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Feature article published in The Independent, as it appeared in the Independent’s website prior to the newspaper's sale to Northumberland News in 2007.

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September 8, 1998

Limestone mine promoted as possible tourism draw

Lakeport quarry one of North America's largest

Special to The Independent

When Catherine Woodburn of Apple Vista Realty thinks big, it's grandiose. One day three years ago, when she trained her eye on the St. Lawrence Cement quarry in Cramahe Township, she saw a potential tourism attraction as big as her imagination..

Colborne realtor Catherine Woodburn wants to see a tourism interpretive centre at the Ogden Point limestone quarry. Al Viehbacher has managed the quarry, owned by St. Lawrence Cement, for 31 years.

Lorraine Dmitrovic photos

Originally from Toronto, Woodburn spent weekends and summers on her grandfather's farm near Northumberland Heights before moving to Colborne four years ago. With 20 years in real estate and hands-on experience in general contracting -- she's bought, renovated and sold at least 40 fixer-uppers -- Woodburn is qualified to see sparkling potential in something ordinary and undeveloped. So the Ogden Point limestone quarry at Lakeport, just south of Colborne, had immediate appeal.

"St. Lawrence is apparently one of the largest open pit limestone mining operations in North America," says Woodburn. "It's a tourist attraction waiting to happen on a large scale. My first thought when I saw it was 'Oh my God...' Manager Al Viebacher drove a friend and I, 100 feet down into the earth. Everything is immense: the size of the hole, the trucks, front-end loaders, the crushers. Just as we were driving in they started blasting with dynamite. It was something to see, and you could feel quite a vibration."

Woodburn envisions weekend tours when the mine is not in operation, although a weekday tour could be possible with safety precautions. An information amphitheatre located either in the Town of Colborne or at the site itself could be part of a bus tour package. "The booth could be a tourist attraction in itself," she says. "We could feature a videotape showing the whole process from blasting to loading on massive ships bound for Mississauga. The actual production of cement is fascinating. A video walkthrough could go through the process to the final bagged stage. Giant slabs of limestone could be put on display. A gift shop could sell little pieces of St. Lawrence limestone engraved with something like 'I visited St. Lawrence Cement in Colborne, Ontario'. People love that stuff, and it would be a great public relations scenario for the mine itself."

Woodburn already has access to advice and information from friends associated with tours in Sudbury and Timmins, who've succeeded in turning 'little shack' mines into major tourist vistas. She feels there's a built-in tourist base because of the Apple Route connection, with the Big Apple being the area's first big draw.

"This whole area is gearing toward more tourists who need places to visit while on vacation," Woodburn explains. "The St. Lawrence site would be a nice day trip from Presqu'ile campgrounds. People would come from Toronto. Afterwards, they'd likely come into town for a bite to eat, or mill around the shops. It would be good for the local economy all around."

Once begun, the tour could remain an attraction even after the mine is exhausted, many years from now. Woodburn has heard of plans St. Lawrence has for dynamiting the site and turning it into an inlet. They would likely return ownership to the town. Even that idea holds promise.

"What was once an open pit would become part of the lake. It would make a fabulous harbour hundreds of feet deep," she says. "Maybe we could put a new marina down there." A beach could also be developed near the site when quarrying is done.

Woodburn and others interested in local economic development will draft a more detailed proposal if St. Lawrence Cement officials warm to the idea.

Meanwhile, plant manager Al Viebacher agrees the tour idea has potential, although to him the quarry is a hole in the ground and a job to do.

Viehbacher has lived in Colborne and managed the Ogden Point Quarry for 31 years. "It's a challenge to keep everything running smoothly," he says. "I oversee everything from equipment availability to the drilling, dynamiting, crushing and shipping. Even though there is an element of danger, there has not been a single fatality since the site opened in 1959."

Viebacher says the sedimentary ore base is 500 million years old, and is part of a formation running along the St. Lawrence seaway north to Georgian Bay and east to Montreal. "The depth is 500 feet at this location," he says, "with a final depth of 250 feet allowable in our license with the MNR. We're presently working at 100 feet."

The ship which courses back and forth between the site and a St. Lawrence processing plant in Mississauga carries 18,500 tons of crushed limestone each trip. 80,000 tons is a standard weekly quota to meet.

Viehbacher estimates, according to the present MNR license limit of extraction, there will be at least another 100 years of work at the site.

When not in operation, St. Lawrence allows fossil-hunters in after obtaining permission to rummage through the blast rubble. A waiver releasing the company of all liability in the event of an accident must be signed. "In this endless limestone, the largest fossil found was about the size of a cigarette pack, no dinosaurs," says Viebacher.

The real dinosaurs of the site are the machinery, including a giant pepper mill-like rock crusher, with a mouth twelve feet wide. Tires on the quarry's trucks dwarf a six-foot man, and the bucket on a front-end loader could easily transport the family car.

Viebacher likes to survey the property now and then, often from a precarious peak high on a conveyor.

"For some people, the quarry might be something worthwhile to see," he says. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

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