Thomas Edison and the Chignecto Coal Mine

The inventor of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison, played a small role in Nova Scotia’s industrial history. He inspired the building of the first power plant in North America located at the mouth of a coal mine in Chignecto!

While best-known for inventing incandescent lightbulbs, Edison was a prolific inventor with a record-setting 1,093 patents. He also had inventions related to the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the telegraph, telephone and much more. He also had companies involved in processing ore from mines and promoting innovative uses of cement and concrete.

One of Edison’s innovative theories led to the 1905 establishment of a power plant at the site of the Outwood coal mine in Lancashire, England. Edison said, “It is preposterous to keep putting the coal mines on wheels. It is too clumsy. It is too costly. There is no necessity for it. It is easier to carry molecular vibration - millions of waves a second - than freight cars full of crude matter. We can ship a 100,000 horse power over a wire quicker and more economically than we can send the equivalent in coal over a railroad track.”

In other words, Edison believed it was more efficient to transport electricity over longer distances than coal.

This concept was brought to Nova Scotia by the Maritime Coal, Railway and Power Company which operated a coal mine along Baird Brook in Chignecto, Cumberland County. In 1907, the company celebrated the launch of a power plant it built at the Chignecto mine. The power was carried by wires on poles to Amherst and other towns.

Edison was invited to attend the opening of the power plant but was unable because he was vacationing in Florida. He did, however, send a congratulatory telegram saying, “It is a bold attempt and I never thought it would be first accomplished in Nova Scotia where my father was born over one hundred years ago.”

His last comment was a reference to Edison’s family connection to Nova Scotia. His great grandfather, American John Edison, was loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. He was charged with treason and sentenced to death, and all his belongings and property were confiscated. While the intervention of relatives spared him from hanging, in 1783 he, like many loyalists, fled to Nova Scotia, settling near Digby where Thomas Edison’s father was born. The family later moved to Ontario in 1811 and Edison’s immediate family eventually ended up in Ohio.

Coal mining in Chignecto began in 1864 along St. George's Brook and Baird Brook. There were several operators in the area before the Maritime Coal, Railway and Power Company took over the Chignecto mine in 1901.

In 1902, a fire in the mine forced it to close from February to April. Spontaneous combustion of coal had plagued mines in the area since the early 1880s. (Coal can spontaneously combust when exposed to oxygen.) The company sank two 15-metre shafts west of Baird Brook while an attempt was made to extinguish the fire.

In 1904, production at the mine exceeded 45,000 tons of coal.

In 1905, the Maritime Coal, Railway and Power Company started developing its Chignecto #3 slope (incline tunnel) east of the existing operations.

In 1906, construction of the power plant began.

In 1907, the power plant started generating electricity. Coal was carried out of the mine to the surface in cars, containing 1500 pounds of coal each, that were pulled up the mine’s slope by a cable. The coal was dumped into a processing plant that sorted the coal using screens and conveyor belts. Impurities like slate were removed by hand as the conveyor belts kept the coal moving toward immense bins from which it was fed through chutes to the power plant’s furnaces.

The power plant had an 800-horsepower Robb-Armstrong engine and an alternating 100-kilowatt generator manufactured by Westinghouse.

Also in 1907, the Maritime Coal Railway and Power Company bought the assets of the Canada Coals and Railroad Company, which included the Joggins coal mines and the 12-mile Joggins railway. The railway would later be used to transport coal from Joggins to the Chignecto mine’s power plant as coal mining ramped down in Chignecto.

Spontaneous combustion continued to hamper mining operations but in 1909 the mine produced over 50,000 tons for the first time.

In 1910, an explosion at the mine resulted in two deaths.

Production at the Chignecto mine stopped in 1913 but in 1916 the Maritime Coal, Railway and Power Company reopened the Chignecto #3 slope and opened a new slope, the #4.

In 1915, the company started developing its #5 slope further east, just west of St. George’s Brook. #5 was abandoned in 1919 and #4 was closed in 1921.

The power plant at the Chignecto mine was closed in 1934 due to a new plant that was built in Maccan.

The Maritime Coal, Railway and Power Company operated a total of 20 mines in the Joggins-River Hebert-Chignecto coal district between 1901-42 from which it extracted 3.7 million tons of coal.