1914 Coal Mine Cost

The year is 1914 and you want to open a coal mine in Cape Breton. What’s that going to cost?

According to C. M. Odell, Resident Engineer at the Dominion Coal Company, it would cost $750,000.

Since the Dominion Coal Company was established in 1893, it had controlled all the Cape Breton coal areas south of Sydney harbour but had mostly focussed on mining in Glace Bay. As Odell was writing an article for the May 1914 edition of The Colliery Engineer, Dominion was opening, or planning to open, eight mines in the Lingan Basin, including Dominion 12, 14, 15 and 16 in New Waterford. (There was no No. 13 due to the superstition about the number being bad luck.)

In the article, Odell outlined what was required to open a mine. The breakdown of his cost estimate is below but here are his thoughts on some of the expenditures.

Odell allotted $15,000 to purchase land, which would include “125 acres for colliery buildings, railways, roads, pole lines, pipe lines, and drainage ditches, an average of about 150 acres per colliery is required….”

(A "colliery" is a coal mine and its associated buildings. Colliery only refers to coal mines, not other types of mines, because it's an alternate spelling of "coalery," a word that is no longer used.)

The other 25 acres was for employee housing, for which Odell budgeted $165,000: “Records show an average of about 2.4 tons of coal raised per man employed, and the house records shows about 2.4 working men were housed per tenement. Hence a colliery of 1,200 tons daily production requires 500 men, and they in turn require 200 tenements. The old time ‘miners’ rows’ have been long since tabooed and today the company erects neat cottages which are let to the men at reasonable rates. The most suitable style of tenement seems to be a good class of double house, set on a large lot of land, and the grounds around many of the miners’ houses today present a neat and attractive appearance. Their cost at present date averages about $1,500 to $2,000 per double block, exclusive of land. As they occupy extra lots and are built on wide streets, they average but four to an acre, hence about 25 acres of land per colliery is required for housing alone.”

$90,000 was needed for railway construction: “About 2½ miles of standard gauge track is required for colliery yard at each bankhead, with an additional amount of branch line to reach the main railway, making an average of about five miles of track to be laid for each colliery opened. This track is all laid with 60-pound rails, while the main line, which is subjected to heavier traffic, is laid with 80-pound rails. All tracks are built in latest approved manner, as nothing less would suffice for the enormous and ever-increasing traffic.”

Odell budgeted $15,000 for lighting, apparently part of a larger switch from steam to electricity as its mines’ main power source: “A great change has been effected in recent years by the introduction of electric power in place of steam, and the tendency now is to eliminate all steam around the collieries of the Lingan Basin, except for heating purposes. Up to this year these collieries have been supplied with electric power from a generating station located in the centre of the Glace Bay Basin some 8 miles distant, but as a part of the equipment a larger generating station situated in the heart of the Lingan district is now nearing completion…When completed the entire equipment of this district, including air compressors, coal hoists, ventilating fans, bankhead machinery, screening plant, and underground pumps will all be electrically operated.”

$15,000 was budgeted for fire and life saving stations: “…a life-saving station at each mining centre is deemed a necessary portion of the general equipment.” (See the story of the rescue station at the Dominion No. 2 colliery and Nova Scotia’s early draegermen at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/draegermen).

Odell wrote about the fact that mining companies often paid for what we consider government services today because the towns often only existed because of the mines: “At present the townsite known as New Waterford is unincorporated and practically all street work, drainage and sewerage is undertaken by the company.” For example, Dominion was planning to spend $250,000 on “a full and ample [water] supply to the whole community….”

Odell warned that more expenditures are required as development proceeds and coal output increases: “Even with the colliery fully equipped and producing to its full capacity, expenditure on capital account cannot be said to have ceased entirely, as with the workings extending farther and farther to the deep, increased pumping and ventilating capacity become necessary, the increased length of mine tracks and air piping add to their quota, and additional mine cars and mining machines are required to gather a given quantity of coal over a greater area.”

It is interesting to note that Odell’s $750,000 – about $19 million today - would not come anywhere close to financing a modern mine, which typically cost hundreds of millions or even more than a billion dollars to put into production. Mining and quarrying is still a capital-intensive industry - most heavy equipment, like haul trucks and excavators, at a Nova Scotia mine cost about $1-5 million each. There are also significant costs associated with environmental management and safety that are an essential part of the modern mining process.

Mining is also the highest paying resource industry in Nova Scotia today, with average annual compensation (wages and benefits) of $102,000.

Miners’ houses at Dominion No. 14