Stellar Coal

Pictou chemist James Fraser, who is credited with making the first chloroform in Canada, also developed a novel business: mining coal with high oil content so the oil could be extracted and used in lamps instead of whale oil. The plan worked…but only briefly.

James D. B. Fraser (1807-1869) explored for coal in the Stellarton area in the late 1850s, after the General Mining Association lost the monopoly it had on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57. After the monopoly ended, a large number of entrepreneurs applied for licenses to explore and mine for coal. Fraser was part of this flurry of activity.

Fraser discovered a kind of soft, oily coal that today we call oil shale. Fraser’s hope was that extracting the oil from the coal would allow the oil to compete with whale and fish oils used in the lamps that were replacing candles in that era.

Fraser opened a coal mine in 1859 and in the first year, he shipped 1621 tons of coal to Boston to be refined. The average price was about $8.25 per ton of coal. The mine also sold five tons of the coal locally.

Henry Poole managed the mine, which gave the business credibility since Poole was previously the manager of the General Mining Association’s Pictou County mines. (Poole’s son, Henry S. Poole, would become Nova Scotia’s Inspector of Mines and later the General Manager of the Acadia Coal Company.)

It is believed that Henry Poole was the person that first called the coal “Stellar Coal.” The name described the sparks, which resembled stars, that resulted from burning Fraser’s coal. Stellarton, which was founded by the General Mining Association, was originally named Albion Mines but its name was changed to Stellarton in 1870, a reference to Stellar Coal.

According to James Cameron’s book, “The Pictonian Colliers,” Fraser worked two small seams of Stellar Coal. Two slopes (decline tunnels) were sunk, both a little over 200 feet long. There were seven working areas, with 35 men employed in total. There were also three horses which supplied hoisting power on the surface and pulled boxes underground.

Fraser built two blocks of miners’ houses to accommodate eight families, and a wharf in New Glasgow.

Unfortunately, Nova Scotia’s first Inspector of Mines, James. C. McKeagney, reported in 1860 that Fraser’s mine, “conducted with so much spirit and success during the past season has for the present suspended operations….not due to failure in the mine but to a temporary misunderstanding between the parties interested in the colliery.”

Copying Fraser’s idea, Andrew Patrick opened a “mine of oil-producing coal at New Glasgow.” Inspector McKeagney reported in 1860 that Patrick’s mine was “doing a prosperous business.” 525 tons of coal were shipped that year to the New York Columbian Company in Brooklyn for refining. New Glasgow chemist J. W. Jackson analysed the coal from Patrick’s mine and found that it gave 62 gallons of oil per ton of coal.

After two years and spending $8,621, Fraser’s mine closed because it could not compete with oil discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, site of the first commercial oil well in the United States, which offered a less expensive product, closer to market. Andrew Patrick’s mine also shut down.

Coal oil from Stellarton had just started making progress in replacing whale oil in the lamps of American homes but it was soon replaced by kerosene refined from petroleum. Still, the term “coal oil” was often used in reference to kerosene since Fraser’s product resembled kerosene and was first to market.

Despite his bad luck with Stellar Coal, Fraser was not done with mining. He went on to invest another $4,691 developing two other small coal mines that opened in 1863, the Thom Pit on the MacGregor Seam and the Fraser Mine on the Main Seam.

Sales were limited to customers who brought wagons and sleds to the mine mouth and Fraser’s operations shut down not long after opening.

Fraser picked up another coal lease from New Glasgow shipbuilder, and later MP and senator, James Carmichael. Carmichael was getting out of mining coal after spending $3,200 sinking boreholes and digging small trial pits but failing to find good coal in sufficient quantity to mine it. Carmichael would instead focus on shipping coal mined by others to the New England market.

The areas held by Fraser would later be mined by the Acadia Coal Company, which Fraser cofounded with Sir Hugh Allan and a New York syndicate.

James Fraser had diverse business interests. He was the local agent for the Eastern Stage Coach Company, which operated a service between Halifax and Pictou starting in 1828. In 1840 he opened a stone quarry at West River and shipped grindstones to Boston. He also hired a diving apparatus to recover the guns of hms Malabar which ran aground off PEI in 1838, making him a pioneer in underwater salvage in the Maritimes.

Fraser also operated a series of drug stores and it was through that work that he took an interest in chloroform as a pain-killer.

Nova Scotia’s coal deposits started forming 300 million years ago when Nova Scotia had a tropical climate – tectonic plate movement had us in the middle of supercontinent Pangea, down around the equator.

Swamps contained dense vegetation that died, drifted to the bottom of the swamps and gradually formed peat—a soggy, sponge-like material. As the peat accumulated, the weight of the top layers compacted the lower layers by squeezing out water.

The peat was buried over time by sediments and ocean water. Deeper burial increased pressure and heat on the vegetation, causing chemical and physical changes, and pushing out oxygen. Over thousands of years, this turned the peat into the coal that still provides over half of Nova Scotia’s electricity.

The oil in Stellarton’s oil shale came mainly from algae that was in the swamps where the coal formed. Other hydrogen-rich plant and animal material also contributed. Well-preserved fossil algae, with layers as thick as 15 centimetres, can be found in some of the richer oil shales in the area.

The pictures below are reclaimed areas at the modern Stellarton surface coal mine, which is reclaiming land associated with at least a half dozen historical mines.