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The Mystery of the Mormon Teamsters in Wawa

In August of 1984, Larry Stitt from the London Ontario Stake and his wife took a vacation through northwestern Ontario. While in Wawa, on the shores of Lake Superior, they stopped at the Visitor Centre and picked up a brochure listing sites of interest in the area. One of them was a Mormon cemetery. They went out to it and found that there were about 20 wooden crosses with no names on them, and two more recent burials.

Brother Stitt sent his journal entry along with an article from the Algoma News Review to Elder Legrand R. Curtis Jr., Church historian, who spoke at their stake conference in 2022. I was asked to do some research and have found it to be a fascinating journey.

The Algoma News Review article was written by Johanna Rowe, a local historian and president of the Town of Wawa Heritage Committee and says that “In the 1880’s Mormon teamsters were the first Europeans to inhabit the western shoreline of Wawa Lake. These labourers were contracted for the crucial job of transferring rails, supplies and manpower from Michipicoten Bay on Lake Superior to crews working on the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway…The whole transportation process covered a distance of 100 kilometers through endless forests, swamps, lakes and crisscrossing rivers.” 1

She went on to say that “A small steamboat was used to aid in the transportation of supplies across Wawa Lake. The steamboat’s metal boiler and rotting wooden hull was once a unique relic for children to explore during family picnics along the shore.” 2

In 1962, Agnes W. Turcott, another local historian, wrote a history called “Land of the Big Goose” which was the first to mention Mormon teamsters. She writes that “Mr. James Conmee was given the contract and hired a group of Mormon teamsters to freight material.” She went on to say that the Mormons #6 set up a camp, built a corduroy and gravel road, a sturdy log bridge, log cabins, stables for the mules, and two steamboats. She said that “So great was the demand for the rails that during the winter of 1883 the route across Wawa Lake was kept open by the steamer making a trip night and morning. No mean feat when it is considered that the temperature in this area sometimes drops to 30 to 40 degrees below zero, and ice on Wawa Lake averages from one to two feet in a winter remaining frozen from early December to May.” 3

Ms. Turcott gives no references in her book, so it is not easy to check her sources—especially the one that says, “Folk tales tell of a massacre of some of the Mormons by Indians several miles down the shore of Lake Superior, but no one now definitely knows the story.” 4

So that’s the background. My question was, “Who were the Mormon teamsters who worked in Northern Ontario in 1883-85 when the railway was being built and were Mormon teamsters massacred there?”

Most members of the Church had joined the body of the Saints in the United States after the 1840s. In 1883, there were few members in Ontario. Could it have been the the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which had many more members in Ontario in the 1880s? I checked with John Hamer, the Community of Christ historian in Ontario, and after an extensive search in their records, he wrote “Unfortunately, the sad news is that I haven’t found any reference to this group or events.” 5

I contacted the Canadian Pacific Railway, and they reported that their archives had all been sent to Exporail, the Canadian Railroad Museum in Saint-Constant, Quebec. An inquiry to Exporail, engendered this reply, “I was unfortunately unable to find material related to your request.” A further inquiry added that they had no names of any of the teamsters. 6

When I contacted the current stake president asking for any information, he replied, “I have asked around and no one has any information about this and none have heard about this before.” 7

Johanna Rowe suggested that I check out the sinking of a boat called J.S. Seavern in the Michipicoten Harbour in 1884. When I contacted the Maritime History of the Great Lakes, I was sent an article from the Chicago Tribune, reporting that all the crew as well as the passengers on the boat who were workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway, escaped, but the boat and cargo was a total loss. 8

Since the Mormon teamsters didn’t come from Ontario, I wondered if they could have come from Alberta. Checking there, I found that Charles Ora Card had been advised by President John Taylor (who had been baptized in Toronto) to go to British North America instead of Mexico. Card was looking for a safe place for members who were being persecuted and hunted in Utah for their practice of polygamy. He went to Alberta, liked what he saw, but to make sure the Saints from Utah would be welcome there, he travelled to Ottawa, and got permission from Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. 9 That was in 1888. After the Mormon teamsters were in Wawa.

My next search was the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. I first checked the database with every subject I could think of. When I found nothing, I started reading articles, and after reading many, I hit pay dirt with an article written by Andrew H. Hedges in 2000. It opened a whole new door when I read “Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first entered southern Alberta in 1883 when the father-and-son team of Simeon and Heber Allen, from Hyrum, Utah, took a contract to help build the roadbed for the Canadian Pacific Railroad through the area. Over the next few years, dozens of Mormon work gangs, amounting to several hundred members of the Church, worked on this project in southern Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Most of these railroad workers came as temporary seasonal labourers from northern Utah and eastern Idaho.” 10

Further research led to a report from Leonard Arrington in the book, “The Mormon Presence in Canada,” who wrote, “There is another story of Mormon settlement in southern Alberta that has not been told. It is the story of groups of Latter-day Saint construction crews from northern Utah, particularly Cache and Weber valleys, who went to western Canada several years earlier than President Card and worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway. “ 11

He further explained that Mormon crews built more than one thousand miles of roadbed in the United States, and as these jobs were completed, they took advantage of the opportunity to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He says that almost nothing has been written on the subject, and I can attest to that. If you looked today on the Canadian Pacific Railway website history, it says that it was built by Chinese immigrants and Europeans with not a word about Mormon teamsters.

Arrington also tells that the Corey/Wattis family from Uinta in Weber Valley, Utah, had up to 500 teamsters working for them.

He quotes an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in January, 1885, describing their work for the Canadian Pacific. “They shipped their teams and tools to the northern terminus of the Utah and Northern, and drove some 700 miles northwest to the line of the road, since which they have pushed work with them from 350 to 500 men with teams throughout the summer and are employing 200 men this winter.” The Tribune article said that the Corey/Wattis group had built more miles of railroad in the six preceding years than any other firm, Canadian or American. 12

In the same Salt Lake Tribune article, another reporter visited one of the camps and wrote, “They bid so close on grading jobs that no other contractor could compete with them, and they worked together like true brothers and sisters. (I) visited one of their grading camps and was amazed to see the order and cleanliness that was maintained under the most difficult conditions…What was more, the grading was always completed within the time limits stipulated in the contract and was all done in a most satisfactory manner.” 13

So now we know that Mormon teamsters worked in the west to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, but what about Ontario and Wawa? Is there other collaboration besides the histories in Wawa, and what about the Mormon Cemetery?

Interesting light was shed on the subject with an article on the Ontario Ghost Towns website. 14 It states that the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway was both controversial and highly political. British Columbia, our most western province, had joined confederation in 1871 with the assurance that a transcontinental railway would be built within ten years. In ten years, it was nowhere close to being accomplished, so an American railway magnate named William Van Horne was hired to get the railway done as quickly as possible. By 1883, the construction of the railway had reached the shores of Lake Superior, and it was decided to build several sections at once and connect them one by one. Construction materials and supplies were shipped to a number of ports on Lake Superior, one of them being Michipicoten Harbour, near Wawa and the article states that Mormons were hired to build six major tote roads and haul the building materials to a number of locations, one of them being a camp they called Dalton Station.

It goes on to state that 1884 and 1885 the Mormon workers were grading and laying tracks throughout the region. In late March of 1885, the line was still under construction when train loads of troops passed by the workers’ camp at Dalton Station, enroute to the northwest to quench the second Riel Rebellion in present day northern Saskatchewan. This was the first connection I found between Ontario and Saskatchewan where we know Mormon teamsters worked. By the time the soldiers returned in the fall of 1885, the article states that the entire railroad had been completed coast to coast and the construction camp in Dalton Station was disbanded.

I could find no other mention of Mormon teamsters in Ontario except in the histories of Wawa and Dalton Station, but the evidence in both histories indicate that they were indeed there and that Mormon teamsters from Utah and Idaho had not only assisted in building the transcontinental railroad in the west, but also in northern Ontario.

Perhaps family histories will turn up with actual stories of men and women who were part of the group.

The Mormon cemetery is another story. I have searched many sites and found no mention of a massacre of Mormons in Ontario. Church websites show no mention of one either. James Conmee was the contractor who hired the Mormon teamsters in Wawa, and searching his history, I found that he was sued by the CPR for supposedly defrauding the company on their Michipicoten contract. Conmee eventually won the case, and reading through its many pages which are on-line, there was no mention of a massacre of the Mormon teamsters working for him which I think would have given support in his defense. 15

At present, there is no brochure at the Wawa Visitor Centre mentioning a massacre and a Mormon cemetery. Johanna Rowe, the local historian, has found no evidence that it occurred. Since Agnes W. Turcott is the only one who mentioned it calling it a “folk tale” and that “no one now definitely knows the story,” we have no concrete evidence that it took place, and we can assume that it didn’t unless further collaboration shows up. Who is buried there is still not known.

What did I learn from this fascinating journey? We wouldn’t have learned about it if Larry Stitt hadn’t kept a journal. 16 The Mormon teamsters in Northern Ontario would have been forgotten. So, it’s up to us to keep recording our history, because you never know if what we write will have valuable historical significance in the years ahead.


1 Johanna Rowe, Algoma News Review, 16 August 2017, P. 3.

2 Agnes W. Turcott, Land of the Big Goose, P. 47, First Edition, 1962, Alex Wilson Publications, Dryden, Ontario. Revised Edition 1982, Friesen Printers, Altona, Manitoba, Third Printing 2004 Cliffe Printing Inc. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Copyright by the Township of Michipocoten, 2004. Permission to use by Johanna Rowe, President of Town of Wawa Heritage Committee.

3 Ibid. P. 47

4 Ibid. P. 47

5 Email received by Helen Warner from John Hamer, Community of Christ Church, March 8, 2023.

6 Emails from Chantal Guerin, archives@exporail.ort, June 29, 2022 and July 5, 2022.

7 Email to Helen Warner from President Keld Scott, Sudbury Stake President, July 5, 2022.

8 Email to Helen Warner from Walter Lewis, walter@maritimehistoryofthegreatlakes,ca with article on the sinking of J.S. Seaverns from the Chicago Tribune, 17 May, 1884, P. 7. Mr. Lewis says, “All the accounts have the passengers as men working on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railways on the tracks north of Superior, but don’t name them. The Chicago Tribune article says, “All of her passengers and crew escaped.”

9 “The Diaries of Charles Ora Card, The Canadian Years 1886-1903,” Edited by Donald G. Godfrey and Brigham Y. Card, P. 40 and quoted in “Charles Ora Card--First trip to Canada”, by Jack Stone.

10 Andrew H. Hedges, “I wondered if I could feel at Home: Southern Alberta Through the Eyes of its Early Saints, 1883-1910” Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Western Canada: 2000-01-01,

11 Leonard J. Arrington, “Historical Roots of the Mormon Settlement in Southern Alberta”, pp. 7-8, Brigham Y. Card, Herbert C. Northcott, John E. Foster, Howard Palmer, George K. Jarvis, editors, The Mormon Presence in Canada, The University of Alberta Press, 1990 .

12 Salt Lake Tribune, January 1885 quoted by Leonard J. Arrington,

13 Salt Lake Tribune article, January 1884 quoted by Leonard J. Arrington


15 Reports of cases decided in the Court of appeal [1878-1900] (https://archive.ort/details/reportscasesdec01canagoog). Ontario. Court of Appeal. 1886 pp.744

16 Copy of journal page sent by Larry Stitt to Elder LeGrand R. Curtis, Jr.

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