Captain Peter Mason, a fisherman, was the first to discover gold in Tangier in October 1860, in a brook north of Rush Lake, while he was watering his ox. This quickly led to Nova Scotia’s first underground gold mine.

As the discovery became known, a number of people flocked to the area in Halifax County to search for gold but the ground was frozen and Mason would not let them on his land, so little work was done until the next year.

It was then that a gold rush started that became world-wide news. In addition to the hundreds of Nova Scotians who went to Tangier to seek their fortunes, Tangier was visited in July 1861 by Prince Napoleon (cousin of Emperor Napoleon III of France) and his wife, Princess Clotilde (daughter of King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy), who sailed into Tangier Harbour on their yacht, the Jerome Napoleon.

Three months later one of Queen Victoria's sons, HRH Prince Alfred, also visited. Today, Prince Alfred Arch stands in Graeme Ferguson Memorial Park in Mason’s Cove, where Prince Alfred landed. The arch is made of granite and commemorates an arch of spruce branches and flowers that was made at the time of Alfred’s visit.

The 1861 gold rush saw over 600 miners and prospectors arrive in the Tangier area. To address this sudden influx of people – most of Nova Scotia was wilderness in that period so 600 people descending on a place like Tangier was extraordinary - Tangier soon became the first proclaimed gold district in Nova Scotia. Government officials laid out mining lots (claims) approximately 50 feet wide and 20 feet in length along the strike of the gold-bearing veins known at that time. This led to excavation of 114 shafts averaging 22 metres in depth.

In 1862 the legislature passed “An Act relating to the Gold Fields” which gave the government authority to establish and regulate gold districts. It also helped avoid the crime, violence and disease that accompanied gold rushes in California and Australia by establishing a legal process for staking claims and managing areas. In fact, the Illustrated London News wrote in 1861 of how “the universal civility and good manners of its [Tangier’s] inhabitants would certainly hardly agree with the notions of the character of the gold-digger.” (Learn more about early gold mining regulation at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/gold-fields.)

By 1862, twelve gold-bearing veins were being worked simultaneously, the richest being the South, Leary and a vein named for the “N-word.” (We will not use the actual name because it is inappropriate.)

The South vein was worked along a length of 500 metres and produced grades of 15-200 grams of gold per ton. Although not as rich as the South, the “N-word” and Leary veins were mined along lengths of 800 and 300 metres respectively. The “N-word” vein produced the largest nuggets, some reported to be over 20 ounces each.

In these early years, it was difficult to do a significant amount of work in an individual claim without being hampered by the close proximity to neighbouring claim holders – the claims laid out by the government were simply too small to be properly mined. Claims holders could only justify investing in the cheapest and crudest machinery. There was not enough room to properly control water and a number of shafts were lost due to water problems. Great care had to be taken not to encroach on neighbouring claims and underground workings.

The government corrected this problem when “An Act relating to the Gold Fields” increased most claims to 150x250 feet.

In 1863, most of the small lots were abandoned by their owners, who were mostly individuals with little mining knowledge but big dreams of getting rich. Most of the claims were then acquired by mining companies, the largest of which was the New York and Nova Scotia Mining Company. This company could afford newer and more sophisticated equipment and succeeded in driving a 130-metre tunnel into a hill.

In 1865, a 27-ounce gold nugget from Tangier, the largest found in Nova Scotia to that time, was displayed at the Dublin Exhibition.

In 1870, Copper Lake was de-watered and tested for placer gold. Henry Youle Hind, a consulting geologist for the Government of Nova Scotia in this period, pointed out that the drainage channel carried off only the surface water of the lake. As Hind suggested, shafts sunk in the former lake bottom immediately encountered groundwater and digging stopped. Proper pumping machinery was needed.

Between 1864 and 1871, most mining activity focused near Strawberry Hill, principally on the Forrest Lead. The most productive period in the history of the Tangier gold district was 1870-1871 when 3,907 ounces of gold were produced.

After this period, a number of individuals focused their efforts on the Strawberry Hill area. The Pittsburgh Gold Mining Company worked veins on the west shore of the Tangier Harbour during 1880-1881. The Brunswick Gold Mining Company and the Essex Gold Mining Company mined the Forrest Lead near the Mooseland Road between 1883-1885.

Little activity was reported for the 1886-1897 period and much of the mining was outsourced to "tributers” - men who leased mines from their owners and worked them. Tributers were common in Nova Scotia’s gold districts in the 1800s but were notorious for poor record keeping, low gold recovery and for paying little or no attention to safety and the environment. Because tributers did not own the mines, their focus was entirely short-term and they had no stake in the longer-term development of a mine or the community. The tribute system helped keep gold mining alive in lean years, but it was arguably not good for the industry overall.

In 1898, interest in the district picked up again and the Tangier Gold Mining Company acquired the western half of the district and carried out extensive work on the Leary, Nugget and Twin leads.

During 1900 and 1901 the mines were worked by the Worcester-Tangier Gold Mining Company. Mining stopped between September 1901 and June 1902 but started again under the Tangier Amalgamated Mining Company.

The Dominion Mining Company took over in 1906 and installed a hydro power plant in 1908-09. Bradford Mines Ltd. took over the site in 1916.

There is no record of gold production in the district after 1921 although the Kent Shaft was de-watered in 1934 by Nova Scotia Gold Mines Ltd. This company attempted to rehabilitate the workings but lack of financing forced the closing down of operations in 1937.

In August 1936, E. H. Henderson found a spectacular piece of gold quartz that was about the size of an apple. The nugget contained 20 ounces of gold and was found in a waste rock pile in the Kent Shaft, which, in 1937, was the main working shaft of Nova Scotia Gold Mines Ltd. A number of nuggets ranging from 0.5 to four ounces were also found in this underground waste rock pile.

These gold nuggets, which had literally been thrown away, highlight how rudimentary early gold mining was compared to the sophisticated science it is today. Not only could gold simply be missed in the dim light of a mine, but the milling of gold ore failed to capture much of the gold. One estimate suggested as much as 50% of the gold mined at Tangier ended up as waste in the tailings.

The milling process was to pulverize the ore (rock that contained gold), usually in stamp mills, large machines that had banks of stamps (rocks) that crashed down on the ore repeatedly to crush it into sand. Each stamp would weigh about 800 to 1,000 pounds.

In the 1800s, mercury was then used to separate the gold from the sand. (Mercury hasn’t been used in Nova Scotia since the early 1900s because it is bad for the environment.)

Gold dissolves in mercury but mercury does not absorb other impurities so it was effective at separating the gold from the rest of the crushed ore. The mercury/gold mixture was recollected and heated until the mercury boiled away. A simple still like those used to make alcohol would draw away the vaporized mercury, collecting it for reuse, leaving mostly pure gold. The gold was then refined for greater purity and formed into bricks or nuggets. This was the most common process for extracting gold from its host rock in that era, but it was inefficient and environmentally-damaging.

(Misconceptions about modern gold mining stem from historical mining practices, like the use of mercury, that we agree were not good enough. However, historical sites like these have nothing to do with modern mining which is a sophisticated, science-based activity that takes proper care of the environment. You can learn more about the differences between modern and historical gold mining at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/modern-gold-mining).

The total amount of gold produced from the Tangier district is estimated to be 29,360 ounces from 57,350 tons of ore.

The Tangier gold district has been an exploration target on and off since the 1950s. In the mining industry, we say new mines are often found next to old mines because historical sites worked with basic tools and little science can today be mined profitably and environmentally-responsibly with modern science and engineering.

That is why almost all the activity in Nova Scotia’s gold sector is at historical gold mines, like those in Tangier, that were first mined in the 1800s and still have the potential to return to production and create jobs for Nova Scotians.