Robert E. Chambers

Robert E. Chambers played an important role in Nova Scotia’s industrial history…mostly by mining in Newfoundland!

Chambers, who was born in Truro in 1857, opened an iron mine in Brookfield, Colchester County, in 1888 that initially sold its output to the Londonderry Iron and Mining Company and shipped to the company’s smelter at Londonderry.

Later, the Brookfield property was sold to the New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Railway Company (predecessor of the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company, so we will refer to the company by this latter name from now on). The Brookfield ore was smelted in the company’s furnace in Ferrona, Pictou County.

Chambers was chief mining engineer with the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company when he was sent to investigate a potential iron deposit on Newfoundland’s Bell Island in the early 1890s.

The Butler brothers of Topsail, Newfoundland, discovered Bell Island’s potential when they sent a rock to Montreal for analysis. The results were positive and on August 4, 1892, they filed for a mineral lease for three claims on the north side of Bell Island.

The Butler family did not have the financial resources to develop the claims so they engaged St. John’s merchant company Shirran & Pippy in May 1893 as an agent to promote the property. The Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company was looking for a reliable source of iron ore for its steelmaking operation, so Robert Chambers was sent to Bell Island.

Steel is mostly made from iron and carbon, and the carbon is derived from coal. 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. While Nova Scotia had a number of historical iron mines, most were relatively small, with the exception of the Londonderry mines, and there was interest in finding a larger, more stable supply of iron.

The Butlers plied Chambers with a meal of fresh lobsters and flatfish before showing him their claims, but the special treatment was not necessary. As Chambers later recalled: "It could be seen at a glance that the property was valuable."

In September 1894, the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company leased the mining rights from the Butlers, and Chambers began making plans for the first pier and tramway across the Island. Surface mining began in 1895 and Chambers managed the building and operation of what became known as the Wabana Iron Mines.

The first shipload of direct-shipped ore left Bell Island on Christmas Day 1895, destined for the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company’s blast furnace in Ferrona.

The opening of the Wabana mines was the beginning of the end for Nova Scotia’s small iron mines. The Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company would source its iron from Wabana instead of from Nova Scotia since Wabana’s supply was both better quality and more stable.

Eventually the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company closed its plant in Ferrona and built a new plant in Sydney Mines, closer to the Bell Island iron supply and Cape Breton’s coal deposits.

In this same period, Henry Melville Whitney was building his coal and steel empire in Cape Breton. In 1893, Whitney established the Dominion Coal Company and consolidated under his ownership practically all the coal mines operating in the Sydney coalfield east of Sydney Harbour. He also founded the Dominion Iron and Steel Company to build the Sydney steel plant, which entered full production around 1900 (

Whitney struck a deal with the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company to buy some of Bell Island’s mining rights so the Dominion Coal Company could also source iron from the Wabana mines. This set the stage for a major steel industry in Nova Scotia based on Wabana’s iron ore and Cape Breton’s coal. The steel plants in Sydney and Sydney Mines would use Wabana iron for decades.

Robert Chambers was also involved in some other projects. For example, the Butler brothers pitched him on a granite deposit they found in Old Bay, east of Newfoundland’s Harbor Breton, in 1909. Chambers obtained claims for the area and in 1910 started up a quarry under his own company, the Colonial Granite Company Ltd.

Chambers also opened a sandstone quarry on the bank of the Toney River, Pictou County, in the early 1880s. Stone was shipped from a wharf on the river and via rail on the Oxford-Pictou branch of the Intercolonial Railway. The quarry’s output in 1902 was about 700 tons of stone and the average price for dimension/building stone was $5.00 per ton.

Robert E. Chambers passed away in 1929. The Wabana iron mines, which he played such a key role in opening and running, operated until 1966.

Robert Chambers’ son, A. Robert Chambers (aka Bob), was co-discoverer of the Malagash salt mine, Canada's first rock salt mine. See how it was discovered and the history of salt mining in Nova Scotia at