McLeans Point

A mysterious – and failed - marble quarry in Cape Breton highlights how different mining and quarrying are today from the historical era.

Little is known about the McLeans Point quarry. An 1879 Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) report mentions a small quarry on the property of Stephen McLean, northeast of St. Peter’s, Richmond County. Marble was quarried “in a deep excavation, but soon abandoned." The location was noted on the 1884 GSC map partially shown below.

A 1934 Canada Department of Mines study on limestone occurrences in the Maritimes said, "Some time prior to 1875 an unsuccessful attempt was made to quarry marble from a deposit of very light grey, fine grained, calcium limestone occurring on the south side of St. Peters Inlet, Bras d'Or Lake, 1/4 mile north of Corbett Cove.” (The deposit was discussed in a report about limestone deposits because marble is metamorphosed limestone, meaning it starts as limestone but is turned into marble by extreme heat and pressure.)

The report said the deposit was 30 feet thick and formed the crest of a wooded hill 200 feet above the lake.

The marble contained greenish shale which “accounts in large part for the rather high content of impurities” in the marble. The impurities are perhaps the reason the quarry was so short-lived, but records do not say.

A memo in government files from 1950 says there was a marble quarry located at McDougall's Point, five miles east of St. Peters. The memo did not include a map, but it is believed to be same quarry. The memo said, "This quarry was operated some years ago by Mr. Corre of Arichat as a building marble quarry. Very little stone was removed. The face worked at that time is a quarter mile from the shore, and is about 30 feet high.”

The memo estimated that “possibly a little more than 50 000 tons of good clean stone could be obtained before it was fouled by the occurrence of other rock. Below this, another face could be opened with only a reasonable amount of cover [overburden/soil] to remove and something over 100 000 tons obtained.”

The unidentified memo writer felt the site was not a good prospect for a new quarry. In fact, the memo describes the site as “useless for our purposes” but does not say what those purposes were.

Large sinkholes on the property suggested that significant erosion of the marble had taken place. Marble is a relatively soft rock that is easily-eroded by flowing water breaking it down (similar to how streams/rivers carve valleys), or water dissolving the stone. This process often leads to sinkholes as groundwater erodes the rock, leaving an underground cavern. Eventually, the weight of the rock and earth above the cavern causes it to cave in and creates the sinkhole.

We do not know when exactly the quarry was operated, where its stone was used (if anywhere), why it shut down, or why it was re-examined in 1950.

This is not unusual with historical quarries. They often generated little documentation because there were basically no environmental or safety regulations pertaining to quarrying – if you owned the land, you could quarry it.

Mining had more regulations than quarrying in the 1800s and early 1900s, but still very few and they were mostly focused on mineral ownership, claim staking and royalties – in other words, a legal framework for managing who mined and where they did it, not for addressing things like environmental impacts.

Today, mines and quarries have substantively the same, very stringent regulatory regime. In the 1990s, Nova Scotia started doing environmental assessments and better-regulating industrial projects to protect the environment. A mine’s environmental assessment often takes 3-5 years and costs over a million dollars. It generates dozens of scientific studies and governments often ask for even more studies and data - proof of how stringently modern mining is regulated to protect the environment and how different standards are today from historical periods.

Also, before getting operating permits, modern 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.