Bootleg coal mining has a long history in Nova Scotia, especially in Cape Breton.

(The word "bootleg" originates from the practice of smuggling illicit items in the legs of tall boots, particularly the smuggling of alcohol during the American Prohibition era. The word, over time, has come to refer to any illegal or illicit product.)

Nicolas Denys (1598-1688), Governor of Canso and Isle Royale, noted the presence of coal in the Sydney Mines area in his 1672 book, “Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America.”

Of course, it was not hard to figure out that Cape Breton had huge amounts of coal - many cliffs have coal outcrops in them that are impossible to miss. Such easy access allowed early bootleggers to simply use crowbars or other tools to pull coal out of the cliffs.

However, mineral rights are owned by the Crown in the British legal system so this activity was illegal. (In centuries past, “the Crown” referred literally to the King. Today, in context of mineral rights, it refers to the governments that own the minerals in their jurisdictions. It is for this reason that mining companies pay royalties for extracting minerals – they have to compensate the Crown for its minerals.)

Coal mining in Nova Scotia from the 1600s to the early 1800s was mostly done by armies to keep soldiers warm. However, British, French and colonial governments were slow to take greater advantage of Cape Breton’s wealth of coal for various reasons. For example, English coal mines often did not want competition from colonial imports so developing coal mines here, which would have been hugely helpful to Nova Scotia’s economy, was prevented by the Crown.

Many proposals to mine coal in Nova Scotia were either turned down or made unprofitable by unrealistically high royalties and other requirements, including capping prices and restricting to whom the coal could be sold.

Even Nova Scotia’s House of Assembly petitioned the King in 1775 for a lease to mine coal in Cape Breton. The petition was turned down.

When early mining leases were granted, no organized system of mining was pursued. When all the coal from one cliff had been taken, that area was abandoned and work just moved to another. There was no attempt to dig tunnels into the coal seams.

As early as August 21, 1677, an ordinance was issued by Jacques Duchesneau, the intendant (administrator) of New France, in response to bootlegging. The ordinance established the governor’s right to charge a royalty of 20 sous (similar to pennies) per ton of coal.

Bootlegging was also referenced by Admiral Hovenden Walker in the early 1700s when he wrote that both English and French took coal “out of the cliffs with iron crow-bars only, and no other labour.” The English he referred to were likely New Englanders who fished off Cape Breton in summer and took a few tons of coal home with them.

The first commercial coal mine in North America was established by the French in 1720 in Cow Bay (now called Port Morien) to supply Fortress Louisbourg (

Port Morien’s coal seams became a flash point in 1767 when Alexander Ley of Louisbourg was prosecuted by the Attorney General for “having, contrary to the Governor’s proclamation, dug and carried away large quantities of coal from Cow Bay in the Isle of Cape Breton,” as the minutes of a March 22, 1767, Council meeting described it. Ley delivered so much bootleg coal to the Americans that it lowered the price for legal exports of Cape Breton coal.

Commenting on the situation, Governor Lord William Campbell said Cape Breton’s surface was virtually all coal, so “it could be easily taken away by any adventurer.” This was an exaggeration, but it illustrates the challenge of preventing bootlegging in those early days when Nova Scotia was mostly wilderness and coal was often easily accessible.

Bootlegging continued to be enough of a problem that Governor Campbell informed the Council on May 4, 1770, that he had asked for soldiers to protect the King’s coal in Cow Bay. A detachment was sent there in early spring. The soldiers seized 500 chaldrons of coal that had been dug out during the winter months and were ready for illegal shipment. The coal was instead sent to Halifax for use by the garrison there.

(A chaldron was an English measure of dry volume, mostly used for coal but also for grain and other goods. The exact definition of chaldron was different in different regions of England. For example, a chaldron in Newcastle - 5880 pounds - was more than twice as much as a chaldron in London - 2837 pounds. The differences were presumably partly due to legitimate regional differences, but also because coal was taxed by the chaldron, not by weight, so larger chaldrons were a means of tax avoidance. The word chaldron is an obsolete spelling of cauldron.)

A proclamation was also issued prohibiting anyone from digging up coal anywhere on Cape Breton.

It was really with the arrival of the General Mining Association, which had a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57, that the Crown embraced developing Nova Scotia’s coal deposits and professional, organized coal mining began in Nova Scotia. (The GMA received its monopoly in exchange for clearing the personal debts of the Duke of York, so the Crown’s interest in mining Nova Scotia’s coal stemmed from self-interest:

The GMA invested heavily and brought the industrial revolution to Nova Scotia. It also helped professionalize the province’s mining industry by founding permanent mining communities and bringing skilled British miners to the province. Today, many Nova Scotians are descendants of those early miners.

However, bootlegging continued. It was just too easy to access coal near surface, so people continued to extract it for use in their homes and to sell throughout the 1800s and even the 1900s, despite efforts by the authorities and coal companies to prevent it. Many bootleggers needed the income to survive tough times and feed their families.

Bootlegging has continued into the modern era and still sometimes takes place today, although only on a very small scale.

For example, bootleg coal was mined in Point Aconi as early as 1742 along the shore near the lighthouse, and even took place during the operational life of the Prince Mine, which ran from 1975-2001. Some Prince miners worked during their days off at a small bootleg mine west of the Prince Mine. The bootleg mine employed as many as 35 men.

There was also a 95-foot deep, 4-foot square shaft above the former Prince Mine’s highwall that was worked by a woman who carried her child on her back down the shaft, on ladders, to work bootleg coal.

Even today, coal is sometimes extracted from outcrops in Point Aconi’s cliffs, just as it was centuries ago. (In addition to being illegal, bootlegging today raises safety concerns. For example, someone bootlegging coal from the cliffs near Point Aconi’s lighthouse a few years ago fell and broke his leg.)

Bootlegging through the centuries has sometimes left an unfortunate legacy of environmental and subsidence issues.

A surface mine operated at Point Aconi from 2006-2013 to mine the remaining near-surface coal and reclaim the site. The mine cleaned up from the Prince Mine’s activities – at no expense to taxpayers since the reclamation was funded by selling the coal to Nova Scotia Power – and today it is greenspace and ponds, pictured below.

The surface mine also cleaned up the remains of extensive historical bootleg mining operations: tunnels, tools, equipment and pillars of coal left in place to hold up tunnel roofs (pictured below). The site had many sinkholes caused by the bootleg mining. The modern mine fixed these subsidence issues and stabilized the site, making it safe for future use (

The Stellarton surface coal mine is doing similar “reclamation mining” today in an area that covers at least a half dozen historical mines and two centuries of bootlegging (