Isaac’s Harbour

The story of the discovery of gold in Isaac’s Harbour, Guysborough County, reads a bit like a sitcom.

A young man from Isaac’s Harbour, Elias Cook, was mining at Wine Harbour and obtained some specimens of gold-bearing quartz. On his return to Isaac’s Harbour Cook noticed that some rock looked similar to what he had seen in Wine Harbour so he and Allan MacMillan started looking for gold. At some point, Cook accidentally dropped one of his Wine Harbour specimens. MacMillan later found it and the two men thought they had just discovered gold in Isaac’s Harbour!

They told other residents the news and a crowd immediately went in search of riches, only to be disappointed at not finding any more gold.

On that same day, September 14, 1861, Joseph Hynes was undertaking more serious prospecting in the western area of the gold district and he actually became the first to discover gold in Isaac’s Harbour.

John Lathan and others also found several pieces of gold-bearing quartz that evening on what became known as the Burke vein.

September 14 was quite a day in Isaac’s Harbour - two real gold discoveries and one false one!

Gold was also discovered a short time later on the east side of the harbour by two Mi’kmaq on what became known as the Mulgrave lead.

In 1862, a number of veins were worked, the most important being the Mulgrave, Victoria, Burke and Fraser leads. On the Mulgrave lead, 15 shafts were sunk varying from 15 to 60 feet in depth. Three shafts were sunk on the Victoria lead.

Activity ramped up quickly and in 1863 production quadrupled the previous year’s output.

In 1866, Gallagher and Company mined the Mulgrave lead and sank a shaft 230 feet deep and connected it to a 238-foot-deep shaft about 100 feet to the east. By September 1866, 6,636 ounces of gold had been extracted from Isaac’s Harbour, the average yield per ton of ore being two ounces, two pennyweights and one gram.

Production declined in 1868 when the Mulgrave mine shut down and the Victoria mine also closed after a fire destroyed its crusher. Only 673 ounces of gold were produced in the district that year.

In 1869, 227 ounces were produced. The Mulgrave mine was bought by Sir Hugh Allan of Montreal, who is best-known in Nova Scotia for his coal mining interests (he co-founded the Acadian Coal Company and Stellarton’s Allan Shaft mine was named for him: Allan was also a shipping magnate and railway promoter.

Production in the district doubled in 1870 but activity was still modest compared to earlier years. A noteworthy development was that the United Mining Association opened an “open cut” on the Hattie Belt, what we would now call a surface mine. The vast majority of historical gold mining in Nova Scotia, including at Isaac’s Harbour, was done by digging shafts and tunnels to follow gold-bearing quartz veins underground. As long as the veins contained enough gold, this could be a very profitable method, but it was difficult and expensive work to dig underground. Open-cuts sometimes let miners access lower-grade ore but much more of it, making it a viable, if uncommon, method of gold mining in the historical era.

It's still true today that underground mines are generally much more expensive to operate and it is a big advantage when mineralization is close to surface so surface mining can be done. Most of Nova Scotia’s mines are surface mines today, including the Moose River Gold Mine, which is one of the lowest-cost, most-efficient gold mines in the world.

Unfortunately, the United Mining Association’s surface mine had water troubles in 1871 and the walls of the open cut caved in. A tunnel was dug to drain the water but mining was resumed via shafts and tunnels. The Consolidated Mining Company also mined the Hattie Belt that year and used the United Mining Association’s mill to crush its ore. Both companies abandoned the Hattie in 1873 and production in the district fell to 37 ounces.

Work continued through the 1870s and 1880s, some of it by "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.

Interest in Isaac’s Harbour picked up in 1887 with the discovery of gold on Hurricane Island. Three shafts were dug to depths of 37, 70 and 100 feet and the Island Mining Company produced 2000 ounces of gold in 1888, partly from under the ocean’s floor. This, too, was unusual. While coal mining under the sea was common – in fact, most of Cape Breton’s coal has been extracted in submarine mines – gold mining under the sea has been rare in Nova Scotia.

A causeway was built to connect Hurricane Island to the mainland and the island is sometimes referred to in records as Hurricane Point since the causeway meant it was no longer technically an island. The remains of the causeway can still be seen underwater in aerial images (see below).

The Palgrave Company also worked on Hurricane Island in 1889 but its work ceased in March 1890 due to a legal dispute with landowners on the island.

Prospectors in the Skunk Den, east of the harbour, found a gold-bearing vein in 1891 and the Malloy Mine was established.

Activity in various parts of the district continued with limited success in the years following but picked up again in 1898 when the Hurricane Island and Skunk Den mines reopened. 1,933 ounces were produced on the island that year but by 1900, the vein had petered out and some ore was being taken from the mine’s roof, which separated the mine from the ocean water above.

Mining continued intermittently in the Isaac’s Harbour gold district until 1958. From 1861-1958, a total of 39,694 ounces of gold were produced, making it the eleventh most productive historical gold district in Nova Scotia.

Like so many of Nova Scotia’s historical gold districts, Isaac’s Harbour has the potential to be returned to production and to create jobs for Nova Scotians. In fact, almost all the activity in Nova Scotia’s gold sector is at historical mines where deposits were proven during our early gold rushes but modern science and technology make it possible to mine profitably while, of course, taking proper care of the environment.