Discovering Manitoba

Tails of the Dawson Trail

The Dawson Trail was the route thousands of pioneers once followed from what is now Thunder Bay to the Red River Settlement. The trail is named for Simon James Dawson, the surveyor and engineer who surveyed the country from Lake Superior to the Red River territory.

To halt territory incursion from the U.S., Dawson proposed an extensive transportation network, using the waterways and roads to prepare the way for a railroad, from Thunder Bay to the Red River. His plan also called for construction of docks at Fort Frances and a 100- mile route from the Northwest Angle to Fort Garry. Because of the tremendous cost attached to the project, it was ignored until after Confederation.

In 1868, following a grasshopper plague that destroyed all crops and threatened the future of the Red River Settlement, the Canadian Government decided to proceed. The pace of construction quickened in 1869, because of trouble brewing in the Red River Settlement. When surveyors began to cross onto lands that had been previously settled by the Métis, a series of earlier troubles escalated and eventually led to an uprising. Métis leader Louis Riel was to get the attention of Colonel Joseph Wolseley, who led an army to quell the Métis resistance by way of the new overland route.

Tied up for miles
Much of the Dawson Trail wound its way through miles and miles of muskeg. The famous Caribou Muskeg was so deep that a 12-foot pole couldn’t reach the bottom of the swamp. To deal with this, corduroy roads were widely used. This method of construction consisted of felling trees and laying the logs side by side across the swamp. The Métis workers called these roads “maskegues”. As travel increased on the road, the logs would begin to settle and twist every which way, making travel a bone-jarring experience for the weary immigrants.

The lost treasure
He could sense it: Spree, his horse, was beginning to tire under the weight of its load. He had pushed the animal hard, his own panic urging more – a second wind, an extra step that never came. If they caught him, he thought, he was surely as good as dead. He shook his head. He couldn’t let himself think like that. Again, he tried to will Spree through the soupy grasses and shrubs ever faster. Cold droplets of sweat began to roll down his forehead and back.

He thought again of the gold; he felt its weight swing slightly from side to side on Spree’s rear end. They would catch him, he thought, because of his handicap. Because of his glittering anchor. Spree lost another step. She was exhausted from the long journey. He heard a distant cry through the sound of his own heart pounding in his ears. He knew then what he had to do – shirk his precious cargo and save himself.

The tale of ‘the lost treasure’ is the story of how $10,000 of pure gold was lost along the Dawson Trail and never recovered. In 1868, a soldier on horseback was bringing a payroll to Colonel Garnet Wolseley’s troops in Fort Garry, by way of the Dawson Trail. Suddenly, he was set upon by a group of would-be bandits. In fear of his life, he decided to lighten his load and dropped the payroll pouch somewhere between Ste. Anne and Harrison Creek. He outran his pursuers and made his escape. Some say the soldier may have hidden the gold in a cabin with the intention of returning when things settled down, but he was never able to relocate the site.

Today, the gold would have a value of approximately $200,000. It’s said that the gold is still listed as ‘missing’ from the mint in England and has never surfaced on the legitimate gold market.

Regardless of the different versions of this tale, people still dream of finding a satchel of gold hidden under the floorboards of some long-abandoned cabin. Or perhaps, while hiking over the old corduroy of the deserted stretch of the Dawson Trail, someone might literally stumble over the strap still attached to a buried pouch containing a fortune in gold.

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