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BACK ROADS BILL: How Bill got his start

This week Bill interviews his mentor – the inspiration behind his back roads persona

Where do you get your inspiration? It can come in many forms, including people.

"Nobody knows Ontario like Ron Brown" is how the CBC once described Ron Brown. He has authored more than twenty heritage-travelogue books starting with Ghost Towns of Ontario in 1979.

I received Ghost Towns of Ontario, Volumes One and Two for Christmas in 1985. It was like an open invitation to explore but more than that it was the impetus to start writing about my back road adventures. And I did.

Like Back Roads Bill he had a vocation while writing was his avocation. This included a long career as a community planner, with his role as an advisor to Business Improvement Areas with the Ontario government. For the first twenty years, he tracked down the ghost towns of Ontario which evolved into his first two publications.

A geographer by training and a graduate of the University of Toronto he employed air photo interpretation techniques at the time and library research to identify the field trips that lead to abandoned railways, derelict lumber camps, vacated mining towns and empty gold and silver mines.

Since 1971 his wanderings have shown the passion, he shows for the province’s offbeat historical locations.

Recently I interviewed him, and he was a guest on the Back Roads podcast.


Sometimes the ideas are borrowed from the teacher. The lead for this Back Roads Bill story Northern Ontario Stonehenge? Mysterious boulders explored on the back roads. The idea to further investigate the Stonehenge of northern Ontario came from Ron’s 1989 book, 50 Unusual Things to See in Ontario.

It is one of the most interesting natural phenomena on the back roads near Larder Lake.

Ron described his first visit. “I was first guided to this Stonehenge site in the mid-1980s. I met with a local surveyor who took me to the location. The stones as you know lie within a wooded area, so it was hard for me to see them all at once, but when the surveyor explained the configuration to me based on his mapping, and their apparent relation to the solstices, I was puzzled as to how they could have been moved to the location. To be honest, I haven't been back since, but have heard from various folks who have. There also is apparently evidence of a First Nations quarry on the shores of the lake, and that nearby Raven Mountain, which looks like a volcanic plug, was a religious focus of some description. I have also been told that the site lies on what may have been an early Indigenous transportation route to James Bay.”

Plan to visit the site and see how the glacial erratics are aligned with a constellation, it’s in the story.


It was because of Ron Brown’s search for Dalton Mills and Dalton Station in Ghost Towns of Ontario, Volume Two that I penned a story that connected a number of unimaginable dots.

My long-standing and weekly editor, Carol Martin, Village Media, created the perfect title: ‘Romeo and the ghost town.’

In Ron’s story there was a miniature donkey steam engine in the overgrown bush, that was back in 1985, which I then located. Fast forward to my most recent story. In the 2021 story, third paragraph I give credit to Ron. “Dalton Station, the ghost town, was overgrown, but the locomotive was easily found, that was back in 1985. I had read the reference in Ron Brown’s ‘Ghost Towns of Ontario,’ Volume 2, pp. 111, for the miniature steam engine.

Within my contemporary story, I said, “In 2009 I was exploring the back roads returning to one of those loose ends nagging at the exploration or right side of my brain. The search for something I had found some 25 years earlier was on. I had returned a second time to Dalton, between Chapleau and Wawa, to retrieve a photo of a small “donkey” steam engine abandoned after the lumber mill closed.” (Why I could not find it, it was removed to Wakami Lake Provincial Park near Chapleau and can be seen at the 15:00 mark of this YouTube I will have to go and see it this summer.)

It was there I met Romeo, who was born in nearby Chapleau and raised in Dalton. The story centres around his wanting to be buried beside his mother Blanche, in what is an abandoned overgrown cemetery. And how the diocese and various government levels seem to avoid taking ownership of abandoned cemeteries.

You will have to read the story, one of my favourites, but it is because of Ron’s research that I found Dalton and a lot more followed. There are about 34,0000 map views for Romeo and where he rests in the dense forest of an untended cemetery off of the back roads.

Silver Islet

I have yet to do a complete Silver Islet story but is featured in this Village Media cemetery story of July 1, 2023.

In Ron’s Volume 2 book, he starts with: “For millennia Skill Islet sat dwarfed beneath the ancient limestone plateau known as the Sleeping Giant. Lake Superior's grey rolling waves washed over it constantly, hiding Ontario’s richest silver deposit…..Easily accessible Silver Islet village sits at the end of the Highway 587 adjacent to Sibley Provincial Park.”

After first reading his story back in the day, two motivations come to mind that I have honoured. Describe in detail what was or is and give directions.

In the Thunder Bay region cemetery story. “Propped up on its side against a tree the rectangle stone has the initials K. A. M. Most of the markers here are hard to discern as the foliage is creeping in and the once-picket fences have long since collapsed. There is a commemorative plaque indicating people once looked after the plots. There are no signs directing visitors to the cemetery, so ask or look at the map.

Cemeteries are always a favourite destination on the back roads the stories there live on.

Ron’s favourites

Ron started by saying poetically, “This response may ramble on a bit, but here are some places that I really like.

“Cobalt (LINK) comes to mind as a genuine relic of a silver rush boomtown period, along with the many early and occasionally quirky buildings and the skeletal headframes in the surrounding woods.

“The La Cloche mountains with their white quartzite luminescence, especially at Killarney Provincial Park. The train to Agawa Canyon reflects the era of the Group of Seven, Ouimet Canyon and Barren Canyon the latter being not well known and in the eastern portion of Algonquin Park, the Thirty Thousand Islands are my favourite place to camp, especially on an island in the area of Key Harbour (something of a ghost town) and the mouth of the French River, Algonquin Park's logging museum which offers a nice walk in the forest while at the same time displaying the techniques of the early logging days.

“There is also the 'Monument to Murder' at Reesors Siding near Kapuskasing which commemorates the deaths which occurred during a bloody dispute between mill workers and loggers.

“My favourite ghost town would be Depot Harbour on Parry Island, as it is Ontario's largest, and the first one I visited (permission from the First Nation is needed to visit it nowadays). I am sure that you are familiar with the Screaming Heads sculptures at Burk's Falls.” In the future Back Roads Bill will eventually share his top ten destinations.


Mentoring can be formal or informal. In an informal environment, mentees set goals, but they are usually not measurable and the relationships are unstructured. My subjective goals continue to promote a sense of place and the relationship to purpose has been an endearing one.

We find inspiration in a variety of things and people who affect our lives. Ron Brown is one of those.

“Nobody knows northern Ontario like Back Roads Bill,” maybe, someday?


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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