Gold Lake

There is an eery quality to an 1896 prospectus for a mine at Gold Lake, Halifax County. In hindsight, several comments in the document seem like foreshadowing in a scary movie, clues that something bad is going to happen.

Gold was discovered at Gold Lake sometime prior to 1867, the year when it was first mentioned in the annual report of Nova Scotia’s Chief Commissioner of Mines. However, the site, about seven kilometres south of the Moose River gold district, was not actively explored until 1890-91 when Thomas Barker reportedly produced 30 ounces of gold from the property.

(Gold Lake is sometimes referred to in historical documents as Scraggy Lake even though Scraggy Lake is about six kilometres northeast of Gold Lake. The confusion likely stems from the fact that the area, like most of Nova Scotia, was wilderness at the time.)

In 1896, the Consolidated Gold Lake Mining Company took over. The company’s name is presumably a reference to the fact that it consolidated ownership of nine different properties, totalling 305 claims.

The company’s 1896 prospectus implied tremendous optimism about the site’s potential longevity as a mining district, saying it was “heavily wooded, and will furnish all necessary lumber for building purposes, and fuel for milling ore, etc. for the next hundred years.”

The Consolidated Gold Lake Mining Company discovered 42 quartz veins, of which 29 were found to contain gold. (While much of Nova Scotia’s gold is contained in quartz veins, it is a misconception that all quartz veins contain gold – many do not.)

A 5-stamp mill, with a foundation and frame large enough to add another five stamps, was built to crush the ore. It had a 40-horsepower boiler and engine. Wood was burned to heat water in the boiler, and this generated steam to power the engine.

A second boiler and engine set was also used to power the hoisting and pumping equipment. A portable sawmill was used for sawing lumber, timber and shingles.

Shafts were sunk on the Iron Lead, Murchy Belt, Queen Lead and MacPhail Twin Leads and the 1896 prospectus suggested the mill could be enlarged to 25 or 50 stamps to increase milling capacity.

F. W. Christie, apparently a consulting engineer, visited the site and wrote a letter to the company’s owners on October 24, 1896. The letter was subsequently printed in the company’s prospectus. In it, Christie suggested the area “has quartz ore enough for several large mines….”

Christie also wrote, “I would advise you to take a small engine and boiler in the crusher [stamp mill] and move them over to the Murchie or McPhail vein, to run the hoisting and drilling, and put the larger engine and boiler in the mill and add five or ten stamps more so that a profitable business may be carried on. No time should be lost in giving out contracts for the required fuel and pit timber.”

The prospectus’ repeated references to boilers and wood for fuel are cast in a different light because of what happened next.

Likely acting on Christie’s advice, the Consolidated Gold Lake Mining Company was installing a new boiler on November 26, 1897, when it exploded.

The New York Times printed a short article about the event the next day:

Boiler Bursts at the Gold Lake Mines with Fatal Results.

Halifax, N.S. Nov. 26 – The explosion of a boiler at Gold Lake Mines, East Halifax, to-day caused the instant death of the manager of the mine, Daniel McPhail, and two other men, James Hennessy and John McIsaac, their bodies being terribly torn by the flying wreckage of the boiler. No others were seriously injured. Hennessy and McIsaac were testing the boiler at the time.

A letter from mine manager Duncan McPhail had been printed in the prospectus. In it, he described the work he was doing at the mine and optimistically said, “…I am confident that Gold Lake would become one of the leading gold mining camps in Nova Scotia.” The letter was dated November 6, 1896, just over a year before the accident that killed him.

It is said that one of the workers survived by hiding behind a rock when he heard the boiler start to blow. At the site today, there is a large rock close to where the boiler exploded that was likely the man’s hiding place.

The site of the explosion is overgrown now and the boiler still lies where it was abandoned in 1897. It shows obvious evidence of the explosion at one end. There is also considerable debris in the area, including pipes from inside the boiler ruptured by the excessive steam pressure. The remnants of the boiler’s fire box, twisted by the blast, can be found about 40 metres south of the mill’s foundation.

The company left the scene of the accident as it was and moved operations a few hundred metres north, closer to the mine shafts.

Despite the grand predictions in its prospectus, the Consolidated Gold Lake Mining Company mostly did prospecting, not actual mining, and produced only nine ounces of gold before shutting down in 1899.

After the Consolidated Gold Lake Mining Company quit the area, there was modest exploration work at it in the following decades. In 1915, N. McMillan did some prospecting, dug some test pits and discovered five veins.

In 1928, a 4-stamp gasoline-powered mill was built by W. L. Taylor, of Wittenburg, Colchester County, and his brothers. They worked the Iron Lead and Fraser Belt, but there are no records to confirm whether they produced any gold.

In 1975, Astro Mines Ltd. did some prospecting and trenching and dewatered mine shafts. The company built a small mill and ran it for four days, producing four ounces of gold.

Three samples were sent to the Technical University of Nova Scotia for testing between 1975-78 and decent quantities of gold were found.

A 1986 exploration program conducted by A.C.A. Howe International Ltd. for Jascan Resources found promising results so the following year a 10-hole diamond-drill program was carried out. A.C.A. Howe concluded the area has “a good potential for an economic gold deposit which could possibly be similar to the Beaverdam deposit….” Beaver Dam, another historical gold district, is currently in the permitting process to be operated as a modern mine. If approved, the Beaver Dam mine would create 137 jobs in Nova Scotia during construction and 311 jobs during operations (

There has been intermittent exploration activity in the area since.

Gold Lake’s story highlights several importance differences between historical and modern gold mining.

First, while mining has traditionally been viewed as an often-dangerous occupation, mining and quarrying is one of the safer industries in Nova Scotia today. We have reduced our injury rate by 90% since the Westray public inquiry report was released in 1997.

Second, the 1897 explosion is not mentioned in mines department files, a gap in the paperwork that would be unimaginable today. The modern mining industry is stringently regulated and submits tremendous amounts of reporting to governments.

Third, the fact that the site of the explosion was simply abandoned was not unusual in the historical era but is completely unacceptable today. In the modern era, before getting operating permits, mining companies must get government approval of reclamation plans and post reclamation bonds (money in escrow, basically) that ensure funds are available to properly take care of sites, including addressing any potential safety issues such as removing old equipment.