1930 Stats

A government memo written almost a century ago is a reminder of the huge role coal mining has played in Nova Scotia’s history.

The memo, written by J. P. Messervey, the deputy minister of Nova Scotia’s Department of Mines, was likely written sometime around 1930 but the exact year is not known.

In it he wrote, “The history of coal mining in Nova Scotia is a very romantic story, reaching back as it does to the very first settlement, with its development going hand in hand with that of the rest of the Province, from opening of the first pit up to the present time.”

Messervey provides a brief overview of coal mining in Nova Scotia. The first written reference to Nova Scotian coal was in a 1672 book by Nicholas Denys, Governor of Canso and Isle Royale. Despite early knowledge of our huge coal deposits, it was mainly just British and French militaries who took advantage of it for much of the next two centuries, extracting coal to keep their soldiers warm. There was also a long history of smugglers and bootleggers doing small-scale extraction (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/bootleggers).

It was not until 1827 that professional, organized mining of coal began when the General Mining Association (GMA) was granted a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals – the Duke of York needed to pay off his debts to his jewellers, so they were given a monopoly that lasted for three decades.

The GMA invested heavily and brought the industrial revolution to Nova Scotia. Our first steam engines were built by the GMA to power pit hoists and pumps, and to drive coal ships. Nova Scotia's first railway (meaning it was powered by steam, not horses) was the Albion Mines Railway, built in 1839 to haul coal from the Stellarton mines to docks in Pictou Harbour. The GMA also helped professionalize Nova Scotia’s mining industry by founding permanent mining communities and bringing skilled British miners to the province. (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/general-mining-association).

Messervey wrote, “The story of the coal mine since that far off time is one of trials, troubles and tribulations; the spending of huge sums of money without any adequate return, the overcoming of engineering problems that would stagger modern experts, a story of fires, floods and disaster, a story of heroism on the part of the officials and workmen in the face of gravest danger that has never been equalled. The Drummond, Springhill, Foord Pit, Allan Shaft, Waterford and Florence explosions brought forth examples of bravery on the part of rescuers that has never been excelled by men employed in any other industry.”

When the GMA lost its monopoly in 1857, there was a rush of new entrepreneurs into coal mining and “from 1858 onward the records show a steady increase in the number of pits opened and a corresponding increase in the tonnage produced.”

Messervey said Nova Scotia’s coal mines were of “national importance.” For example, “Nova Scotia coal made possible the manufacture of the first munitions made in Canada during the late war [WWI], and was used for bunkering the transport ships leaving Canada with troops and supplies for the scene of the conflict.”

The memo then offers a series of impressive statistics:

“The coal mines of Nova Scotia employ over 12,000 men directly. The coal mines support indirectly over 20% of the entire population of the province.”

“Some idea of the difficulties and cost of mining coal in Nova Scotia may be had when it is known that over 90% of the total production is won from under the sea.” (Learn more about submarine mining at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/submarine-mines).

Messervey wrote that many of the mines’ workings lay “between two and three thousand feet below the sea bottom” and “submarine workings have advanced to a distance of 3¼ miles from water edge. The Sydney coal field is now the classic example of coal mining under the sea, and is constantly visited by mining engineers from other fields who wish to benefit by the practice which has been developed there. On the mainland at Springhill coal is mined at a depth of 3,200 feet, which exceeds the depth of any similar workings in North America.”

“There are over 200 miles of roadways underground over which the coal is moved to the surface.”

“12,000,000 gallons of water are pumped every day from the mines of the Province, or three tons of water for every ton of coal hoisted.”

“2,000,000 feet of cubic air is circulated per minute through the mines of Nova Scotia for ventilating purposes.”

“Over 250 miles of steel rope is required to serve the transportation and haulage system at present in use underground.”

“The collieries support a fleet of ships, sailing between loading piers and points of destination. During 160 working days last season 450 cargos were loaded and the same number of ships received bunker [coal].”

“It requires 40 miles of standard gauge main track and 80 miles of sidings, with 20 large locomotives to move the coal from the pit head to the loading piers and to the trunk railway line connection.”

“The length of the main slopes [decline tunnels] of several collieries is well over 14,000 feet, and lateral levels [horizontal tunnels] extend from either side of these slopes, making a haul underground of over four miles.”