Amateurish Early Gold Mining

An 1869 report about the Waverley gold district criticizes the often disorganized, unprofessional mining that took place in that era – and helps explain why Nova Scotia’s early gold miners often left an unfortunate environmental legacy.

Fortunately, their unsophisticated methods were left behind generations ago and modern gold mining is a science and technology-based activity that takes excellent care of the environment.

Gold was discovered in Waverley, Halifax County, in 1861 on the farm of Charles P. Allen. The area had over 30 gold mines by 1864 and Waverley's population grew from 200 to 2000 by 1868.

Many of Nova Scotia’s gold miners in the 1800s were not miners at all. They were often farmers, tradesmen and men drawn from any number of other professions because they thought the only skill required was the ability to swing a hammer to smash rock. They usually had little or no expertise in mining and they certainly had no knowledge of how to take care of the environment.

Henry Youle Hind, a consulting geologist to the Government of Nova Scotia in that period, lamented the mining that was done in Waverley in the 1860s.

Hind pointed out that far too many shafts were being dug, which increased costs and generated little revenue, when fewer shafts and more tunnelling on leads (gold-bearing quartz veins) would have been more efficient: “The number of shafts sunk by different companies on these leads, within a mean distance of 2000 feet, is fifty-four... On area 155, for example, there are four shafts on the Tudor Lead and three shafts on the North Lead – the breadth of the area being 150 feet. On area 102 there are three shafts on the Tudor and three on the North Lead, the same on areas 164 and 102. On the property of one company there are 8 shafts on the North Lead in the space of 450 feet, and 9 shafts on the Tudor Lead within the same distance. The leads being but sixty feet apart. Two main shafts, with suitable hoisting and pumping machinery, and cross galleries, would have been ample, and the saving in labour and time would have greatly reduced the cost of mining the quartz.”

Hind criticized the amateurish processing of ore, the rock that hosts the gold: “It has been shown that it is probable that one-third of the gold was lost in the tailings, which were allowed to escape…directly into the River.”

Hind wrote that miners were mixing ore from different leads in the mill, which made it impossible to gather data on the different leads. “The practice of mixing quartz from different leads and crushing the whole together is to be condemned. It is impossible by the adoption of this method to ascertain whether a lead is paying or not. A poor lead worked at the same cost as a rich lead may neutralize all the benefits which would be obtained if the rich lead were worked alone. Each lead ought to be crushed by itself, and a statement of the result with the cost of mining the quartz recorded.”

Hind pointed out that historical miners often did not keep proper plans of their mines, which made planning difficult. Other than two minor documents, Hind wrote, “I was unable to obtain any plan of surface workings, much less any plan of underground workings, and the agents of the different companies uniformly informed me that none to their knowledge were in existence.” (The lack of plans was a problem during the Moose River disaster in 1936:

Another common problem in Nova Scotia’s historical gold mines was lack of capital to buy proper equipment and to get through the inevitable periods when output decreased: “The absorption of all returns to pay large dividends is as a rule as fatal an error in gold mining as in most other enterprises. When the different mines were yielding very handsome returns, it was most unwise to suppose that such unlooked-for prosperity would continue for any length of time. Nevertheless it appears that nearly all the profits were at once divided amongst the shareholders, and no reserve fund permitted to accumulate. Hence when the returns grew less the necessary means to provide machinery for deeper workings were not forthcoming, and, as a consequence, most of the establishments were closed… All experience in gold mining tends to prove that all leads or veins are more or less intermittent in yield…At the same time proper machinery for hoisting and drainage must be adopted in order to arrive at this result, which, it need scarcely be observed, cannot be obtained if shareholders insist on a division of all profits, without leaving any reserve for contingencies, and subsequently refuse to raise additional funds when the period for the application arrives.”

The staking system set up in the early 1860s by the Government of Nova Scotia only allowed for very small claims, which limited a company’s working area, discouraged investment in more sophisticated and expensive equipment, and sometimes caused neighbouring mines to impact each other. “The narrowness of the properties is a great objection to permanent operations. Several companies at Waverley have only 450 feet on the leads…The absence of any regulations defining the space which different companies shall leave between the workings on the same or adjacent lead is likely to become a fruitful source of trouble. In one instance at Waverley the agents of two companies decided not to touch the quartz within four feet of their boundary on either side, with a view to prevent by means of an eight foot dividing wall the water from one mine draining into the other. This agreement, I was informed, was faithfully kept on one side and as grossly abused on the other, the whole of the four feet of quartz being removed. The consequence is that the works on one mine being stopped, the proprietors of the other have been vainly endeavoring to drain both on account of leakage through the dividing wall, which unfortunately has hitherto defied all their attempts to arrest.”

Hind offered an interesting example of poor planning: the building of a mill on low ground which made it necessary to mechanically carry tailings away, when the usual approach would be to build the mill on an elevated site so tailings could simply flow downhill. “A remarkable instance of want of foresight in a most important department of mining economics is presented in the construction of one of the largest steam crushing mills. The site selected for this mill is so low that the tailings, as they leave the mill, are now required to be hoisted by a revolving wheel, furnished with buckets, to a sluice, where they have an opportunity of escaping over the accumulated heaps near the mill, but without any attempt at concentration, or saving any of the gold which they undoubtedly contain. This is equivalent to employing power, machinery and labour, to get rid of 1 dwt., 16 ½ grains of gold per ton. A buddle [container] to concentrate the tailings and save the gold, could have been constructed at far less cost than the present ingenious contrivance to hoist the tailings out of the way.”

While Hind’s focus was not on environmental impacts – society’s environmental awareness was still a century away – his comments about historical mining help explain its unfortunate environmental legacy. The miners and their technology simply lacked sophistication. Also, there were adhering to the standards of the era, which did not include any concerns about the environment.

Modern gold mining is completely different. Mines today can often even remediate historical tailings as part of the modern mining process by moving them into the modern mine’s tailings facility, as was done at the Moose River gold mine in recent years.

Also, before getting operating permits, modern mining companies must get government approval of reclamation plans and post reclamation bonds (money in escrow, basically) that ensure funds are available to properly take care of sites. In fact, reclamation is a key part of the mining process today and progressive reclamation - reclaiming areas where extraction is complete while continuing to mine elsewhere on-site – is standard industry practice.

Learn more about the differences between modern and historical gold mining at