South Maitland

A mysterious quarry in South Maitland, Hants County, produced gypsum in the 1870s but, despite the area’s potential, it was never worked significantly again.

Hants County has world-class gypsum deposits that were quarried as early as the 1770s when farmers extracted gypsum that was shipped to the eastern United States for use as fertilizer.

Department of Mines annual reports for the years 1872-1879 indicate that a total of 19,305 tons of gypsum were extracted in South Maitland in that period. According to a 1991 provincial government report, the most likely location for this production was a quarry on the west bank of the Shubenacadie River, just across the river from Eagles Nest Point (see the map below).

The quarry was horseshoe-shaped with the opening along the river. The quarry area covered about three hectares and gypsum cliffs as high as 20 metres are still there in places.

Little else is known about the quarry but the 1991 report concluded that it must be where the extraction took place in the 1870s because no other quarry in South Maitland was worked sufficiently to provide that quantity of rock.

A second small quarry was started sometime in the 1800s about 1300 metres north of Rowe Lake (lower left-hand corner in the map). A small amount of extraction took place but the site was then abandoned, perhaps because the gypsum was light grey and not white enough to be marketable in that era.

Nova Scotia’s deputy inspector of mines, J. P. Messervey, visited South Maitland in 1926 to inspect gypsum deposits owned at that time by Warren Waddell and C. S. Johnson.

Messervey examined three gypsum exposures along Five Mile River and called them “all extensive precipitous cliffs…the deposits are very extensive and the prospect of enormous tonnage of high quality white gypsum is good.”

The pictures below of the three cliffs and the nearby Dominion Atlantic Railway bridge are from Messervey’s memo.

He pointed out that shipments could be made by both water along the Shubenacadie River, or by rail since the Midland branch of the Dominion Atlantic Railway crossed the river in that area. The property sloped down toward the river, which would have made a gravity-based tramway an inexpensive and efficient way to carry the gypsum to the river.

Despite Messervey’s positive comments, the area was not developed and the gypsum remains in the ground.

The 1991 government report concluded that the South Maitland gypsum deposits likely do not extend deep enough to justify a modern gypsum quarry. Many historical quarries were relatively shallow compared to modern operations (i.e. tens of feet deep, not hundreds of feet deep as can be the case now). The problem is that the gypsum is likely only “hydrated to shallow depths,” as the report put it.

Gypsum and anhydrite are basically the same mineral, the difference being that gypsum contains water and anhydrite does not. In fact, gypsum can turn into anhydrite when it is buried deep and pressure and heat cause it to lose water molecules, and anhydrite can turn into gypsum when it absorbs water molecules from, for example, groundwater. The addition or subtraction of water at the molecular level alters the rocks’ crystal structures, transforming them from one rock into the other.

The author of the 1991 report believed South Maitland’s gypsum deposits turn into anhydrite too close to surface, limiting the amount of gypsum available for extraction.

There were a number of other small historical gypsum quarries along the Shubenacadie River. According to a 1915 government report called Gypsum in Canada, “…at one time considerable business was done exporting the crude material, but many causes have militated against the successful operation of these deposits. Operations were carried on in the days of small sailing vessels owned by those who were familiar with the tides of the Shubenacadie river, but as the size of vessels increased, and before the steamboat was known on this river, the plaster [gypsum] trade became controlled by a few, and these deposits were the first to suffer.”

In other words, quarries were becoming larger and more efficient in the late 1800s, and smaller operations often could not compete. That trend has continued into modern times.

“Gypsum in Canada” went on to explain to its national audience, many of whom would not be familiar with how challenging the tides were for shipping, that “the tide at the mouth of the Shubenacadie rises 30 feet in three hours and recedes in the same length of time. At Eaglesnest point the bore at high tides is often 10 feet high.”

See the stories of many of Nova Scotia’s gypsum quarries at