Reverend McPherson’s Iron

In the early 1900s, Reverend Martin A. McPherson had an interest in several iron prospects in Cape Breton. His promotion of two sites led to them becoming active mines. His promotion of a third was described as “weird and grotesque.”

Two undated and unsigned memos in provincial government files discuss iron deposits McPherson was involved in: the Eskasoni prospect and the McPherson iron mine. (McPherson is also spelled MacPherson in some records.)

We do not know who authored the memos. One of them includes a 1907 map made by Frederic H. Sexton, who became the founding principal of the Nova Scotia Technical College that year, but it is not clear whether Sexton also authored the memos.

The 1907 map indicates the memos were written that year or after. The memos discuss McPherson in the present tense so they were written before he passed away in 1910.

The memo about the Eskasoni iron prospect refers to it as being on McPhee’s Road, which led to the farm of Hugh McPhee. This was just west of the intersection of what is now called Beaver Cove Road and Old Beaver Cove Road.

Reverend McPherson had staked claims in the area and the memo may have been commissioned by Frank Roberts, who presumably wanted an evaluation of the property before deciding whether to invest in it.

Exploration on the site was modest. Shallow trenches had been dug and there were several small pits. The largest pit was 16 feet deep and there were also two short tunnels.

The memo’s author was thoroughly unimpressed with the site’s potential as an iron mine. While some iron was present, there was nothing to suggest it was enough in either quality or quantity to justify a mine.

In fact, what is interesting about the memo is how colourful and heated its comments are about a pamphlet Reverend McPherson published to promote the site, called “The Mountain Iron ore Range of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, A Mineral Sweden of the Bras d’Or.” Memos about mineral prospects done by geologists, even in the historical era, are usually technical, dense, science-based documents that are important for experts but make for dry reading.

That was not the case with this memo.

McPherson’s pamphlet was, according to the memo’s author, “very misleading in some of its statements and grotesque in its theory of iron ore formation. Since this pamphlet and assertions of a similar nature to the ones contained therein were instrumental in interesting Mr. Roberts in this proposition, I take the trouble to simply show the absurdity by a few quotations from the pamphlet.”

The memo goes on to pick apart McPherson’s pamphlet as having no basis in geological science: “No one is justified in so grossly exaggerating the facts as shown by the actual outcrops and transforming hopes and imaginary anticipation to bald declaration.”

McPherson estimated the “probable resources” in the area to be over one million tons of iron ore, basically by assuming without evidence that much of the landscape, for several miles, contained mineable ore. The memo says, “I think these figures…show on their very face their absurdity and the small consideration which they deserve. The general statements which involve ideas of the general formation or iron ores would seem weird and grotesque even to a layman.”

The memo went on: “Such sweeping and misleading assertions as the above quotations which cannot be realized even though made in the exaggerated and ignorant faith of a vendor or promoter of a mining property do incalculable harm in the fruitless waste of the time and money of the luckless investor, and to the industry of mining in general.”

Other than this remarkable memo, we could find no records discussing the Eskasoni prospect, which suggests that the harsh analysis of the site was accurate and no one else ever did further prospecting.

McPherson was more successful with his involvement in an iron mine at Mount Cameron in the Boisdale Hills, about 22 kilometres northeast of Eskasoni.

What would become known as the McPherson mine was discovered by Archie McMillan and John McPherson in the early 1900s while prospecting on behalf of Reverend McPherson. Soon after, a shaft was sunk 32 feet deep, and a tunnel was driven at the bottom 15 feet to the southeast.

The Dominion Iron and Steel Company then worked the site, sinking a number of prospecting pits along a road they cut for 1.5 miles to the northeast of the deposit. However, the company then quit the area.

In 1906 the property was worked by W. F. Jennison of Sydney. He dug a new pit and sank a shaft 30 feet down. He extracted 600 tons of magnetite, which averaged about 60% iron, between October 1906 and March 1907.

Jennison sold the ore to the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company for $3.00 per ton. The company was willing to buy all the iron ore he could produce despite the fact that the Dominion Iron and Steel Company had taken no interest in the site because the ore contained significant amounts of sulphur, an impurity from the perspective of a steel company.

The two companies operated the steel mills in Sydney Mines and Sydney respectively and were interested in local sources of iron. Steel is mainly made of iron and carbon that is derived from metallurgical coal. Nova Scotia’s immense coalfields provided plenty of carbon but most of the iron used in the steel mills was imported from Bell Island, Newfoundland (

After mining, transportation and other costs, Jennison made $1.00 per ton in profit.

Included in Jennison’s expenses was payment of a royalty to Reverend McPherson of 25 cents per ton.

The same memo-writer who attacked Reverend McPherson’s promotion of the Eskasoni iron prospect was very complimentary of the McPherson mine’s deposit: “It would seem that there exists at Mount Cameron only a short distance from the railway and a few miles from an excellent market for iron ore, a rather small body of magnetic iron ore of high quality, except for a comparatively large percentage of sulphur.”

He recommended “that a six months’ option of the mining area be obtained from Rev. Father McPherson on reasonable terms and that the area be further prospected.”

An ore sample of from the McPherson mine was awarded a first-class diploma at the Paris Exhibition in 1901. The sample is still stored in the economic rock collection of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax.

The roadbed by the McPherson mine has been relocated since the era when the mine was active, obliterating some of the old workings.

McPherson was also involved in the Ingraham mine in nearby Ironville which also operated in the early 1900s and provided some iron ore to both the to the Dominion Iron and Steel Company and the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company.

Reverend McPherson was born in Big Pond, Cape Breton, on September 16, 1847. He was educated at St. Francis Xavier College in Antigonish and the Grand Seminary in Quebec. He was ordained on October 6, 1872, at Quebec.

He was pastor of Ingonish and Cape North from 1872-74, pastor of Port Felix from 1874-78 and pastor of Little Bras d’Or from 1878-1908.

In 1907, McPherson objected when the mission of Boularderie, which had been served from Boisdale for ten years, was transferred to Bras d'Or and at the same time the mission of Frenchvale was transferred from Bras d ’Or to Boisdale. This meant McPherson was losing responsibility for Frenchvale but gaining Boularderie.

McPherson was sufficiently upset with these changes that he appealed to the apostolic delegate in Ottawa. Not only did McPherson not win the appeal but the apostolic delegate suspended him for disobeying the orders of his bishop, Bishop Cameron.

When Bishop Cameron passed away in 1910, McPherson assumed his suspension was lifted, but that was not the case. McPherson travelled to Rome in 1910 to appeal his suspension and was successful.

McPherson spent two months in Italy. On his return voyage, one day after leaving Liverpool, England, on a White Star-Dominion ship named “Canada,” he died of heart failure. The date was November 4 and he was 63 years of age. He was buried at sea.

He was survived by his brothers Joseph, an MLA from 1891-94 and customs collector at the port of North Sydney, and Neil and Hector, both of whom lived in Big Pond.

While we could not find any records that explained what motivated Reverend McPherson’s interest in mining, it is possible that he shared the belief of Father Pierre Fiset that a pastor should not only tend to his flock’s souls but also to their well-being in this life. Fiset started the Cheticamp gypsum quarry (, which is a beautiful hiking trail and swimming hole today. He also started several other businesses and economic development initiatives (

Our thanks to the Beaton Institute for their assistance with research about Reverend McPherson.