author: Tom Cruickshank
A notorious bank heist in 1961 has many local folks wondering whatever happened to the loot.
Don't be surprised to see a lot of new prospectors near Havelock this summer. This time, they won't be looking for gold or iron, the two minerals that put this mining town on the map in the first place. They'll be looking for something even more elusive: a loot bag containing no less than $230,000 in cold hard cash, the spoils of an infamous bank heist back in 1961. Adjusted for inflation, it would be the equivalent of $1.8 million today. Never found, never claimed, this big bag o' bills has been like some kind of pirate treasure ever since. And this July, as 4th Line Theatre presents a brand new play based on this well-remembered robbery, you can just imagine a new generation of prospectors getting into the act.
In the wee hours of Friday, August 31, 1961, four men broke into the Havelock branch of the Toronto-Dominion Bank and sat there, waiting for the staff to arrive. "The gang took them by surprise," says Grace Barker, whose 2006 book is the definitive work on the subject and the basis for the 4th Line play. "They ambushed the manager and forced him at gunpoint to turn over all the money he could lay his hands on. Then they herded the staff into the vault and slammed the door." In a matter of minutes, they were gone, speeding out of town in a stolen Buick.
At first blush, the bank in Havelock would seem like an unlikely target, but the robbers knew what they were doing. They figured their get-away would be a breeze because, with only one policeman, the village would be slow to give chase. More importantly, the gang had their eyes on a surprisingly tempting prize: it being the end of the month, the entire payroll for local miners and railway workers would be in the vault that night. This was no amateur show. In fact, the Havelock heist was the biggest bank robbery in Canada to that time.
"As they fled north into cottage country, the robbers were plagued by bad luck," Grace continues. The plan was to ditch the car and rendezvous with another. But the cops were surprisingly fast to catch up: the crooks shot at them, the getaway car was no match for the rugged cottage roads and blew a tire, the gang fled on foot to the rendezvous point only to drive the second getaway car into the ditch. In a panic, the men dispersed and dove into the bush. At the height of the chase, 75 police officers, not to mention civilians armed with shotguns, were on their path.
The story reads like a Hollywood thriller. Good guys. Bad guys. A daring crime in broad daylight. Gunfire. A car chase. A manhunt. "It has all the ingredients for a great gangster movie," says Kim Blackwell, who is directing the new play for 4th Line. She calls it an "artistic re-imagining" of the events. But what made it a natural for the company was its local connections. After all, 4th Line, which presents its plays in an old barnyard near Millbrook, prides itself on telling local stories. Over the years, the barn stage has set the scene as a rural battlefield, a camp for secret agents and a three-ring circus, so the heist in cottage country was a perfect fit. For now, however, Kim is mum on how they plan to stage the car chase.
No doubt the play will ignite a renewed interest in the Havelock bank robbery. Then again, it's never really been forgotten, thanks to the continued mystery over the fate of the loot. According to Grace Barker, special detectives were hired to retrieve it, but not a trace was ever found. She says, "This has led to all kinds of speculation: that the robbers tossed it in a lake, that they buried it when they were on the lam, or that others were involved and picked up the money later." Or perhaps some lucky bystander stumbled upon it?
Even 54 years later, the hunt is still on. But would- be prospectors should be warned: finding the treasure is no walk in the park. The landscape is pure Canadian Shield: rugged terrain and swamps. And the bounty could easily have decayed by now. But just for the record: if it's still there, the loot will be found somewhere west of Highway 62, north of Gilmour and south of Ormsby.