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Then & Now: Happy Valley's 'death sentence' and other ghost town stories

The region was once dotted with small towns as people flooded into the area looking for jobs in mining and forestry, but the boom-and-bust cycle of the resource sector saw several of these towns suddenly or slowly abandoned as people moved on

Cold and dark November seems a good time to "visit" some of the ghost towns that lie within the City of Greater Sudbury.

People rushed to this part of Ontario in the late 1800s and early 1900s looking for good-paying jobs in forestry and mining. But when the boom went bust, they packed their bags and moved away lock, stock and barrel from communities such as Sellwood and Milnet for good.

Happy Valley's story is different from most ghost towns. In the mid 1970s, the former farming hamlet near the community of Falconbridge was levelled and "off limits" signs were posted.

The Canadian Press (CP) headline, dated Aug. 8, 1974, read, "Sentenced to death by pollution, Happy Valley neighbourhood dying gradually."

First settled in 1911, by the mid-1920s, Happy Valley, originally known as Spruce Valley, had about 50 residents, mostly farmers. Happy was the name or nickname of a resident.

During the 1930s, the population grew when miners who worked at nearby Falconbridge Ltd. moved there with their families seeking affordable housing.

At its peak, Happy Valley's population was about 100 souls, but there were no stores, churches or schools. Children had to walk almost five kilometres to the nearest school in Garson.

Farmers began to worry sulphur fumes from the Falconbridge smelter and mill was harming their land. The situation became worse when the mine went into full production during the Second World War.

Pollution eventually drove the farmers away, but the miners' families stayed.

In the early 1970s, Bill Davis's Ontario government implemented tighter environmental regulation. Inco built the Superstack in 1972 to improve air quality in Sudbury by dispersing pollutants from its smelter over a wider area.

The government could not ignore complaints from environmentalists, crusading journalists and local NDP MPPs Floyd Laughren and Elie Martel about the problems in Happy Valley. 

The Ministry of Environment installed an air monitor station and found the concentration of sulphur dioxide and air-borne particles at times was more than twice acceptable API levels.

"Happy Valley is, at least superficially, the most misnamed place in the country," wrote reporter Christie Blatchford for The Globe and Mail (Sept. 4, 1973).

"The homes, which range from shacks to neatly stuccoed and wood-panelled bungalows, lie at the bottom of a blackened sparsely scrubbed valley … The recreation area for the valley's 45 children consists of seven swings and a picnic table resting on black gravel. There is almost no shade in the area, dry sticks pass as trees."

Residents were compensated about $15,000 each or offered company-owned homes in the town of Falconbridge, but they were reluctant to leave their homes and received little notice. 

"One day someone came to the door and handed a piece of paper saying the government had decided to buy our home," one resident told CP. 

"I never had any say whether I wanted to move or not or whether the pollution bothered me or not."

Homeowners were more concerned about adequate water supply, road conditions, an absence of fire protection and drainage facilities than the air they had been breathing for decades. 

They also suspected their eviction was more about a land grab by the mining company than health concerns. 

Falconbridge paid $230,000 and the government paid $130,000 toward the costs of relocation. It was the first time the province financed the removal of a community from the path of air pollution. 

By the end of 1974, all the residents were evacuated except one man who refused to leave. John Gizzi lived there until the late 1980s.

Happy Valley's death attracted national attention and raised awareness of the dangers of sulphur emissions in the Sudbury area.

North of Capreol is the ghost town of Sellwood. Located on the Vermilion River about 70 kilometres from Sudbury, prospectors first found gold there, but not enough for even a minor gold rush.

Iron ore was discovered there in 1902, and when the Moose Mountain iron mine opened four years later, workers and their families moved into the company town.

By 1909, ore was shipped by Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) from Sellwood to Key Harbour on Georgian Bay to transport by ship for smelting and refining.

Sellwood would grow to have a population of 1,500 with 600 working for the mining company. Warren Lumber Company sawmill also provided employment.

The town had a three-storey, 100-room hotel, boarding houses, private homes, numerous stores, several restaurants, a church, a post office, a public school, a bowling alley and four pool rooms. There were two trains to Toronto daily.

There were good times and bad. The demand for iron ore declined after the First World War and the mine closed in 1920. 

By 1930, the entire town of Sellwood was abandoned. Many residents moved 35 kilometres south to Capreol where men found work with the Canadian National Railway.

For almost 30 years, the town's buildings stood vacant and abandoned.

When Lowphos Ore opened a new mine and mill in the late 1950s, the town site was levelled in the process. The mine operated until 1978. 

Milnet is another ghost town located near Capreol.  It was a lumber town, strategically located on the Canadian Northern Railway line. Originally known as Sellwood Junction, its name was changed to Milnet in 1916. 

The hopes and dreams of the residents of Milnet were squashed when the stock market crashed in 1929. The main employer, Marshay Lumber Mill, was impacted by low prices for their products.

During the 1930s, there were several mysterious fires that damaged the sawmill and lumber yard. At its height,Milnet had about 200 residents. By the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, most of the residents had left. 

Some folks remained in Milnet, and as recently as 2015 a few still lived there although only a skeleton of buildings remain.

Photographer Marg Seregelyi visited Milnet in 2014 and posted some photos of her visit on her website. The Town of Capreol expanded its borders in 1973 to include Sellwood and Milnet. Capreol became part of the City of Greater Sudbury in 2001.

Vicki Gilhula is a Sudbury freelance writer. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

Sources
Ron Brown, "Vanished Villages", Polar Bear Press 1996
Scott Miller (2020) “Who Killed Happy Valley?: Air Pollution and the Birth of an Ontario Ghost Town, 1969-1974". Ontario History
The Globe and Mail, Sept. 8, 1973 "Cheap ride for a company"
Marq de Villier, "Who Killed Happy Valley: How a town withered and died while pollution soared and flourished," The Globe and Mail, Oct, 19, 1974
mycapreol.com