Nova Scotia Archives

Men in the Mines

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


The quarrying of Nova Scotia sandstone (often called 'freestone') began in 1809 at the old Battye quarry in Wallace, Cumberland County; several other quarries were opened at about the same time in the Pictou area. Good quality stone was produced from both locations and used widely in construction projects throughout Nova Scotia and beyond.

During the middle and late 19th century, as many as 75 quarries were in production throughout the province. Many of these produced only enough sandstone for the basement level of local buildings; the Wallace quarries, however, produced stone for both the domestic and American markets. Stone from the Wallace quarries, and from Eight Mile Brook, Sawmill Brook, McKeens and Hardwood Hill–all in Pictou County — was olive, buff or grey in colour. Sandstone quarried at River John in Pictou County was a distinctive red, as was the product from Amherst and Northport in Cumberland County.

The Provincial Legislature, built in Halifax over the years 1811-1819, is an outstanding example of Nova Scotia sandstone, as are Pictou's surviving heritage stone buildings–several houses on Water and Church Streets, the old Pictou Bank, the County Jail and the famous Norway House. Halifax's 1935 Federal Building (Post Office) is built of sandstone, and the old Nova Scotia Technical College on Spring Garden Road is trimmed with it. The Halifax Armouries is another example, built with red sandstone from Amherst.

Elsewhere in the province, 'Moxham Castle' and the Bank of Montreal building in Sydney are built of native sandstone; and in Antigonish, both St. Ninian's Cathedral and Gilmora Hall at Mount St. Bernard are built of 'Scotch rock' — freestone quarried at North Grant in Antigonish County. In the 19th century, before the advent of cement and concrete, sandstone was also used frequently as sub-structure for many of the more substantial bridges built throughout the Maritimes.

Wallace sandstone became popular in New York, Boston and Philadelphia during the mid-19th century. The famous brownstone houses in central New York City around Sixth Avenue and 45th Street and on Broadway, are good examples; the wall around Central Park was also built of 'Nova Scotia freestone,' as it was called. In Boston it was used in the construction of the Agassiz Museum at Harvard University, and in All Saints' Episcopal Church, Ashmont. When the United States placed higher duties on the Nova Scotia product, however, the trade collapsed.

Information on shipments of industrial mineral products (including sandstone) from Nova Scotia during the early years is difficult to ascertain, since the provincial Department of Mines did not report statistics for such shipments until 1872. Earlier sources of information can sometimes be found in the 'Blue Books' compiled by the colonial government until 1867.

Grindstones are large, flat, often grooved stone discs produced from high-quality hard sandstone; during the 19th and early 20th centuries, grindstones were widely used for sharpening knives and axes and for polishing metals. During this period, Nova Scotia was famous throughout Eastern North America for the grindstones produced by Amos Seaman at his operations in Lower Cove, on the south shore of Chignecto Bay, Cumberland County.

Seaman's quarry operations continued the business developed by James Glenie some thirty years earlier in the same vicinity. As the tide receded, Seaman's employees rushed out to the exposed bedrock and split away slabs of it, first using gunpowder to dislodge the slabs from the underlying rock. A nearby land quarry also produced high-quality stones. In 1847 over 33,000 grindstones were exported by Seaman, who also owned the vessels used to transport them. Small wonder that he was known as Nova Scotia's 'Grindstone King.'

Slate, Granite and Ironstone

Slate was first quarried in Nova Scotia in the late 1770s on the western slope of Sibley Mountain, near Wittenberg in Colchester County. The quarry was developed on land belonging to Sir John Oldmixon, a friend of Governor John Wentworth; quarry-master Jonathan Bulgin and a group of trained workers were brought out from England specifically to develop the operation. Wittenburg slate was used as a building material in Halifax and was also exported on sailing ships to England. The quarry was abandoned after the 1850s, when the quarrymen were lured off to the local gold mines instead. Slate was also quarried for a time in the Gore area of Hants County and used locally for roofing tiles. Attempts to develop an industry around the product failed, mostly because the quarry was located too far away from the railway line which was needed to make the effort profitable.

In the Halifax area, various quarries along the western slopes of the North West Arm — chiefly on the heights above Purcell's Cove — were an excellent source of ironstone, granite and slate, all needed in the construction of local roads, fortifications, buildings and residential structures. The British Army was an early and significant customer, at first using quarries farther away at Chebucto Head and Sambro but later moving their operations to the Purcell's Cove area, where John Trider was an early supplier.

The old Sherbrooke (Martello) Tower on McNab's Island used granite from the Trider quarry, as did York Redoubt, Fort Charlotte (George's Island), Fort Clarence (Dartmouth) and the Prince of Wales Martello Tower in Point Pleasant Park. Granite from the Trider quarry was also used in 1844 to construct the Provincial Penitentiary on the east side of the North West Arm, and again in 1858 to build Rockhead Prison, on the city's far northern heights overlooking the tip of the peninsula. When construction of elaborate perimeter fortifications for the Halifax Citadel began in 1828, supplies of granite and ironstone were obtained from the new Queen's Quarry and slate from the nearby King's Quarry, both high above the North West Arm.

During the 19th century, local ironstone was also used in Admiralty House on Gottingen Street; in Saint Mary's Basilica; in the Enos Collins Bank and the Pickford and Black Buildings (both part of today's Historic Properties complex); in the Mitchell Building on Upper Water Street; and in Keith's Brewery. Halifax buildings often featured combinations of locally-quarried building materials. Granite was used, for example, to create the new facade for Saint Mary's; ironstone and granite were used in the Henry House on Barrington Street; granite, freestone and ironstone are obvious in Pryor Terrace on Hollis Street; and ironstone and freestone were used in the Rupert George House, also on Hollis Street.

At one time, all the curbstones along Halifax streets were made of local granite, while local slate was frequently used in constructing foundations for homes and buildings. Many older residences in the city still sit firmly on these 19th century stone foundations. In the 20th century, Purcell's Cove ironstone was used to construct the (Anglican) Cathedral Church of All Saints and in many of the early buildings on the Studley Campus of Dalhousie University. As well, granite from the same quarries was used as the facing stone in construction of the deep-water Ocean Terminals on the Halifax waterfront, 1914-1918.


Limestone is a principal ingredient (smelter flux) in the production of iron and steel. As these heavy industries developed in Nova Scotia, so too did the need for accessible local supplies of this industrial mineral. Quarries near Bridgeville, Pictou County, at Marble Mountain in Inverness County, and at Point Edward near Sydney are good examples. Other uses of limestone in Nova Scotia have been as processed stone ( pulp mills and glass plants), pulverized stone (aglime, dusting for coal mills, asphalt filter) and crushed stone (cement manufacture, quick and hydrated lime.)


The quarries at Marble Mountain in Inverness County also produced marble of high brightness and purity–but with many cracks. The deposits were discovered in 1868 by Nicholas Brown, who began operations there the following year. In 1884 he sold the business to Dougald MacLachlan, who operated it as the Bras d'Or Lime and Marble Company. In the 1890s, the product was used in two major Halifax buildings–the Wright Marble Building on Barrington Street (1894) and the Hobrecker Residence, Young Avenue, now known as 'Lindola' (1899). By 1922, however, marble production had ceased, although the nearby limestone quarries continued under the Dominion Coal and Steel Company.



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