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The sole reminder of a long-vanished town – Abandoned Ontario jail a favourite among urban explorers

May 2018

The crumbling ruins of Camp Bison stand as the sole reminder of a long-vanished town and jail complex.

Ontario has many ghost towns; towns that once bustled with people and activity but now are silent. The former Town of Burwash, south of Sudbury, is a favourite among Urban Explorers.

Burwash was originally founded in 1914 to house the workers from the Burwash Correctional Farm and their families. The town had around 1, 000 residents housed in 95 residential units and all the amenities of any other town, including a public school, a church, a post office, a barber shop, a tailor shop, a sawmill and a grocery store.

Prior to the construction of Highway 69, Burwash was accessible only by rail. A Canadian Northern Railway station was built nearby.

The Burwash Jail was not only a medium security jail, but it was also a working farm, where inmates could grow their own crops.

In 1958, Camp Bison was opened at Burwash as a minimum security jail. A two-story E-shaped building housed up to 850 inmates in small cells with wooden doors instead of steel bars; the segregation wing being the only exception.

Canadian singer David Clayton-Thomas, formerly of the band Blood, Sweat and Tears, spent time at Camp Bison as a young offender.

Murderer Wayne Ford was one of the few inmates to successfully escaper from the Burwash Jail, when he and two other inmates walked through the bush for around 16 miles, then stealing a car and driving to Toronto.  All were recaptured.

Unlike the Burwash Jail, Camp Bison would ultimately have a brief 17-year life.  By the mid-1970s, the provincial government of Bill Davis deemed the whole Burwash Jail complex, including Camp Bison, too expensive to maintain.

Camp Bison and the Burwash Jail closed in 1975, and the prisoners were transferred to other jails across the province.  Similarly, the town’s nearly 1000 residents, who were the jail workers and their families, also relocated to other cities and towns. 

The Ontario government began exploring other uses for the 35,000 acres of land.  Plans were made to transform the jail into a federal penitentiary, but this plan was abandoned in 1978 and the town and jail buildings were left empty.

Several other proposals for the property were put forth over the years, including converting it to a physical rehabilitation centre or a provincial park, but none came to fruition. The City of Sudbury leased a portion of the property for use as an Angora goat farm, but this idea was scrapped in one of the most infamous boondoggles in Sudbury’s history.

The property was broken up into several parcels, with the Department of National Defence taking around 3, 000 acres for use as a rifle range and training area.

Other segments were taken by the Ontario Ministries of Transportation and natural Resources and the Burwash Native Peoples Project for a logging business.

All housing, community and jail buildings were demolished except for the Camp Bison building and a few outbuildings around it.

Around 12 to 20 prisoners were buried in the jail’s cemetery; prisoners who had no family to take their remains.  No attempt was made to disinter the remains, and the cemetery was simply abandoned.  Small crosses that were placed by the Burwash townspeople have long disappeared.  

After many years of neglect, making it hard to find, a historical signpost was erected to mark the cemetery’s location. 

Josh Reynolds, who purchased 200 acres of the Burwash property that includes the jail building in 2014, is now allowing official tours and even overnight stays in a renovated cell for those so inclined. Legal access can be arranged by contacting Josh through The Food Mission web site at CAMP BISON PRISON FARM | THE FOOD MISSION.  A $20 donation must be paid, along with signing a liability waiver.  

There is a zero tolerance policy for trespassers, so with a little cooperation on your part, you can enjoy an exciting and worry free afternoon at Camp Bison.  This is one place that is worth visiting at least once.

As the access road is blocked off at the CN Railway tracks, be prepared for a walk of around 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how fast you walk, unless you have an ATV or motorcycle/dirt bike.

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Update, April 2020:  Josh Reynolds advised that he sold the property. The new owner is continuing with the $20/person fee and signing a waiver.  Chris can be contacted at Avalon Eco resort (https://avalonecoresort.com) at (249) 805-0159.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burwash,_Ontario, http://jermalism.blogspot.ca/2013/02/abandonment-issues-burwash-industrial.html, https://www.ontariotravel.net/en/listing/Camp-Bison-Prison-Farm/202181, http://thefoodmission.com/camp-bison, https://www.ontariotravel.net/en/listing/Camp-Bison-Prison-Farm/202181, http://www.thesudburystar.com/2016/03/14/yet-another-burwash-episode, https://burwashindustrialfarm.weebly.com/history.html, Burwash Correctional Center – Killarney, Ontario – Atlas Obscura.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/abandoned-ontario-jail-a-favourite-among-urban-explorers/

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