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A cabin on White Horse Island

Astrid Gustafson, the first and only female resident of the cabin, stands outside her new home on White Horse Island in 1938. Photo from Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre
Astrid Gustafson, the first and only female resident of the cabin, stands outside her new home on White Horse Island in 1938. Photo from Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre


Nestled on the edge of White Horse Island just on the outskirts of Howey Bay is a dilapidated log cabin. To some it may go unnoticed, camouflaged by overgrown plants and years of weather damage; but to others, it’s a symbol of the rich history that makes Red Lake the unique community that it is today.

The year was 1932 and John Gottfrid Gustafson, a Swedish émigré, had just arrived in Red Lake to find work in the gold mining and lumbering industries. Three years later Gustafson married his wife Astrid, and in 1938, he built their home: a two-room log cabin on White Horse Island.

“It was not the sole cabin on White Horse Island,” notes John Richthammer, founding curator/director of the Red Lake Museum and author of The End of the Road: A History of the Red Lake District. “The Sanshaw Mines, Limited, on claims on White Horse Island, was incorporated in 1936. At least ten log buildings were constructed, a mining plant was installed, and 35-foot shaft was sunk. Its manager and driving force, Karl B. Heisey, his wife Alice, and their three sons lived at the minesite.”

Mining operations ceased in 1937, and the property lay dormant until McKenzie Red Lake Gold Mines optioned the property. Following World War II and the second gold rush to Red Lake, the property came back in operation as Orlac Gold Mines, Limited.

“Its manager, Verne Drake, and his family lived at the minesite. Diamond drilling on the ore body encompassed 8,000 feet and electric power was installed at the property, but eventually the mine closed permanently,” explains Richthammer. “Several of the buildings were moved to the town of Red Lake and were utilized for other purposes. For example, one became the Red Lake United Church manse. The remains of other mine buildings may still be found on the site.”

In 1944, Gustafson sold his cabin on White Horse Island to its most famous resident: prospector Cliff Harvey.

William Clifford Harvey was born on a farm in 1901 in the hamlet of St. Eugene, Ontario. Over the course of his lifetime, Harvey would come to be the face of Red Lake’s mining history at the Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre.

“When the gold rush to Red Lake began early in 1926, Harvey was hired in Porcupine, Ontario, to drive a dog team to Red Lake. His first job in Red Lake was building Francis Reid’s store (not to be confused with the Frank Reid who, in the 1940s, opened a store in Cochenour),” explains Richthammer.

“He staked claims at Ranger Lake and tried his hand at working in the mill of Howey Gold Mines. He didn’t like working in a mine so returned permanently to prospecting in hopes of finding his own gold mine. He staked Gold Seekers Gold Mines, Limited, in 1930, and sold the claims to a mining company in 1936. The firm did not develop the claims and Harvey always felt the property held great promise.”

“If I’m not out on my claim before the sun comes over the hill, I’m late,” a 79-year-old Harvey told a visiting census taker, Kay Tingley, in 1980.

Tingley visited Harvey several times, and wrote about her experience inside his home.

“An old icebox stands unused in the corner, piled with tin biscuit boxes and old Magic Baking Powder cans now used to store other products. Coal oil lamps are used for lighting,” described Tingley. “The only concession to modernity in evidence is a propane plate for cooking during the summer months; it sits on top of the wood stove. Through the sagging doorway to the second room one can see a mound of miscellany, the result of years of accumulation.”

When Harvey wasn’t out prospecting, he was trapping or reading up on the mining industry in Canada.

“Harvey was a bright man and he held firm to the hope that he would eventually discover a gold mine which would go into production,” recalls Richthammer, who as a young boy in Red Lake, was convinced that the old prospector was Santa Claus.

“This belief was also held by many other Red Lake area children. Harvey’s unruly mane of wiry white hair, flowing white beard, and aura of mystery fascinated me from an early age,” continues Richthammer. “He didn’t seem to have reindeer, but he did have a collie at his side every time he came to town from White Horse Island. By the time I was in my early teens, I worked up the courage to approach and talk with him on Howey Street. He always introduced me to his collie and was full of mining talk, most of which at that time went over my head.”

Harvey never married or had children, and he never did find that high-grade ore he knew was out there.

“It’s not that he wants to be rich—he’s quite comfortable as he is—but he keeps looking because he knows it’s there,” wrote Tingley.

On a warm May afternoon in 1982, Harvey’s boat motor malfunctioned forcing him to paddle from his cabin to Red Lake Seaplane Service. By the time he reached the shore, Harvey was in cardiac arrest. He later passed away in the hospital at the age of 81.

Harvey was buried in the Red Lake Cemetery with the epitaph “Brother, Friend, and Pioneer of the Red Lake Area.”

Richthammer worried about what would happen to Harvey’s cabin, which he saw as a significant piece of Red Lake’s history.

“I implored the then Township of Red Lake to make a concerted effort to dismantle and move the log cabin to the museum site,” explains Richthammer. “After several years of working to get the cabin moved and being stonewalled and with great reluctance and regret, gave up the fight to preserve it. When I pass by the remains of cabins such as these, I still feel an abiding sadness that, despite great effort, they were not preserved.”

Slowly, but surely nature is reclaiming the cabin; but just like the prospector who once called it home, it remains a significant symbol of what Red Lake once was.

Cliff Harvey stands outside of his cabin with his collie in 1980. Photo from Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre
Cliff Harvey stands outside of his cabin with his collie in 1980. Photo from Red Lake Regional Heritage Centre

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