Killag Quicksand

Many movies show people sinking in quicksand – usually rescued at the last minute with a tree branch! - but George W. Stuart did a different kind of sinking in quicksand: sinking a shaft through it to discover gold in Killag.

Gold-bearing quartz boulders were discovered in the area east of the Killag River in Sheet Harbour between 1865 and 1868. The large amounts of gold in the boulders triggered a search to find the veins from which the boulders had eroded. After several others failed, George W. Stuart decided in 1889 that the source of the gold boulders was under the swamp that underlies much of the area.

Stuart made several unsuccessful attempts to sink shafts in the swamp, but eventually reached bedrock after passing through 25 feet of peat, quicksand, and boulders.

Sinking a shaft through the swamp was harder than it might sound, especially in the middle of the woods, six miles from the nearest road, in an era of limited technology.

Stuart described the difficult process in a 1906 speech:

“We soon found the ordinary method of sinking a surface shaft in bad ground, viz, by putting in setts and driving piling, could not be successfully pursued there, because of much water, large boulders, and the lively nature of the sands…I therefore determined to adopt the caisson system.”

In other words, Stuart’s plan was to excavate within a caisson – basically a large wooden box that was open at the top and bottom - and use its walls to keep the quicksand out, thereby digging a shaft through the muck.

Stuart’s first caisson was 14 feet long by 7 feet wide and 10 feet high. It was slightly tapered so it was three inches narrower at the top than at the bottom.

“The windlass [winch] gear and sump box were placed at the top, and operations began inside. As the excavating proceeded, the caisson, with the added weight of the windlass gear, sump box, and men, gradually lowered, until the top was level with the surface. We then built another caisson exactly the same as the first, except that it was the thickness of the planking smaller, thus permitting it to telescope the first one….”

As the caissons slowly sank and the men hauled peat and quicksand out of them, “We frequently encountered large, rounded, smooth boulders, altogether too large to lift with the windlass gear, and yet it was almost impossible to drill them for blasting because of the rising quicksands. The workmen had to lay boards to stand upon, otherwise in a few minutes they would be fast in the sands and could only be relieved by slipping their boots [off]. We found the number of cubic feet actually excavated and hoisted was ten times greater than the cubic feet of space made within the enclosure.

When progress was halted by the quicksand, “We then laid heavy timbers across the top of the caisson and built scaffolds on them and ballasted the scaffold heavily with stone. By this means we managed to reach the depth of the second caisson.

“We then built a third caisson and placed it on top of the second one, but we found, on resuming work, that the rising of the sands, and the pressure of the large boulders that crowded in upon the sides of the caissons, stopped the work completely.”

The caissons were “stuck fast, held in the grip of the large boulders on either side, that had crept in upon us by the ever moving, stealthy, and relentless enemy, the sand. We dug and pumped and hoisted almost fiercely, and we piled more ballast on our scaffolds, but our efforts were in vain; we were held as solid as a ship in the midwinter Arctic ice, until the sides of our caissons groaned and showed serious signs of collapsing from the great pressure. But Nova Scotia prospectors are resourceful, so we determined to attack our invisible enemies from the inside.

“By carefully sounding the side of the caissons with a hammer, we were able to locate the bearings of each of the attacking boulders. We then, with an auger, bored through the planking and so introduced hand-drills and bored into each rock…then charged the holes with dynamite, and connected long fuses.”

The miners reinforced the inside walls of the caisson with timbers so they would withstand the dynamite blasts.

Stuart said, “It was a venturesome experiment but it was entirely successful.” The boulders were shattered by the dynamite and the stress on the caissons was relieved.

When the shaft finally reached the uneven bedrock, the men used wood blocks and “tough moss for caulking” to keep the sand from entering the caissons while they dug a shaft through the bedrock.

Fifty feet north of the shaft, they found the gold-bearing quartz vein from which the boulders, first found in the 1860s, had eroded. Stuart said, “we were not disappointed; its value warranted the efforts to discover it.”

Quicksand is ordinary sand or mud so saturated with water that the friction between sand particles is reduced. The result is a soupy mixture that can no longer support significant weight. Despite its portrayal in movies, drowning in quicksand is extremely unlikely. Quicksand is more dense than human bodies so you can float on it. While thrashing about can cause you to get more stuck in quicksand, experts say slow, gentle movements allow a person to swim or crawl through it to safety.

See the story of the Killag gold district at

George W. Stuart was one of Nova Scotia’s many successful historical gold prospectors and miners whose names are largely forgotten now. See his story at