Nova Scotia’s Gold Mining History

Here is the story of Nova Scotia's early gold discoveries.

Gold was discovered in Nova Scotia in 1858 at Mooseland on the Tangier River, Halifax County. The discovery was made by a British army officer, Captain Champagn L'Estrange of the Royal Artillery, out for a day of moose hunting with a Mi'kmaq guide named Joe Paul. Not much happened until two years later, when Paul returned to the same site, this time bringing a prospector named John G. Pulsifer — who wasted no time reporting the discovery of gold to government officials in Halifax and staking his own claim.

On his way to Halifax, Pulsifer stopped at the village of Tangier and identified several other potential gold-bearing sites. Peter Mason, a local farmer, took Pulsifer's advice and was rewarded with the discovery of gold at the head of Tangier Harbour. The race was on, as eager would-be prospectors and gold-diggers left farms, fisheries and forests behind, and descended on the Tangier-Mooseland gold-field in search of their fortune.

Within weeks, Joseph Howe arrived for a personal inspection; he was Provincial Secretary at the time, responsible for mineral development. Howe was amused by the "buoyant step and flashing eyes of the newcomers, just rushing out of the dense foliage, in hot haste to be rich." In contrast, those actually at work had "the subdued and doubting expression of those who had been digging and washing all day without a sight of the glittering ore." In Howe's opinion, "the richest specimen that I have seen, either at Tangier or that came from thence, is not intrinsically worth half a crown; and all that I have seen put together would scarcely fill a lady's thimble."

The Lieutenant-Governor read Howe's report and was not much impressed either: "The thing most to be feared is that the hopes of large gain will induce many to neglect their ordinary avocations, which in a country like this, where the population is thin, cannot fail to act injuriously on the Colony, especially at this season of the year, when every one engaged in agricultural pursuits ought to be occupied on his farm."

Despite this scepticism, those early discoveries paid off. By 1960 Tangier had produced a total of 26,022 ounces of gold and Mooseland another 3,865 ounces.

Between 1861 and 1866, gold was also discovered in various other areas of Nova Scotia, principally at the Ovens in Lunenburg County; Isaac's Harbour, Sherbrooke (Goldenville) and Wine Harbour in Guysborough County; Lawrencetown, Montague, Oldham and Waverley in Halifax County; Renfrew and Uniacke in Hants County; and various other smaller mines.

The discovery and pursuit of gold has always been shrouded in suspense, intrigue and high adventure; Nova Scotia was no exception. Nelson Nickerson of Sherbrooke, for example, visited Tangier in the summer of 1861 and learned to distinguish quartz from other rocks. He returned home later in the season to make hay on his farm — but was careful to inspect every rock and boulder in his fields, breaking the suspicious ones open with a hammer; before long, he discovered gold.

The Nickerson family kept this a close secret, but neighbours began to suspect that Nelson had found gold, and his entire family was closely watched for weeks. In October the neighbours heard the muffled sound of Nickerson's hammer; within days, over 200 people had converged on Sherbrooke, and in a single day of smashing quartz it was estimated that gold worth $400 was extracted — a significant sum for that time.

Twenty years later, in 1880, a Mi'kmaq named Peter Paul was searching for a missing ox at Salmon River, now Port Dufferin in Halifax County. He found not only the ox but also a boulder containing gold — which when extracted was worth about $15. Within days Paul took not one, but two men to the location of his find — a Captain Brown and then, in the dead of night, a man named Kent Archibald who already operated a mine at Harrigan Cove — and neither of them knew that the other had been shown the secret location.

The stagecoach left Salmon River for Halifax the morning after Archibald's midnight tour; both Brown and Archibald were on board, bound for the city to secure prospecting licenses — neither knowing the other's intention. The stagecoach stopped at Tangier overnight, Captain Brown got off — but Archibald, being determined, found another way to continue onward. When Brown arrived at the Mines Office a couple of days later, he found that he was too late.

Dynamite was introduced into gold mining in the 1870s. Its use enabled deeper penetration into the diggings, and this resulted in an extended boom period. So great was the miners' haste, though, that support timbering was frequently inadequate or poorly maintained, waste rock was often thrown into old workings, and mine roofs were sometimes destroyed when upper parts of the gold veins were found to be auriferous (gold-bearing). By the early 1880s many mines had closed, while others were small and did not have labour-saving machinery.

In the mid-1880s, however, experienced and trained men reopened many of Nova Scotia's gold mines. These men triggered a “Golden Age” of historical gold-mining in Nova Scotia, between 1885 and 1903, by applying economic and scientific principles, using modern methods, building better stamp mills and purchasing up-to-date machinery — all of which led to a significant increase in production (figures below. These figures also show how production declined in the 1900s as the science and technology of the day limited miners’ ability to find and extract gold.)

• 156,846 ounces — 1860s
• 137,761 ounces — 1870s
• 169,707 ounces — 1880s
• 243,699 ounces — 1890s
• 200,203 ounces — 1900s
• 46,377 ounces — 1910s
• 11,375 ounces — 1920s
• 106,324 ounces — 1930s
• 71,067 ounces — 1940s
• 13,882 ounces — 1950s

In total, Nova Scotia's mines produced 1,157,292 ounces of gold between 1862 and 1960; the largest producers were Goldenville (210,152 oz.), Caribou (91,358), Oldham (85,295), Waverley (73,105), Montague (68,139), Upper Seal Harbour (57,845), Renfrew (51,985), Brookfield (43,041), Wine Harbour (42,726) and Salmon River (Dufferin Mines) (41,649).

A gold bar from the modern Moose River mine.