Noel Gypsum Quarry

The Noel Plaster Company produced gypsum at Noel Lake, East Hants, from 1906-14.

Two sites were worked, one west of Noel Lake and one east of it.

The quarry on the west side of the lake, which was managed by Selwyn A. O’Brien and W. B. O’Brien, was in a hollow 30-40 feet below the surrounding land. A 1915 report said, “The top of the rock is covered with blow or pipe holes,” an unusual phrase that presumably means the gypsum had cavities in it eroded by water since the report also said the quarry was drained by natural watercourses through the rock. Gypsum is a relatively soft rock that is easily-eroded by water.

The quarry was on a 100-acre property and in 1912, at least 35 acres were believed to hold high-quality gypsum. The quarry’s working face was 35 feet high.

The gypsum was quarried by hand and hauled by horse-drawn wagons to a pier in Noel, two miles away, where it was shipped to the eastern United States to the J. B. King and Company’s plants in New York.

In 1912, the O’Briens were planning to build a railway line to replace the wagons, which even in that era were considered a costly and inefficient means of transport. However, work at the quarry shut down in June 2012. Mining started again a year later, in spring 2013, but the quarry closed the following year and the rail line was never built.

East of the lake, J. S. O’Brien oversaw some development work but little extraction appears to have taken place.

Today, there is little evidence of the former activity at the sites.

The O’Brien family first settled in Noel in 1771. The four O’Brien brothers from Londonderry, Ireland, originally settled in Londonderry, Nova Scotia, but moved to Noel when Timothy O’Brien bought land in the area. The family became well-known as ship builders and their ships were among the many that transported gypsum from Hants County to the US.

A mill for crushing gypsum was built in Noel in 1869 to make terra alba (pulverized gypsum used in medical applications). The gypsum was not quarried in Noel but came from 15 miles away, from an open cut in the west bank of the Shubenacadie River. The mill cost $12,000 to build but it burned down the following year and operations were abandoned.

The first mill in Noel for processing gypsum was built by the Noel Mills Company. It had a sawmill, grist mill and a mill for grinding gypsum as early as 1839.

Before wallboard/drywall became the most common way to finish walls, walls were usually made of laths (thin, flat strips of wood) with plaster spread over them. Ground gypsum was, and still is, a key ingredient in plaster. This method of making walls died out after wallboard was invented in the United States in 1918 by sandwiching plaster between two sheets of paper.

Today, wallboard is used in most buildings. An average home has about seven tons of gypsum in its walls. Most walls in Nova Scotia contain gypsum quarried in the province.

Safety is the main reason gypsum is in wallboard. Gypsum is 21% water at the molecular level so it slows the spread of fire and helps save lives.