Steel is mainly iron and carbon, and the carbon is derived from metallurgical (steelmaking) coal. Nova Scotia got into steel production in the 1800s because it has vast coal deposits and the hope was that local iron would provide the second of the two key ingredients.

In the early 1900s, the operators of the steel mills in Sydney and Sydney Mines investigated a number of iron deposits in Cape Breton, including the Barrachois deposit (aka the Ingraham mine and the McAllister mine).

Iron ore was discovered in Barrachois sometime in the 1800s and several pits and shafts were dug. There is little documentation about the deposit until it was investigated in 1902 by the Dominion Iron and Steel Company, which optioned the property from Reverend Martin A. McPherson, who had staked it. (Learn more about Reverend McPherson’s work in mineral development in the area:

Dominion, which ran the Sydney steel mill, did some work between May and August 1902 but took no serious interest and gave up its option.

The Nova Steel and Coal Company operated a mine at the site for a short period around 1906 and shipped 500 tons of iron ore to its steel mill in Sydney Mines. The ore was found to be unsatisfactory because it contained only about 45% iron, too low a percentage to meet the needs of the steel mill.

In 1912, George B. Ingraham shipped some ore to the Dominion Iron and Steel Company’s steel mill, but its iron content was again found to be too low and the mine shut down.

In 1919, the Dominion Iron and Steel Company again took an interest in the mine. D. A. Cameron and C. V. Wetmore were contracted to mine and ship ore to the company’s steel mill. Again, the ore was found to contain too little iron – about 38%.

However, different tests of ore in 1911 and 1919 found much higher percentages of iron content, ranging from 57-68%.

Dominion’s Superintendent of Ore, Mines and Quarries believed that previous shipments from the mine contained “a bad mixture of rock with the ore” that skewed the results of tests and lowered the average iron content. Writing in 1928, he said “All operations carried out on the property were confined to small areas where the rock measures were very much broken up and although the ore vein appeared of greater width at this point it contained so much rock that it was almost impossible to make a good separation without mechanical assistance.”

He argued that “There has not been sufficient exploration work done to either prove or disprove a workable tonnage. All previous work has been directed to mining ore and only a very small portion of the vein has been investigated. The grade of the ore is such as to make it fairly attractive to us if it could be mined free from rock.”

In 1938, the provincial government’s mines inspector visited the mine. In a follow up memo, he also commented on the quality of the ore that had been sent for various tests, but he had the opposite opinion of Dominion’s Superintendent. The government inspector said tests showing the iron content in the mid to high 60s were the result of “picked high grade ore and not representative of the deposit.” The difference of opinion between Dominion’s Superintendent and the government’s inspector hinged on whether the low-grade samples, with significant quantities of rock in them, represented the average quality of the mine’s ore, or whether the higher-grade samples, with the extra rock removed, did.

The mines inspector visited the mine in 1938 because it was again being worked after many years of being largely inactive. John Gannon had obtained an option from Thomas B. McAllister, who had staked the area, and was digging tunnels. Unfortunately, Gannon ran into several problems.

First, a tunnel dug halfway up the hill ran into a great deal of overburden, the rock and dirt that sits on top of a mineral deposit. Overburden can be removed in large quantities today with heavy equipment but it was a major challenge back when it had to be dug out by hand or with small machines. This tunnel was abandoned and Gannon started a second, this time from the bottom of the hill. He drove the second tunnel 470 feet but operations ceased before he reached the iron ore, which he predicted would be 500 feet in. Only 30 feet shy of his goal, Gannon quit the site and it went idle again.

McAllister held the property for at least three decades, from the 1930s to 1960s, but it never returned to production.

Most of the iron used in the Sydney and Sydney Mines steel mills was imported from Bell Island, Newfoundland, because it had huge, high-quality iron deposits. A Nova Scotian played a key role in opening and running the Bell Island mine (

It takes 0.8 tonne of coal to make one tonne of steel, so metallurgical coal is still an extremely important resource today. About 1.6 billion tonnes of steel are produced each year and it is everywhere in our lives (i.e. cars, appliances, infrastructure etc.) See how most steel is made at