The Gypsum Queen

Here’s the story of the Gypsum Queen…er, the Gypsum Queens!

Access to tidewater is one of Nova Scotia’s key economic advantages. We can get our products onto ships and send them anywhere in the world relatively quickly and inexpensively. It might be easy to take that for granted in a province that’s almost completely surrounded by water but think about the challenge Alberta’s land-locked energy sector has trying to export.

While a lot of our minerals are used here in Nova Scotia – i.e. all our road salt comes from the Pugwash mine, millions of tons of aggregate are extracted and used in our infrastructure each year, etc. – we also export a great deal. Having so much access to tidewater reduces costs and gives us a competitive advantage when selling into other markets. For example, this is partly why aggregate from Porcupine Mountain, right next to the Canso Causeway, was used as fill in swampy Orlando – Disney world is built on Nova Scotia rock!

Nova Scotia has been exporting minerals for centuries. The story of the Gypsum Queen is an example:

Starting in 1876 when he built his first factory, the Windsor Plaster Mills wallboard facility on New York’s Staten Island, Jerome Berre King built a business empire that made him a major player in Nova Scotia’s gypsum industry.

Gypsum quarrying was active in Wentworth, five miles east of Windsor, around the same time and, in 1881, J.B. King bought a great deal of land in the area for $30,000. The Wentworth Gypsum Company, with King as one of its owners, would become the largest gypsum producer in Nova Scotia for many years.

In the early 1900s, the gypsum at the Wentworth Quarry was drilled by hand augers and broken down by dynamite before being loaded onto horse-drawn carts and dumped into five-ton railway cars. The gypsum travelled 2.5 miles over a narrow-gauge railway owned by the company to its shipping pier on the St. Croix river.

In the winter months when shipping wasn’t possible, the gypsum was stored in sheds situated halfway between the quarry and the shipping pier, waiting for spring. This allowed the quarry to operate year-round.

The gypsum was loaded onto barges of 2,000 to 2,200 tons capacity, and then towed by tugs to J. B. King’s plants in the US.

(Neat trivia – before mechanized loading, ships were loaded by hand. There was a standard rock size called a “one man-rock,” or “man-sized rock,” meaning a rock that an average-sized man could carry from the wagon to the ship, i.e. about the size of a basketball. The term became a unit of measurement in the industry and it’s still used in some places to describe the size of stones used in landscaping, i.e. a one-man rock, a two-man rock, etc.)
J. B. King also exported gypsum from other Hants County quarries such as the Walton quarry, which is now a beautiful lake.

King owned a fleet of ships to transport gypsum from Nova Scotia to New York. Between 1890-1892 the D.S. Howard shipyard at Parrsboro built four large schooners for King: the Gypsum Queen, Gypsum Princess, Gypsum Emperor and the Gypsum King. Another shipbuilder, J.B. North, built the Gypsum Prince at Hantsport and the Gypsum Empress at Horton.

King had a habit of recycling the names of the ships so there were multiple ships over the years that bore these names.

The first Gypsum Queen (built in 1891 and pictured at dock below) sank in 1915 off the Irish coast during a storm. The crew took to lifeboats and were picked up by a freighter without loss of life. Fifteen years later the captain, Freeman Hatfield of Parrsboro, claimed that the Gypsum Queen had been torpedoed by a German submarine. In 1931 he got $71,276,72 in compensation from the Canadian Government since the ship had apparently been sunk by the enemy.

However, it came to light in 1937 that shortly after being rescued from the Gypsum Queen, Hatfield signed a sworn statement in Liverpool, England, that confirmed the ship was, in fact, sunk by the storm. An investigation revealed that Hatfield paid several crew members to back up his story about being torpedoed. Hatfield was found guilty of defrauding the Canadian World War Reparations Commission.

The next Gypsum Queen was a 135-foot sea-going tug built in 1880 in New Jersey. She was originally named Carbonero and her name was later changed to Daniel Willard in 1904. King bought her in 1916 and renamed her Gypsum Queen. She became a US navy ship in 1917 and served in French ports as a towing vessel and minesweeper during WWI. While returning from rendering assistance to a fleet of minesweepers that ran into trouble in a storm, Gypsum Queen struck a rock near Brest on April, 28, 1919. Her boiler exploded and she sank.

Another Gypsum Queen was actually sunk by a German torpedo but not until WWII. She was a steamer built in 1927 and was torpedoed in 1941 while in Convoy SC-42. She was sunk by German submarine U-82 south of Cape Farewell, Greenland. Her cargo was 5500 tons of sulphur and survivors were taken to Belfast. The Gypsum Queen and her sister ships did not fare well during WWII – the Gypsum King was the only one that survived the war.

Yet another Gypsum Queen was built in 1947. She was towed out for scrap in 1987.

When the replacement ship was built in 1987, its owners decided to name her after a former company manager, A. V. Kastner, instead of using the Gypsum Queen name again.

The Wentworth Quarry, which was bought by the United States Gypsum Company in 1926 (after J.B. King’s death) and taken over by Fundy Gypsum in 1962, eventually shut down in 2012, largely due to the 2009 economic downturn that saw the collapse of the US housing market. With fewer new homes being built, there was less demand for wallboard and therefore less need to produce Nova Scotia gypsum. Demand for gypsum has been increasing in recent years so Nova Scotia’s production, and jobs in gypsum quarrying and shipping, will hopefully continue to increase.

The 1891 Gypsum Queen.