Nova Scotia Archives

Men in the Mines

A History of Mining Activity in Nova Scotia, 1720-1992

Filling more than 'a lady's thimble': Gold-Mining in Nova Scotia, 1858-2005

Gold!! In the mid-1800s, the fickle gleam of the world's most desired and most elusive metal lured Nova Scotians by the hundreds to the far-away gold-fields of Australia, California and the Klondike, in search of fame and fortune. Largely forgotten today is the fact that Nova Scotia had its very own gold rush at about the same time; and although the results were perhaps not as rewarding, nor the stories quite as expansive, gold has nevertheless been a significant contributor over the years to Nova Scotia's mining economy.

The Gold Rush Years

Gold was first discovered in Nova Scotia in 1858 at Mooseland on the Tangier River, inland from the Eastern Shore of Halifax County; the discovery was made by a British army officer, Captain Champagn L'Estrange of the Royal Artillery, out for a day of moose hunting with a Mi'kmaq guide named Joe Paul. Not much happened until two years later, when Paul returned to the same site, this time bringing a prospector named John G. Pulsifer — who wasted no time whatever in reporting the discovery to government officials in Halifax and staking his own claim.

On his way to the city, Pulsifer stopped at the village of Tangier, looked around, and identified several other potential gold-bearing sites in the immediate vicinity. Peter Mason, a local farmer, took Pulsifer's advice and was rewarded with the discovery of gold at the head of Tangier Harbour. The race was on, as eager would-be prospectors and gold-diggers, old and young alike from everywhere, left farms, fisheries and forests behind, and descended on the Tangier-Mooseland gold-field in search of their fortune.

Within weeks, Joseph Howe himself arrived for a personal inspection; he was Provincial Secretary at the time, and it was his government office that was responsible for mineral development. So intense was prospecting activity in the Tangier area that the government designated it a formal district, to ensure controlled and orderly development. The Lieutenant-Governor, George Phipps, Earl of Mulgrave, wanted to know exactly what was going on, and sent Howe for a first-hand report.

Howe was amused by the "buoyant step and flashing eyes of the new comers, just rushing out of the dense foliage, in hot haste to be rich." In contrast, those actually at work had "the subdued and doubting expression of those who had been digging and washing all day without a sight of the glittering ore." In Howe's opinion, "the richest specimen that I have seen, either at Tangier or that came from thence, is not intrinsically worth half a crown; and all that I have seen put together would scarcely fill a lady's thimble."

The Lieutenant-Governor read Howe's report and was not much impressed either: "The thing most to be feared," he sniffed, "is that the hopes of large gain will induce many to neglect their ordinary avocations, which in a country like this, where the population is thin, cannot fail to act injuriously on the Colony, especially at this season of the year, when every one engaged in agricultural pursuits ought to be occupied on his farm."

His concern was echoed by 'R.T.' of Economy, Colchester County, who wrote to the British Colonist in August 1861 that "Every week brings new tidings to our ears of the precious metal being discovered in different parts of the Province. The excitement caused by the daily rumours of the discovery of gold is now most intense...; all the farming utensils are housed, save the pick and shovel, which are taken for the purpose of procuring that which we hear almost hourly sounding in our ears, from the lips of every person we meet — GOLD."

Regardless of official scepticism and the remarks of wise folk like 'R.T.', excitement continued unabated at the diggings; even royalty was captivated by the enthusiasm and sense of high adventure. In July 1861, Prince Napoleon (cousin of Emperor Napoleon III of France) and his wife, Princess Clotilde (daughter of King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy) sailed into Tangier Harbour on their yacht, the Jerome Napoleon, expressly for a look at what was going on. Three months later one of Queen Victoria's sons, HRH Prince Alfred, did the same thing, stopping by to observe activities before winter set in. In the end, and in spite of all the sceptics, time was on the side of Tangier-Mooseland — by 1960 the former had yielded a total of 26,022.535 ounces in one hundred years of operation; and the latter had produced another 3,865.098 ounces of the precious metal.

At much the same time as activities began at Tangier, gold was also discovered in various other areas of Nova Scotia — between 1861 and 1866, principally at the Ovens in Lunenburg County; Isaac's Harbour, Sherbrooke (Goldenville) and Wine Harbour in Guysborough County; Lawrencetown, Montague, Oldham and Waverley in Halifax County; Renfrew and Uniacke in Hants County; and various other smaller mines.

Nova Scotia basked in the glow of gold-rush fever during these years. Public interest ran high, while various service and supply industries thrived on catering to the needs of investors, prospectors and the growing number of gold-mining companies. One especially enterprising individual was Alexander Heatherington, who in 1868 published a promotional book titled A Practical Guide for Tourists, Miners, and Investors, and All Persons Interested in the Development of the Gold Fields of Nova Scotia.

In it, Heatherington provided every kind of information imaginable--from a systematic review of every mining district, to a tongue-in-cheek 'Cosmopolite's Sketch of Halifax' (advice for those contemplating immigration) to a chapter on 'Gold Lost from Pilfering — Suggested Remedies.' Heatherington's details remain so comprehensive and entertaining 150 years later that we've digitized the entire book and include it here as a 'snapshot' of travel and opportunity in Nova Scotia during the gold-rush era....

Tales from the Rush

The discovery and pursuit of gold has always been shrouded in suspense, intrigue and high adventure; Nova Scotia was no exception. Nelson Nickerson of Sherbrooke, for example, visited Tangier in the summer of 1861 and learned to distinguish quartz from other rocks. He returned home later in the season to make hay on his farm — but was careful to inspect every rock and boulder in his fields, breaking the suspicious ones open with a hammer; before long, he discovered gold.

The Nickerson family kept this a close secret, but in a district swept by gold fever, the most innocent of activities drew intense interest. The neighbours began to suspect that Nelson had indeed found gold, and his entire family was closely watched for weeks. In early October the neighbours were rewarded by the muffled sound of Nickerson's hammer; within days, more than two hundred people converged on Sherbrooke, and in a single day of smashing quartz it was estimated that gold worth $400 was extracted — a significant sum for that time.

Twenty years later, in 1880, a Mi'kmaq named Peter Paul was searching for a missing ox at Salmon River, now Port Dufferin in Halifax County. He found not only the ox but also a boulder containing gold — which when extracted was worth about $15. Within days Paul took not one, but two men to the location of his find — a Captain Brown and then, in the dead of night, a man named Kent Archibald who already operated a mine at Harrigan Cove — and neither of them knew that the other had been shown the secret location.

The stagecoach left Salmon River for Halifax the morning after Archibald's midnight tour; both Brown and Archibald were on board, bound for the city to secure prospecting licenses — neither knowing the other's intention. The stagecoach stopped at Tangier overnight, Captain Brown got off — but Archibald, being determined, found another way to continue onward. When Brown arrived at the Mines Office a couple of days later...he found that he was indeed too late.

Gold-Mining Economics

Dynamite was introduced into gold-mining in the 1870s. Its use enabled deeper penetration into the diggings, and this resulted in an extended boom period. So great was the miners' haste, though, that support timbering was frequently inadequate or poorly maintained, waste rock was often thrown into old workings, and mine roofs were sometimes destroyed when upper parts of the gold veins were found to be auriferous. By the early 1880s many mines had closed, while others were small and did not have labour-saving machinery.

In the mid-1880s, however, experienced and trained men reopened many of Nova Scotia's gold mines. These men applied economic and scientific principles, used modern methods, built better stamp mills and purchased up-to-date machinery — all of which led to a significant increase in production, reflected in the total amounts of gold extracted — which, nevertheless, declined inevitably as the veins were depleted in the Twentieth Century:

  • 156,846 ounces — 1860s
  • 137,761 ounces — 1870s
  • 169,707 ounces — 1880s
  • 243,699 ounces — 1890s
  • 200,203 ounces — 1900s
  • 46,377 ounces — 1910s
  • 11,375 ounces — 1920s
  • 106,324 ounces — 1930s
  • 71,067 ounces — 1940s
  • 13,882 ounces — 1950s

The 'Golden Age' of gold-mining in Nova Scotia was between 1885 and 1903, when production exceeded 20,000 ounces per year for sixteen years (1885-1891; 1895-1903); and in three of those years, even exceeded 30,000 ounces annually (1898, 1900, 1901). In total, Nova Scotia's mines produced 1,157,291.757 ounces of gold between 1862 and 1960; the largest producers were Goldenville (210,152 oz.), Caribou (91,358), Oldham (85,295), Waverley (73,105), Montague (68,139), Upper Seal Harbour (57,845), Renfrew (51,985), Brookfield (43,041), Wine Harbour (42,726) and Salmon River (Dufferin Mines) (41,649).

Gold has a wonderfully romantic appeal, but in reality miners worked hard with little or no remuneration to show for their labour. Many probably contracted silicosis, many suffered eye and limb injuries, and a number died in work-related accidents such as mine explosions. The Moose River Mine Disaster was Nova Scotia's most famous gold-mining tragedy, in which three men were entombed in a cave-in lasting eleven days, 12-23 April 1936.

The federal census, conducted every ten years in Canada, provides useful information regarding the fluctuating numbers of Nova Scotia's gold-miners over the years. In 1871, the year of the first federal enumeration, there were 568 miners in Guysborough, Halifax, Hants and Lunenburg Counties. Ten years later, there were 542 in the same localities. The number rose to 859 in 1901, including quarrymen, and their average salary the previous year was $262 each. In 1911 the numbers had dropped to 357; to 152 in 1921; and to 153 ten years later.

From about 1935 to 1942 there was a resurgence in gold-mining, with more than 20,000 ounces extracted per year from 1937 to 1940; accordingly, the 1941 census listed 605 individuals involved in gold-mining in the province. This was only a brief aberration in the general downward trend, however; the 1951 census listed only 23 individuals involved in pursuit of the elusive metal — 6 in copper-gold-silver mining, and 17 in auriferous quartz.

Has gold-mining ended in Nova Scotia? Not according to the 'Business' section of The Chronicle-Herald. In May 2004, under the headline "Gold in them hills," the newspaper featured a story about the province's only operating gold mine. Investors, analysts and brokers had gathered at the Azure Resources Corporation's operation in Dufferin Mines to watch the inaugural pouring of liquid gold into a bar mould: "Nice nuggets and veins of brilliant yellow gold etch a pathway through a chunk of grey quartz. It might be enough to make the average person break out into a sweat. But does it mean gold fever...?"

Even more recently, in December 2005, the 'Business' section featured yet another article about gold-mining in Nova Scotia, as the Acadian Gold Corporation announced that it had an option agreement to acquire the 793-hectare Lake Catcha property near Chezzetcook. The property underwent trenching and sampling in the 1980s and in the opinion of Acadian Gold, "is an excellent target for a bulk tonnage gold deposit." Obviously neither the search for the elusive glowing metal, nor the excitement associated with its development, has yet ended in Nova Scotia.



Nova Scotia Archives —

Crown copyright © 2022, Province of Nova Scotia.