Open for viewing Fri–Sun 12–6pm
We came about as a special project by the Province—Camille, Andy, The Boy, Doctor Gross, and the rest of the gang. It was the mid-1980s and Ontario Place wanted an exhibit showcasing northern Ontario life and industries. Something innovative and exciting: a thrill ride. Working with a batch of commercial mannequins, two artists, and an automation specialist—Mr. Sloan, Ms. Slasor, and Mr. Akman—gave us life, kitted with pneumatic actuators and period duds. It was our role, during park hours, to play the parts of lumberjacks and miners at work around the Wilderness Adventure Ride’s fibreglass hills as the log boats carrying visitors whizzed by through the rapids. For 20-some seasons, my job was to cover my ears and wince every time coworker Russ hit the plunger on his blasting machine right as the riders’ car crested the mountain track. People took our pictures. We were like celebrities.
In 2012, Ontario Place didn’t open its gates. There were whispers of flagging attendance, revitalization plans. We stayed in character thinking visitors might return anytime. But whole seasons came and went without a paint job or a tune up, never mind a rider. During those mothballed years, we were subject to vandalism; The Greeter’s head was torn off and thrown in the slough. Our ride, once a main attraction, fell into disrepair.
A few years later, an arts festival called In/Future temporarily reopened Ontario Place. We were introduced to Max Dean, a Toronto-based artist, who gathered up our strewn parts and took us to his studio to get cleaned up. One afternoon, while fitting Andy with a new wig, Max asked, “What will you do now that the mine’s closed?” I’d never considered that perhaps those days were gone for good. I’m not sure any of us had. The prospect of a second career was terrifying. But exciting also. We borrowed a few tools and returned to the park to work with new energy.
Doctor Gross, once our foremen, resumed the lead naturally. The first order was maintenance and restoration. If no one was coming to fix us, we’d do it ourselves. An O.R. was set up in the pump room, deep within the belly of the mountain, for reattaching appendages and rewiring electronics. One of the other miners, Mic, took to documenting our progress with a camera snatched from Lost and Found. It felt nice to have visitors again, even if only for the ten days of the festival. But once the team was operational, it was clear we’d need to leave the park, lest we become dumpster fodder during some imminent renewal project.
We snuck out carefully, moving at night and keeping to the construction zones around the rail corridor. Doctor Gross was heading us toward a train station, but his maps were 30 years out-of-date and the city had changed much. We got lost and decided to camp out beneath the Gardiner. A small group—all, incidentally, missing their heads—got scared venturing so far away from the park and decided to go back. The rest pressed on. Travelling east along the rail path, we came across a decommissioned factory, which seemed a suitable spot to hole up for the time. It’s a beautiful building, rich with potential. They once made soap here. There’s still heaps of the stuff about. We got a message out to Max, whose studio isn’t far. He stops by most days on his way home from work and helps with the few projects we’ve now got underway. Some of the crew, for instance, started futzing around with the sleeping machinery, so Andy had them build a giant bubble-blowing machine. It can make ‘em four feet across. What else do you do with so much soap, I suppose?
Mic’s taken the pit stop to print some shots from the journey so far. He and Max have the photographs displayed above the funnel room, wrapped around the inside and outside of this humongous steel cylinder the factory had used to make soap. It’s quite something! We’re still very much in search of a home, but I think we’re ready to meet the public once again.
Photography in collaboration with Andrew Savery-Whiteway
Presented in partnership with First Gulf and Colliers
Supported by Partners in Art