Deep Gold Mining

In 1905, the Government of Nova Scotia hired a global mining expert to examine the province’s gold deposits and make recommendations about how to develop the gold mining industry. So, why didn’t the government ever release the report?

Thomas A. Rickard was “one of the most eminent mining engineers of the day,” according to the 1905 Nova Scotia Department of Mines’ annual report. Born to an English family of mining engineers, he graduated from London’s Royal School of Mines in 1885. He went on to be a consulting mining engineer to companies all over the world. Over the course of his career, he was also editor of three important mining journals, a lecturer in mining geology at Harvard University and author of a dozen books about mining and geology, including one called The Domes of Nova Scotia. The mineral rickardite is named for him.

Rickard was a “rock” star, so it was considered a bit of a coup when the government hired him to make recommendations about how to reinvigorate the province’s gold sector, which was in a slump at the time.

Rickard did a preliminary visit to Nova Scotia in July 1905. He came back on August 16 and travelled to 18 historical gold districts until September 13, at which time he left for New York.

In the Department’s 1905 annual report, deputy minister Hiram Donkin wrote about Rickard’s visit – another indication of what a big deal it was – but said of Rickard’s report, “Pending its publication, it would be entirely unfitting for me to venture any remarks or comments on the ends sought.”

Strangely, subsequent annual reports do not mention Rickard or his report.

According to Department files, Rickard submitted his report to the government in January 1906. However, it was not the glowing endorsement of Nova Scotia’s gold sector that the government had hoped.

Rickard had specifically been asked to assess Nova Scotia’s potential for deep gold mining. Most of Nova Scotia’s historical gold mines were relatively shallow, usually ranging from tens to hundreds of feet in depth, and it had long been theorized that gold deposits could extend much deeper, and perhaps get richer with depth. Nova Scotia’s goldfields were often compared geologically to those of Bendigo, Australia, which was a tremendous producer for a century starting in 1850. Much of Bendigo’s gold, like Nova Scotia’s, was found in anticlines.

Most of Nova Scotia’s gold deposits started forming 400 million years ago when North Africa and North America started colliding. Layers of horizontal sedimentary rock were crumpled into anticlines (domes) and synclines (troughs) - a series of rock waves. Fluid leached gold from rock deep underground and flowed into cracks in rock closer to surface, forming veins of gold-bearing quartz as the fluid eventually cooled and hardened. Anticline domes trapped the melted, gold-bearing rock as it rose from deep in earth's crust.

Since Bendigo had similar deposits, and many of its mines were thousands of feet deep, many believed that Nova Scotia’s gold deposits had similar potential for deep mining. However, this theory went untested because our early gold miners generally extracted gold-bearing quartz veins at relatively shallow depths and abandoned them if they went too deep. Also, if a vein pinched out as it headed downward, as they often did, miners did not pursue it further down.

Rickard’s report concluded that “deep mining in Nova Scotia is unlikely to prove remunerative.” While he agreed that there were geological similarities with Bendigo, he argued there were also many differences and that Nova Scotia’s four and a half decades of gold mining up to that time suggested there was little potential at depth.

In a December 27, 1905, letter to the Department of Mines, Rickard wrote, “it is my opinion that mining operations on a small scale, carried out by working miners, without the investment of large sums of money, either in equipment or exploration, but based upon local knowledge and skilful prospecting, are likely to prove remunerative…I advise that the policy of the Department be so shaped as to encourage this form of domestic enterprise. It is upon such that the future of gold mining in Nova scotia must depend, as it has done, for the most part, in the past.”

In other words, Rickard believed that Nova Scotia’s gold mines should be relatively small, lean operations and that there was not enough gold to justify major expenditures on exploration or equipment to pursue deep gold mining.

His conclusions were at odds with the prevailing wisdom of the industry and most government experts with both the Department of Mines and the Geological Survey of Canada. They were not what the provincial government or mining industry wanted to hear, and Rickard’s report was left to gather dust in government files.

Three years later, in March 1909, Premier George H. Murray discussed Rickard’s report in the legislature in response to a question from the leader of the opposition about the decline in gold mining. Rickard heard about the exchange and felt that Premier Murray had misrepresented his work, so he wrote a letter to J. C. Murray, editor in chief of the Canadian Mining Journal and no relation to the Premier, on March 25, 1909, to “proffer an explanation and a protest….”

Rickard wrote, “I gave it [his assessment] plainly and frankly, as a physician who after a careful diagnosis finds his patient moribund.” He said his report was never published by the government “simply because I took a gloomy view of the future of gold mining in Nova Scotia, more particularly as regards the investment of capital on a large scale.”

On April 1, J. C. Murray forwarded Rickard’s letter to Hiram Donkin, deputy minister of Nova Scotia’s Department of Mines, calling it “a very important and possibly painful communication.” Murray wrote that he planned to print Rickard’s letter because “If his communication is not published in the Canadian Mining Journal, it will be published elsewhere where it may do unlimited damage…Since the Journal is heart and soul in sympathy with the development of Nova Scotian gold mining, Rickard’s letter could not appear in any more suitable medium.”

Murray suggested he would also print “suitable comments when summing up the matter in a later issue.” He then asked Donkin to provide information that Murray could use in commenting on Rickard’s letter.

Murray said he had previously seen Rickard’s report and “It aroused neither my admiration nor my respect. In fact I consider it the poorest work that I have ever known him to do. It was superficial, hasty, and smacked too much of smartness.” Rickard’s report was “not only totally inadequate, but more or less piffling.”

Donkin wrote back on April 8, providing Murray with various documents in response to Rickard’s letter. However, Donkin’s final sentence expressed the hope that “some way might be found of avoiding the necessity of publishing Mr. Rickard’s letter at the present time.” The government was still concerned that Rickard’s negative opinion of Nova Scotia’s gold deposits would harm the industry.

In other letters written that April to Donkin, Murray said that word of Rickard’s report was circulating in the industry, and that Rickard’s views were harming the province’s reputation. Murray felt it was better for Nova Scotia’s mining industry to have the issue aired, saying, “I am still confident that no one will regret the publication of Mr. Rickard’s letter but himself.”

The Canadian Mining Journal published Rickard’s letter on April 15, 1909. It also published one letter from a Nova Scotian gold miner in response on May 1. Despite telling Donkin that he would later comment on Rickard’s letter, J. C. Murray never did.

The Government of Nova Scotia eventually released Rickard’s report, but not until two decades had passed. It was published in the Department of Mines’ 1924 annual report along with an eight-page rebuttal.

Today, it is still not known whether Nova Scotia’s gold deposits continue at depth. It is generally believed that they do but in the modern era, the focus of most gold exploration is finding deposits relatively close to the surface so they can be worked as surface mines, which are generally much less expensive to operate than underground mines that extend deeper. For example, the modern Moose River surface gold mine, which operated from 2017-2023, was considered one of the most efficient, lowest cost gold mines in the world.

In 1897, the owners of the Dufferin mine planned to test the deep gold theory by deepening a shaft to 1000 feet. The shaft reached a depth of 400 feet in 1900 but it went no further due to declining returns. Interestingly, modern exploration drilling has found gold almost 3000 feet underground at Dufferin, so the company had the right idea about following the gold deeper. See Dufferin's story at

An illustration of how much deeper gold mining in Bendigo, Australia, went compared to Nova Scotia.

Miners in Goldenville in 1936, one of the gold districts Rickard visited.

The anticline (the black domes in the rock) at the modern Moose River gold mine.