Coal mining in Joggins

Joggins is famous for its fossil cliffs and the incredible insights its geology gives us into the origin of coal, the history of life and the nature of evolution. Less well-known is the fact that coal was mined in Joggins for centuries.

Nova Scotia’s coal deposits formed during the Carboniferous period (360 to 299 million years ago). Carboniferous means "coal-bearing.” Due to tectonic plate movement, Nova Scotia started that period in the southern hemisphere and it crossed the equator as the province drifted north about 350 million years ago.

The province’s coal formed as large amounts of plant life and other organic matter grew in the swampy areas and lagoons that covered much of the earth at that time. As the plants and other life forms died, they drifted down to the bottom of the swamps, slowly decomposed, and formed peat. The peat became buried and compressed under the earth’s surface and over millions of years, and through the forces of heat and pressure, the compressed peat became coal.

This process preserved at Joggins an extraordinary record of fossils that helps us understand the evolution of life. Even Charles Darwin referenced Joggins’ fossils in his "Origin of Species" to help explain evolution and natural selection. Many other important scientists have studied fossils from Joggins in the past two centuries and in 2008, the Joggins fossil cliffs became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

However, four centuries ago, the more obvious value of Joggins’ coal was heat, so coal from Joggins was used in the forges at Samuel de Champlain’s Habitation in Port Royal as early as 1603.

Acadians mined coal in Joggins in the early 1700s. By 1715, Joggins coal was being used by the British at Annapolis Royal and Captain Andrew Belcher and other New England traders were visiting Joggins to obtain coal they would sell in Boston.

Eager to impose a duty on this unregulated trade, in 1730 Governor Richard Phillips approved the establishment of a state-sponsored British coal mine at Joggins. The project was led by Major Henry Cope (1688–1742) and his Boston business partners, Captain Alexander Forsyth, John Liddel, and John Carnes.

Six British soldiers were brought from Annapolis Royal to protect the mine and a team of 10–12 Acadians were employed to do the mining. It was reported that "one man [could] dig many Chaldron of this Coal in a day" — a chaldron being slightly more than one tonne - a significant output.

The coast adjacent to the coal mine was impractical for loading ships due to high tides, storms and rocky shallows so Cope stockpiled coal at the sheltered mouth of a creek seven miles to the north called “Gran’choggin," from which the name Joggins later arose. The site is called Downing Cove today.

This was the same site that Captain Belcher had used from about 1710-1717.

A makeshift wharf was built at the mouth of Gran’choggin and coal was carried to the creek in two small boats called lighters. Loading ships was still a challenge, however – the creek was dry at lower tides and ships sometimes ran aground.

Cope’s mine appeared to have great prospects with a thriving market in Boston and financial backing from the Nova Scotia Council in Annapolis Royal. On June 21, 1732, Cope and his partners were granted 4000 acres of land on the peninsula to develop the mine. The agreed terms of the land grant were that Cope would pay duty of one shilling and sixpence per chaldron of coal extracted, set aside coal reserves for use of the garrison at Annapolis Royal, build four houses on the site within three years, and cultivate a tenth of the land.

Unfortunately for Cope, the mine would be abandoned only a few months later, resulting in a financial loss of about £3000 (worth about £4 million today).

Details are sketchy but records indicate that Cope infuriated the Acadians by demanding rent to dig for coal on his land. In response, the Acadians incited local Mi’kmaq to attack and rob Cope’s property. Stanwell Hall, the first house that Cope built, was destroyed, as were the mine, magazine and storehouses.

Operations were finally wound up when Cope defaulted on wage payments to the men in his employ.

In January 1733, he tried to resurrect the mine, in partnership with James Brydges, First Duke of Chandos (1674–1744) and Governor Phillips. The plan hinged on the construction of blockhouses and soldiers to protect the operation. However, this proved unsuccessful, and in 1739 Brydges referred to the whole episode as a fiasco.

Whether the blockhouses were ever built is not known, but over a century later, there was a written reference describing an old fort which had partly toppled over the cliff.

Cope’s short-lived mine was just one early example of the many coal mines that operated in Joggins.