Beardmore: The Middle Claim

Excerpted from Beardmore: The Viking Hoax that Rewrote History, by Douglas Hunter, published Sept. 2018 by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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O.C. “Teddy” Elliott prospecting at Little Longlac in the 1930s. Photo courtesy Susan MacLatchie.

BeardmorecoverOn the hot summer night of 16 July 1934, a Canadian National Railways (CNR) train clattering through the boreal gloom of northern Ontario was brought to a sharp halt about four miles southwest of the whistle stop of Beardmore Station, on the east side of Lake Nipigon. There was a fire on the track. Someone had lit a pile of newspaper to interrupt the train’s run to Port Arthur, the CNR grain port at the head of the Great Lakes, at Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, some 120 miles down the track to the southwest. The engineer understood this makeshift signal and stopped the steam locomotive long enough to allow a man labouring under an enormous packsack to clamber aboard one of the day coaches.

The new passenger was stocky, about five and a half feet tall, forty-nine years old, and prematurely silver-haired. “Mind if I slip in here, buddy?” he asked a balding, thirty-five-year-old schoolteacher of about the same height. “Make yourself at home,” replied the teacher, who was travelling alone. He helped the newcomer store the packsack on the luggage rack.

The teacher’s full name was Otho Christopher Elliott, but everyone called him Teddy and he was otherwise formally known by his initials, O.C. His new travel companion was James Edward – usually Eddy, sometimes Jimmy – Dodd. Eddy Dodd worked for the CNR when the jobs were there, which was not always the case during the hard times of the Depression. Dodd was fond of telling stories, and he told them to all sorts of people in all sorts of places, the beverage room of the Mariaggi Hotel in downtown Port Arthur being a favourite spot. As the train resumed its spine-jarring run through a night-shrouded forest, the two men relieved the fidgeting discomfort of the bench seats with a wide-ranging conversation. They were two very different people, but they could find common ground in at least two subjects: their experiences in the Canadian army during the First World War and their interests in prospecting for mineral wealth.

James Edward Dodd was baptized in 1885 at Portage du Fort, Quebec, on the upper Ottawa River, the fifth of eight children in a family of Irish Catholic heritage. Like two of his brothers, Eddy found work in the railways. In January 1916, when Dodd was a month shy of his thirty-first birthday and employed at Rainy River as a CNR brakeman, he enlisted in the 94th Overseas Battalion, formed the previous October to receive volunteers from northwestern Ontario. On arrival in England the 94th was broken up. Dodd was sent to France in late August, and after a few days with the 2nd Entrenching Battalion he was taken on strength by the 28th (Northwest) Battalion, which included other men from Port Arthur. Whatever tales Dodd might have told of his war experience were never written down, but he probably served as a labourer as he also spent some time assigned to the Royal Engineers in November 1917. Other than a good conduct badge received on 1 January 1918 (and two instances of having his pay docked before he got overseas), Dodd’s record would reveal nothing about his experiences of the front, but he was on hand for some of the war’s most brutal episodes. For about twenty months, Private Dodd was with the 28th as it saw action in a string of major engagements, from the Somme to Vimy Ridge to Passchendaele.

In late April 1918, as the 28th was preparing to relieve the 26th in the front lines south of Arras, Dodd was evacuated by field ambulance to the No. 5 general hospital in Rouen, where he was diagnosed with PUO – pyrexia (fever) of an unknown origin – and general myalgia, or muscle pain. It was the end of Dodd’s frontline service. He moved through an assortment of hospitals before at last being assigned to Camp Bramshott in Hampshire. His diagnosis expanded to include DAH (disordered action of the heart) and wheezing in the chest. A medical officer’s assessment in Camp Bramshott on 22 October 1918 portrayed an all but broken man. “Patient states he was healthy prior to enlistment … states breath has been short and he has had a smothering sensation when lying down for last 6 months.” Dodd was only thirty-three, but the officer noted he “looks much over forty years of age – hair quite grey, and face drawn, as if he had endured considerable hardship.” Dodd would always look much older than his years. “No visible swelling of joints or muscles, but the long bones are very sensitive to the least pressure. There is a decided grating sensation in knee joints on manipulation. Knee jerk accentuated. All movts normal but very laboured.” His resting pulse was an elevated 128, and the medical officer judged his arterial walls thickened. He was not fit for duty in the field but could serve on base in training.

The war by then was all but over. On 1 November, Dodd was granted permission to marry, and a week after the 11 November armistice he travelled some 150 miles north to Birmingham to take as his bride Ellen (Helena) Palmer, from North Budley, Wales, who was about twenty-four; they had probably met while he was hospitalized in Birmingham in May 1918. Ellen Palmer had agreed to marry a man with serious, chronic health problems whose ability to support a family must have been in doubt. She would prove to be fiercely loyal.

Dodd and his bride sailed for Canada in January 1919; their first daughter, Margaret, was baptized in November 1919, in Bristol, a village near Portage du Fort in the Pontiac region of Quebec, where Dodd had grown up. Eddy and Ellen soon relocated to Port Arthur, where a second daughter, Helena (Leona), was baptized in January 1921. Soon after, a son, Walter, who was born about 1917, was adopted by the Dodds around the age of five. Eddy managed to resume his railway work as well as part-time prospecting, which had first engaged him before the war, but it is probable that he never fully recovered the health he had once enjoyed. He was old before his time, with physical labour that pained him being his only option for keeping his family afloat during the Depression. The heavy packsack he had slung aboard the day coach, a physical manifestation of his last opportunity to find some comfort in life, was a burden a younger man would have had difficulty bearing.

Teddy Elliott had a much different résumé and war experience. Born in 1898, he was the son of a prominent Baptist preacher (also named O.C. Elliott) who had moved his family around southern Ontario, from Teddy’s birthplace of Peterborough to Belleville to St Thomas and finally to Toronto. Elliott had enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in St Thomas in May 1918 after finishing his first year of theology studies at his father’s alma mater, the Baptist university, McMaster, which was then affiliated with the University of Toronto and located on the west side of the new Royal Ontario Museum. Elliott had military roots: his father was born in 1867 in the barracks at Kingston, Ontario, where his own parents lived as part of the British garrison following the Crimean War. On enlistment, Teddy Elliott asserted he had tried to join the Royal Air Force – the No. 4 School of Military Aeronautics had begun cadet training at the University of Toronto in 1917 – but had been turned down because of his eyesight. The British Empire insinuated itself into the Russian Revolution, and, as a private with the 11th Stationary Hospital, Elliott served with the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force (CSEF) in Vladivostok. The CSEF saw little action, and Elliott returned to Canada in May 1919 to complete his studies at McMaster, serve as the athletics editor of the university’s monthly student publication, and sit on the executive of the intercollegiate debating union. Elliott then trained at the Ontario College of Education and landed his first teaching job in Fort William, the Canadian Pacific port and rail terminus in Thunder Bay on the west side of Port Arthur. He also had enjoyed a spell as a cub reporter at the Globe and Mail, where an uncle was an editor, and, for a few years in the early 1930s, he kept a hand in journalism by writing a short weekly advice column for parents (“Chats with a Teacher”) in that newspaper.

Teddy Elliott oversaw the commercial department at Fort William’s high school. He met Lillian Catherine (Kate) Jarvis, the daughter of a local railway switchman, who had graduated from nursing school in 1927. Teddy and Kate married in 1928, in a ceremony in Teddy’s parents’ living room in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, presided over by Teddy’s father. The couple then moved to Hamilton, where Teddy taught at Westdale Secondary School, two blocks from their house in the new Hamilton suburb of Westdale, which had taken root around McMaster when the university relocated there in 1930. The couple returned to the Thunder Bay area every summer to visit with Kate’s extended family.

Teddy Elliott and Eddy Dodd might have had much to share about medical care in the military, but they otherwise talked about the world of railways, and about prospecting, as these were subjects on which Dodd could hold forth without end. When Dodd wasn’t employed by the CNR he prospected for gold, as so many men in northwestern Ontario had taken to doing. Since 1925, Dodd had been working several claims off and on near Beardmore. Setting some newspaper alight had secured him a ride home to Port Arthur from his latest visit to the claims. Elliott never mentioned in any recollections of his dealings with Eddy Dodd that he, too, had been bitten by the gold bug. He was prospecting (and otherwise enjoying the outdoors) in the area of the 1917 strike at Little Longlac (Kenogamisis Lake), in a partnership that included the local CNR telegraph agent Jack Gervais. He was on his way back from Little Longlac, about sixty-five miles east of where Dodd had boarded the train, to rejoin his wife at the Lakehead. In 1933, a company had finally been organized to exploit the 1917 Little Longlac find, and a shaft was dug to two levels in 1934, but Elliott never enjoyed prospecting success. By 1939, his Little Longlac claims would be owned by a company called Jowato Gold.

According to Elliott, for no other reason than to keep the conversation flowing, he asked Dodd: “Did you ever find anything strange in your claims?” The button that was waiting to be pushed had been engaged. As Elliott would recall, Dodd’s blue eyes looked straight into his own. “Strange that you should ask me that, young fellow.”

• • •

In February 1934, five months before Teddy Elliott met Eddy Dodd on the train, Dodd happened upon Edward Moore Jackson Burwash on the streets of Port Arthur. For someone like Dodd, “Ned” Burwash was a leading authority on wealth buried in the ground. Burwash was sixty-one years old, four years from retirement as a geologist with Ontario’s Department of Mines. He specialized in the rocks of the Laurentian Shield, which were yielding vast profits in gold, silver, platinum, cobalt, nickel, copper, and other metallic and non-metallic minerals, and were attracting investment capital from around the world. Burwash had long been a prospecting celebrity. In 1896, freshly equipped with a master’s degree from the University of Toronto (he would also earn a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1915), Burwash was hired by Ontario’s Bureau of Mines. Scouring the land in Shaw Township in the Porcupine District, about 140 miles north of Sudbury, Burwash found traces of gold in quartz veins. For a time, after a gold rush swept the area in 1909, the Porcupine District was the largest gold producer in the world.

Ned Burwash was a professor of natural science at Columbian Methodist College in New Westminster, British Columbia – later the University of British Columbia (UBC) – from 1905 to 1910. He taught at Columbian College (forerunner of UBC) from 1910 to 1915, and, after serving as a Canadian army chaplain in the First World War, he taught at UBC and the University of Manitoba in the 1920s. He was thereafter known as Professor Burwash and, in 1927, began running the prospecting schools of Ontario’s Department of Mines. Burwash roamed the province between November and April, visiting as many as sixteen communities, equipped with 250 mineral specimens and an array of lantern slides for his eight-day course. Port Arthur was home to Thunder Bay District’s mining registry office and hosted one of Burwash’s best-attended schools. In 1934, between 14 January and 1 February, Burwash held two sessions of classes, in Port Arthur and Fort William, before heading west to Kenora for a session. He was back in Port Arthur on 13 February and was about to depart by train to his next session, in the mining centre of Haileybury, when he ran into Dodd.

Dodd had staked three adjoining Beardmore claims in 1925, two years before Burwell took charge of the prospecting course. Dodd may have continued to attend classes into the 1930s, and he was otherwise a fixture of the local prospecting community as, by now, he had held two of the claims a few miles down the track from Beardmore Station for almost nine years. Unfortunately, Dodd’s energies had yielded nothing of mineral promise. His desire to strike pay dirt was now being driven by a combination of the hard times of the Depression and a gold price that had leapt overnight, two weeks before Dodd and Burwash met on the street. American monetary policy had caused the unprecedented spike in the value of gold. Burwash was wrapping up his prospector’s classes in Fort William on 30 January 1934, when the United States reinstated the gold standard it had suspended in April 1933. The Gold Reserve Act raised the official gold price overnight by almost 70 percent, from $20.67 to $35.00.

Thunder Bay District was already one of mining’s investment hotspots. A 1921 geological map for the lands explored along the CNR route from the Sturgeon River westward to Lake Nipigon, when updated in 1934, featured Xs across the Beardmore area. Every X, like a mark on a treasure map, denoted a gold discovery. One such X being aggressively exploited was just east of Beardmore Station. In 1933, the Northern Empire mines operation sank a shaft an additional 350 feet and made numerous improvements. Already, an average of fifty-six men had jobs there, twenty-two of them underground. This period also saw the Little Longlac discovery of 1917 at last enter production, which gave rise to the boom town of Geraldton, incorporated in 1937. These mines were either mocking Dodd’s long-standing efforts to cash in on this mineral bonanza or were extending the tantalizing hope of his finding an X of his own to place on the geology map. Mining, especially gold mining, was one of the few bright spots in a bleak Depression economy. Canada’s gross national product had fallen by more than half between 1929 and 1933. The official unemployment rate was almost 20 percent in 1933, but actual joblessness was more like 32 percent. The economic crisis was exacerbated by drought on the southern Prairies, which created a net outmigration of a quarter-million people between 1931 and 1941. The collapse in grain production had a knock-on effect on the railways and Great Lakes shipping, the industries essential to the prosperity of Fort William and Port Arthur.

Men like Eddy Dodd were struggling to find or hold steady employment and avoid the quasi-voluntary last resort of reporting to the relief camps that had sprung up in the bush across northern Ontario, where they could build aerodromes for twenty cents a day. But hard times for railway men had set in long before the Depression. When the federal government merged the assets of the Grand Trunk Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway to create the Canadian National Railways in 1923, most of the Canadian Northern facilities in Port Arthur were closed. Two years later, Dodd had begun his prospecting while securing whatever railway work he could. Holding on to a claim meant, every six months, filing a report that met ministry milestones totalling two hundred eight-hour days of labour over a five-year period. Keeping a claim active required time, personnel, and money.

Dodd was carrying a custom-made wood case when Burwash met him on the street in mid-February 1934. The provincial geologist might have expected to see quartzite chunks flecked with promises of gold. But Dodd was hauling around a different sort of buried treasure: three badly corroded pieces of metal. Dodd agreed to bring the items to Burwash’s room at the CNR’s Prince Arthur Hotel. What Burwash saw and heard compelled him to contact Charles Trick Currelly, director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology.

• • •

The social strata of Canada were so shallow and broad as to make it improbably easy for an itinerant prospector like Eddy Dodd in Port Arthur to be linked to an internationally renowned museum director like Charles Trick Currelly, some eight hundred miles away in Toronto. Ned Burwash provided that connection.
Where some men monitored the province’s hinterlands as part-time scouts for professional hockey teams, Ned Burwash practised a more specialized bird-dogging. While executing his geologist’s duties, he kept an eye peeled for items that might belong in the ROM, including whatever might intrigue C.T. Currelly, the first and only director of its largest division, archaeology. The two men had been close friends since meeting in high school at Toronto’s Harbord Collegiate. Together they had attended Victoria College, the Wesleyan Methodist institution at the University of Toronto overseen by Burwash’s father, Nathanael. Ned Burwash proved to be a doppelganger of his celebrated father, sporting the same style of beard and pursuing the same dual career in theology and natural sciences. (At Columbia Methodist College, Ned had investigated Pleistocene volcanism while also delivering sermons and publishing The New Theology in 1910.) Chancellor Nathanael Burwash, Victoria College, and Methodism figured significantly in Currelly’s early career and his rise to the museum directorship (see chapter 4). At this point, it is important to appreciate how closely knit the Burwash and Currelly worlds were. Beyond their personal connections, Burwash worked for a provincial ministry, and Ontario’s legislature and bureaucracy were centred in Queen’s Park in the heart of Toronto. At the northwest edge of Queen’s Park was the ROM, which, as a division of the University of Toronto, answered to the Ministry of Education, and that made Currelly a civil servant of sorts. Created by an act of the legislature in 1912 as five museums under one roof, dedicated to archaeology, paleontology, mineralogy, zoology, and geology, each division had its own director, and they were all University of Toronto professors. Cross-postings at the university and the museum were routine for professors and curators until the two institutions were formally separated in 1955 (indeed, the practice continues today). Government, museum, and university thus were firmly interconnected and within short walking distance of each other.

The Royal Ontario Museum(s) had just completed a major two-year expansion, reopening in October 1933 after closing entirely in March 1932. After meeting with Eddy Dodd at the Prince Arthur Hotel on 13 February 1934, Burwash thought Dodd might have something to enliven the display cases in the museum’s new Armour Court, which connected the new east wing to the original west wing in the renovation’s H-shaped plan. Burwash telephoned Currelly after the meeting, before departing on the train for Haileybury. The following day, 14 February, Burwash committed what he had seen and learned from Dodd to four pages of hotel letterhead he had taken with him from Port Arthur.

As Burwash explained, Dodd had found the items in his case about three years earlier on a mining claim, 48TB4895, that he had staked about five miles east of Lake Nipigon. Burwash did not elaborate, but this was Dodd’s “middle claim” as it lay between two other claims he had first staked in 1925. Having dynamited clear an old birch stump about fifteen inches in diameter, Dodd had begun excavating an underlying gravel bed that may have been deposited in some distant age when the course of a nearby stream ran there. Three feet down, Dodd discovered the three objects, arranged as Burwash drew them.

At the top was an axe head that Burwash indicated was five inches long, its blade facing left. In the middle was an odd length of metal, seven or eight inches long, with hooks on both ends, that was the handle of a shield. Burwash’s drawing placed this piece of metal in the middle of a dashed ellipse, which represented what Dodd said was a small shield about one foot in diameter. The shield fell to pieces as Dodd attempted to remove it, as it was nothing more than a layer of rust; Burwash would later recall Dodd’s telling him that he was left with only the handle in his hand as he pulled. Dodd ventured to Burwash that the dynamite blast must have shaken it up. At the bottom of the page was a simple sword, two and a half feet long. The sword Burwash inspected was in two pieces, but he drew it with an intact blade.

Burwash thought Dodd would agree to send the items to the museum for inspection. He reported that Dodd had already been offered fifty dollars by an unnamed engineer. Burwash assured Currelly that Dodd didn’t know the price of such things. “From researches made by himself & a friend in the public library here,” Burwash advised, “he believes the material to be norse.”