Caribou River

The Caribou River area of Pictou County has a long and interesting history of being explored for copper, but not actually producing much of it.

The General Mining Association, which had a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57, was the first to prospect the area for copper.

In 1826, King George IV granted his brother, Prince Frederick, the Duke of York, all mineral rights in Nova Scotia that had not previously been granted. These rights were, in turn, given to the General Mining Association (GMA), a company formed by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, the Royal Goldsmiths from 1797-1843.

The Duke of York, who was known for his free-spending ways, was heavily indebted to RBR. He gave them the mineral rights in exchange for clearing his debts and 25% of the GMA's profits.

The GMA arrived in Nova Scotia in June 1827 when a ship called the Margaret Pilkington, carrying 200 tons of mining equipment, skilled engineers and experienced miners, sailed into Pictou harbour. The company founded Albion Mines (now called Stellarton) on the west bank of the East River and started mining coal.

The company’s main focus was coal but that was not its original plan. In 1825, the GMA sent a Cornish mining engineer named Blackwell to study Nova Scotia’s copper deposits. Nova Scotia had apparently acquired a reputation, largely undeserved at that point, for wealth in copper. Mr. Blackwell spent the summer visiting every then-known copper deposit in the province and concluded that the GMA should focus on coal instead.

This would prove to be a significant turning point in Nova Scotia’s history since the GMA brought the Industrial Revolution to Nova Scotia with major investments in new technologies like steam engines and railways. It also professionalized coal mining here, helping make coal one of the province’s most important industries for generations.

Despite Blackwell’s advice, the GMA did some copper exploration on the north bank of the Caribou River, 2.4 kilometres west of Waterside, shortly after arriving in Nova Scotia.

The company dug several test pits in 1828, but after spending 271 pounds, it was not satisfied with the area’s potential for copper and abandoned the site.

An analysis published in 1868 in John William Dawson’s book, Acadian Geology, found that ore from the site contained 40% copper and 2.1% cobalt. Both metals are in high demand today because they are used in green technologies such as the rechargeable batteries in electric cars and electronics.

In 1916-17, a few shallow shafts were sunk at the site by the American-Canadian Mining Company. In 1977 the site was field checked by the Nova Scotia Department of Mines and Energy, but no mineralization was found in the outcrop.

Caribou River was later explored for copper again, about 0.8 kilometres from Waterside. According to a memo in Department of Mines files, which was written sometime in the early 1900s by G. F. Murphy, “The property is very little known, being practically unheard of among the mining men in Nova Scotia.”

The memo goes on to give some history of the site: “As far as I can learn, it was sold to the present owners by the Hon. S. H. Holmes, who tells me he took it in lieu of a debt owed him.”

Simon H. Holmes was premier of Nova Scotia from 1878 to 1882. He had interests in the mining industry, including owning the Springville limestone quarry which was worked from 1891 to 1904. Today, the quarry is a lovely lake, an example of how former mines and quarries are often hidden in plain view (

The memo went on: “Mr. Holmes did not spend anything on the property; in fact he has never visited it. Apparently the only work of a prospecting nature done on the property was performed by the present caretaker, Mr. John McKenzie, and by another whose name I have forgotten, who acted as caretaker for Mr. Holmes. Mr. McKenzie is an old man over eighty and is very interested in making a sale of the property. Mr. McKenzie worked a little on it from time to time up to about eight years ago; since then no work has been done. At that time I am told there was a chance of selling it to a company called the Goldfields, but [this] was prevented by the owner of the land who took a judgement of $1000.00 against the property for damages. This is the story I have from Mr. McKenzie.”

Two pits had been dug on the site, each about 10 feet deep, about 15 feet apart, and about 20 feet from the river. They had both caved in by the time of Murphy’s visit. However, some ore from one of the pits was at surface and a test showed it contained 51% copper, “a very high grade ore. I had to call Mr. McKenzie’s attention to the second pit and he explained that he had started the first pit too far north and had abandoned it and sunk another 15 feet nearer the river. In this latter pit he said he found a 10-inch vein dipping to the north and that he had gone down on the vein 10 to 15 feet. This latter statement I have reason to doubt.”

There were also several other pits or diggings at various places along the riverbank: “These latter places I visited alone as Mr. McKenzie was too feeble to accompany me.” McKenzie told Murphy he only found ore in one of these other pits, but a test showed it contained a mere 1% copper.

Murphy struggled to get technically accurate information from McKenzie about his prospecting work so he could assess the deposit’s potential. For example, “Mr. McKenzie describes the vein he found as 10 [inches] thick and 15 inches wide. I tried to find what he meant by 15 inches wide, explaining to him that a true vein is only limited in one dimension, that is, its thickness or its width.”

The small size of the vein, and the fact that good ore was only found in one pit, led Murphy to conclude that the deposit was likely small: “I would say that the property is nothing more than a prospect. That there has hardly been enough work done to form a decided opinion, and what little work that has been done, has caved in the last eight years. However the property did not impress me.”

The final paragraph of the memo reveals that Murphy was assessing the site for a company: “If your company has not invested any money in this deposit, I would not advise them to do so. If they have, the only procedure I could recommend would be to spend some money in opening up the pits, but would not recommend leaving the spending of the money with Mr. McKenzie.”