The Ovens 1960

By the 1960s, the gold rush at the Ovens was long since over and the site had been turned into the wonderful campground it is today. However, Nova Scotia’s Department of Mines still played a little-known role in ensuring the safety of the Ovens because of its connection to mining.

One of Nova Scotia’s earliest gold discoveries took place on June 13, 1861, when James Bowling found gold-bearing quartz veins on Drum Head at the Ovens, Lunenburg County. A month later John Lawson, then-Government Surveyor for the county, found gold in the sand on the shore. The finds triggered the Ovens’ gold rush.

Within two months 600 people were seeking their fortunes at the Ovens, so-named because of the dozen sea caves in the cliffs. (The caves eroded naturally but one, Tucker's Tunnel, was extended by mining.) A small town with grocery stores, restaurants, a bank and a hotel quickly sprang up. Over one thousand people eventually went to the Ovens during its gold rush. (See the story at

By the 1960s, significant gold mining had not taken place at the Ovens in decades. However, the area was still staked under a prospecting license, meaning the Department of Mines had some jurisdiction over it.

A government mining engineer visited the Ovens in fall 1960 and wrote in a follow up memo that “A considerable amount of time and money has been spent in improving the tourist facilities of the area and Mr. Young [the Ovens’ owner] reports that it is the best season he has had in this respect.”

The memo continued: “While roofs and walls of caves are presently in a safe condition I called Mr. Young’s attention to the broken and unsafe condition of many of the fences along the cliff paths and look-out positions reminding him that although the area is primarily for tourist visits the ground is also held under a prospecting license. Although Mr. Young himself is covered by insurance should any accident occur, the Mines Department is in a somewhat ambiguous position in the event of an accident to a visitor on what is technically a mining property and I feel that this situation should be clarified.”

Like many visitors to the Ovens, the government engineer spent half an hour panning on the beach. He found about $2.00 worth of gold (about $19-20 today). While most people pan for gold at the Ovens for fun or in the hope of finding a fortune, it is standard practice for geologists and Mines Department employees to take samples and make observations when they are in the field, so his panning was professional in nature. (Learn how panning is used in prospecting:

The same mining engineer was back at the Ovens in fall 1961. He reported that “A jetty has been built outside of the more patronized blow-hole and provides a ‘look-in’ position which has proved very popular. In addition to necessary maintenance and repairs to concrete steps and retaining walls, new cliff edge fencing has been installed, a heavy post and wire fence with concrete footings now replaces the previous broken and dilapidated structure. Other expenses have been incurred in repairs and maintenance to the cottage and museum building, and in view of the area’s importance as a tourist attraction, should be acceptable in lieu of statutory assessment work.”

The last comment was a reference to the fact that claims holders are required to perform exploration work on their claims so we are constantly growing our geological knowledge of the province and its mineral resources. Staked claims cannot just sit idle. In this unusual case, the engineer was suggesting that the work done on the Ovens’ tourist facilities fulfilled the work requirements.

The 1961 memo concluded by saying, “Small amounts of gold have been recovered from the beach sands in demonstrations of panning given by Mr. Young to interested visitors.”

It is interesting that mining safety standards required improvements to the Ovens in the 1960s since today’s mining industry sees the safety standards of that era as insufficient. Still, the fact that mining was often a dangerous occupation historically made the industry and its regulators more safety-conscious than was the case for many other industries, even if rules and practices did not always succeed in preventing tragedies. (Nova Scotia was the first province in Canada to regulate safety in mines, starting in 1873:

Today, the modern mining industry is extremely safety-focussed. Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

Gold rushes in the 1800s in California and Australia had significant amounts of crime. Little law enforcement, alcohol, bad living conditions and dreams of quick riches, legal or not, inevitably led to trouble. This was generally not the case during Nova Scotia’s early gold rushes. However, the Ovens’ gold rush did lead to the shooting death of one man. See the story at