The Goldenville Gold District, just west of Sherbrooke in the Municipality of the District of St. Mary's, was the largest-producing historical gold district in Nova Scotia. Mining was carried out almost continually between 1862-1942 with a total reported production of 210,152 ounces, a significant portion of the province’s total reported historic gold production of 1.2 million ounces.

On August 23, 1861, Nelson Nickerson of Sherbrooke was making hay in a small meadow about 1.5 miles west of the northwest arm of St. Mary’s River when he noticed scattered quartz rocks. They had become exposed by the action of a number of forest fires in the previous twenty years. Nickerson had previously visited Tangier, where gold has been discovered a year earlier, and knew how to distinguish quartz from other rocks. He took the rocks home, broke them open and found enough gold that doing this became his main employment.

He and his family kept it secret for a couple months but by early October his neighbours suspected that he had found gold somewhere in the forest. He and his family were watched closely and in mid-October the sound of his hammer gave him away. On October 18, after the community learned of his gold discovery, over 200 people gathered and searched for gold-bearing quartz rocks. They found a total of $400 worth (about $37,000 in today’s dollars).
Some credit a Margaret MacIntosh with the initial discovery. She is said to have found a shiny piece of quartz while picking berries or flowers. She took it home where a “passing traveller” recognized its significance and asked where she had found it.

The provincial government soon declared the area an official gold district, thus allowing the government to survey the land, divide it into claims and regulate the prospecting and mining that followed.

Within a year of the discovery, Goldenville was abuzz with mining activity. At first the site was known as the Sherbrooke Gold District but this was soon changed to Goldenville, the name of the town that sprang up among the mines.

By March 1, 1862, there were 69 applications for mineral leases. By the end of the year there were 480.

By August 1862, Goldenville had 250 houses, more than 15 shops, several blacksmiths, shoemakers and tailors, a public hall and 5 boarding houses. The boarding houses were called temperance houses as Goldenville was continually voted a "dry" town, at least outwardly. A high-quality road was built to the west shore of the St. Marys River, opposite Sherbrooke, and a ferry made frequent daily runs across the Northwest Arm. (The ferry cost 5 cents for adults, 2.5 cents for children, and 20 cents for a horse or ox).

Three steamers made constant daily runs between Sherbrooke and Halifax. The fare was $2 per person.

Sherbrooke Village, the historical museum, calls the two decades after the discovery of gold Sherbrooke’s “Golden Age.”

Mining ramped up through the 1860s and 1868 was the district’s most successful year ever - 9778 ounces of gold were produced.

The rush died down a bit in the 1870s as several of the larger mining companies pulled out and outsourced most mining to "tributers” - men who leased mines from their owners and worked them. Tributers were common in Nova Scotia’s gold districts in the 1800s but were notorious for poor record keeping, low gold recovery and for paying little or no attention to safety and the environment. Because tributers did not own the mines, their focus was entirely short-term and they had no stake in the longer-term development of a mine or the community. The tribute system helped keep gold mining alive in lean years, but it was arguably not good for the industry overall.

Production increased in the late 1870s when the Wellington Company started producing from the Cumminger Shoot, which was probably the largest single shoot in the "Old Goldenville" workings (the northern side of the district).

Between 1895-1907 most production came from the Bluenose Gold Mining Company in the eastern part of the district. The Springfield Vein was the biggest Bluenose producer and the second most important vein was the McNaughton.

The other significant period of production was organized by the Goldenville Consolidated Mining Company, which mined the Stuart Shaft. This same area was operated by a succession of companies from 1921 to 1930.

The last period of production was from 1935 to 1942 when Guysborough Mines Limited worked in the area. Their mine was closed in 1942 due to labour and supply shortages caused by WWII.

Exploration in Goldenville has taken place sporadically since 1961.

Goldenville is no longer Nova Scotia’s largest-producing gold district. Today that honour belongs to the Moose River Gold District thanks to the extraordinary success of the modern Moose River gold mine. It operated from 2017-23 and was one of the most efficient and lowest-cost gold mines in the world thanks to the sophisticated science the modern mining industry uses.

The Moose River mine also cleaned up tailings from the 1800s and early 1900s by digging them up and placing them in the modern mine’s tailings management facility. This ensures the historical tailings will not continue to interact with the environment. Historical gold mines created waste rock piles and tailings. Waste rock included all the rock removed in the process of getting to the gold-bearing ore. Tailings were what remained after the gold-bearing ore was crushed into sand-sized particles in a stamp mill and treated with mercury or cyanide to remove the gold. The tailings were dumped into nearby lakes, streams, or other natural depressions, which is clearly unacceptable today but was standard practice in the historical era.

Unfortunately, historical tailings at Goldenville have high concentrations of arsenic and mercury, an unacceptable legacy of those early gold mining days. The Government of Nova Scotia announced in 2019 that it will clean up the area.

No industry took proper care of the environment 100-150 years ago and mining was not an exception. It was an era long before environmental awareness or scientific understanding of human impact on the environment. However, historical sites like Goldenville have nothing to do with modern mining, which is a sophisticated, science-based activity that takes proper care of the environment.

For example, Nova Scotia gold mines have not used mercury since the early 1900s. Today, waste rock is contained in engineered facilities that ensure materials like arsenic cannot impact water.

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.