We love getting questions about mining, minerals and geology! We were asked about the historical Londonderry iron mines.

Iron mining and smelting began in Nova Scotia in 1825 when iron mines opened at Nictaux Falls, Annapolis County, and the Annapolis Iron Mining Company built a blast furnace at Clementsport between Annapolis Royal and Digby.

Iron has also been mined in numerous other locations in Nova Scotia, including East River, Bridgeville and Stellarton (Pictou County), Brookfield and Economy Mountain (Colchester County), Erinville and other places in Guysborough County, Doctors Brook and other places in Antigonish County and in Cape Breton.

However, all of Nova Scotia’s iron mines were relatively small-scale except for those in Londonderry, Colchester County, where mining started in 1849. The Acadian Iron Mines at Londonderry became the biggest iron producer in Canada. Londonderry produced high quality iron and had a very good reputation. Its iron was used by the steel mills in Sheffield, England, which only accepted high quality pig iron and produced some of the best steel globally.

According to Historic Nova Scotia (, the pig iron produced in Londonderry was transported by ox cart or horse to Great Village and loaded on to ships. Once the railway was complete in 1858, ore was also shipped by train to Halifax.

In 1870, Londonderry’s first steel plant was built and in 1874 the first commercial-scale experiments in making steel using open hearth furnaces took place in Londonderry. German-British engineer Charles William Siemens’ open hearth furnaces could produce and sustain much higher temperatures than any other furnace, and they became the predominant method of steel-making for many decades.

In 1877 the plant switched from using charcoal as fuel to coke. Beehive-shaped coke ovens were installed to produce coke from coal. Tracks were laid across the top of the ovens, and small coal cars filled each oven through its “charging hole” on top. That same year the properties were bought by the Steel Company of Canada.

In the 1890s, as Londonderry’s iron deposits were gradually depleted, iron ore from the Nictaux-Torbrook area was mixed with ore from Londonderry to stretch the Londonderry supply.

Unfortunately, the blending didn’t work. Nictaux-Torbrook’s ore contained high levels of phosphorous and sulphur, which are impurities in steel-making, and it lowered the quality of the Londonderry ore.

Operations shut down in 1899 but were started up again in 1904 after the Londonderry Iron and Mining Company bought the property. However, they shut down again in 1908, permanently this time. A 1920 fire that destroyed 54 buildings in Londonderry dashed any hopes of restarting operations.

There were three main areas mined in Londonderry:

The Old Mountain Mine was an underground operation with four main levels. The mine was on the west bank of Great Village River about 3000 feet north of the bridge on Base Line Road. There were also some workings at Cook Brook.

The West Mines were between Cumberland Brook and Martin Brook.

The East Mines were between Slack Brook and Gory Brook and saw a mix of underground and surface mining. There were also workings at Weatherbe Brook, Pine Hill Brook and Totten Meadow. The East Mines were mined in the 1890s as Londonderry was winding down.

The best ore in Londonderry was called “bottle ore” by the miners. The actual term was botryoidal hematite but the early miners had trouble pronouncing “botryoidal” and shortened it to “bottle.” It was common for historical miners, most of whom would have been uneducated, to mispronounce technical terms or to invent terms to describe what they saw. For example, gold miners in Waverley used the term “barrel quartz” for folded, gold-bearing quartz veins whose outcrops were corrugated and resembled barrels.

Nova Scotia got into steel production in the 1800s because it has vast coal deposits and the hope was that local iron would provide the second of the two key ingredients. (Steel is mainly iron and carbon, and the carbon is derived from coal.) With the exception of Londonderry, which produced high quality iron until its deposits were largely depleted, most steel production in Nova Scotia used iron from outside the province, mainly from Bell Island, Newfoundland, and also from the Lake Superior region.

Londonderry was a major industrial centre with iron mining, smelting and steel-making. It had almost 5000 residents at its peak and was the main economic driver in northern Nova Scotia for many years.

Coke ovens in Londonderry