable but have wonderful medicinal qualities…A sanatorium is in operation at the springs with a very competent masseur in charge…a patient receives the very best care and treatment.”

They wanted to produce and market world-class bottled mineral water. Extensive analysis was completed on the springs to substantiate the claim the water contained a multiplicity of balanced elements beneficial for human consumption. Henceforth the development of a health spa with steam baths associated with the discovery of its special benefits.

There are references indicating large volumes of water were shipped out by railway tanker cars for various commercial uses. Clientele may have accessed the site by railway coaches outfitted sleeping quarters and dining facilities.

Coaches were exchanged on a weekly basis. Evidence of the health centre is still visible, this includes the remains of wood-fired boilers and an extensive piping network that used the heat to distribute the mineral water to the concrete spas over an extensive area now overgrown but very discernible.

Fast forward to this century, 2002, and Sudbury prospector Edward J. Blanchard and a new Bethnal Springs company. The mineral water is again thought to be valuable and there was a  renewed interest and a new idea.

The contemporary developer envisioned tandem trucks with 2,000-gallon capacity, four trips a day to haul the water to a nearby holding tank at Klondike Lodge and then a bottling facility in Bala which is located on the Mohawks of Gibson First Nation, just off Highway 169.

Work permits and environmental assessments were applied including a bridge crossing. The developer/prospector passed away and there ends the contemporary bottled water story. There continues to mining interest in the area.

Brian Emblin is a mining mechanical engineer with J.L. Richards in Timmins, he knows about costing infrastructure. He describes the site.

“There is a concrete cistern about 12ftx12ft that was built to capture the spring water and a 4-inch pipe, buried underground to deliver the mineral water by gravity to the “spa” about 600 ft away. At the “spa” you can see remnants of the building foundations and boilers and various pipes still there," Emblin said. "The effort to build the facility back in the 1920s in the middle of nowhere with only the train to bring in materials would have been quite something. Today to build something like that in that location could easily run upwards of a million dollars or more. “

“In hindsight, what I like about this particular place is its history and mystery, the history after visiting the site and doing more digging with the local indigenous community and the federal archives; it appears that the local indigenous population used to visit the site for the waters curative properties for before any modern Europeans arrived.”

The springs are very close to another culturally significant area, Wizard Lake and its collection of pictographs.

Recently retired senior archivist with the Ontario Archives, Paul McIlroy, began helping with the research.

He was able to uncover some additional information about the site including plans for an airport, sanatorium and golf course. Perseverance may answer his questions.

"The prospectus says they have a sanatorium there but give no details beyond mentioning a couple employees. The prospectus is for the water company. So who’s running the sanatorium? Is that company registered either with the province or the feds? Was it registered with the Department of Health or the local Health Board? Why don’t they crow about their facilities, number of rooms, the food, anything? They don’t even list a local mailing address for it? Who went there and how long did it operate?"

Apparently, people paid good money to board and get off the train in the middle of what remains wilderness. There was a great deal of money spent and manual effort to develop this spa. This heritage is 11 km north-northwest of Gogama, (Hwy, 144), Mileage 98 on the CNR line, see the map.

Members of the Board of Directors of the 1930’s Bethnal Mineral Waters Ltd. included Fred Davision, Peter Fenton, Dr. I.G. Polack, C.G. Carrington, Peter W. McCaffrey and J.E. Huard, most likely Sudbury-Northern Ontario names.

Government archives remain closed because of the pandemic. If you are related to any of these surnames or know of the name, please ask about these names.

Historical societies attached to municipal museums, city libraries, “railroaders” and genealogical sleuths may also be able to help. I'm looking for any more information, particularly photos of this operation, most likely between 1929 to 1934. From found records, it is known the company failed to file tax returns starting in 1936. It is worth the visit, yours to discover on the back roads.


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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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