Cow Bay Gold District

In August 1895, D. M. Thompson of Musquodoboit discovered gold in a boulder in Cow Bay, HRM.

After much trenching, in November he exposed a cross vein which was identified as the source of the boulder. In the winter of 1895-6, he erected a 5-stamp, water-powered mill on Cow Bay River about a fourth of a mile south of his mine. From June to December 1896, he recovered 324 ounces of gold.

Thompson's success drew others and three or four veins were opened. In 1897, a total of 560 ounces of gold were recovered.

Despite properties changing hands and investments being made, the Cow Bay mines were largely idle for the next several years until 1905 when 127 ounces of production were recorded.

Stamp mills were large machines that crushed gold-bearing rock, the first step in the process of separating gold from the quartz in which it is usually found. Mills commonly had banks of five stamps with the largest operations having ten banks or fifty stamps. The crashing of the stamps dropping on the ore could be heard for miles around.

In a stamp mill, quartz was washed with water and moved under the stamps that went up and down, crushing the quartz into sand. Each stamp would weigh about 800 to 1,000 pounds.

In the 1800s, mercury was then used to separate the gold from the sand, but mercury hasn’t been used in Nova Scotia since the early 1900s because it is bad for the environment.

There are two main reasons mercury was used back then – it worked and people didn’t understand the harm it did to the environment.

Gold dissolves in mercury but mercury does not absorb other impurities so it was effective at separating the gold. The mercury/gold mixture was recollected and heated until the mercury boiled away. A simple still like those used to make alcohol would draw away the vaporized mercury, collecting it for reuse, leaving mostly pure gold. The gold was then refined for greater purity and formed into bricks or nuggets.

Misconceptions about modern gold mining stem from historical mining practices, like the use of mercury, that we agree were not good enough. However, historical sites like these have nothing to do with modern mining which is a sophisticated, science-based activity that takes proper care of the environment.

You can learn more about the differences between modern and historical gold mining at