Walter Prest

Walter Henry Prest was a legendary Nova Scotian prospector in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His knowledge of geology and analytical approach set him apart from many of his contemporaries and was, in many ways, more like the sophisticated, science-based exploration of the modern industry.

Like many scientists of his day, Prest wore several hats: he was a prospector, geologist and botanist, all stemming from his love of the outdoors. He authored several books and pamphlets, mostly about geology and prospecting, but also wrote one about edible plants, partly to help people survive while lost in the woods (something that could easily happen to a prospector).

Prest’s “The Gold Fields of Nova Scotia: A Prospectors Handbook,” was published in 1915 and contained practical advice for prospectors, in simple and often colourful language. He sometimes comes across in it as a cranky grandpa but you can tell that his knowledge was hard-won and he was probably right about everything.

Below are some examples of advice from it. Remember that Nova Scotia was mostly wilderness back then and prospectors generally had to camp for extended periods at their prospecting sites – they could not pop over to a hotel, restaurant or hardware store, so careful planning was essential to survival, not just success in prospecting.

“While arithmetic is necessary [to a prospector], he needs algebra about as much as a horse needs to know the Latin name for oats.”

“A prospector’s outfit in the [18]60s would not have called for much comment. A pick, a pan, a kettle, an axe, a few lbs. of food and the never forgotten pipe, tobacco and matches nearly completed the outfit…Camp and dishes grew on every white birch and spruce tree, and every prospector knew enough to strip the bark and make them. But the possession of blankets would forever blast a man’s reputation for hardihood so they were never used from April to November.”

About dealers of prospecting equipment, he said: “in their innocence and integrity they will send you barn shovels that bend like a tin scoop, picks that hold handles that a boy could break and that wear out in 3 weeks, or cheap drill steel that [will] cause more trouble than it is worth.”

“One very important bit of advice is to refuse every pick that wont take a 3 by 1¾ inch handle. Have nothing around that the men have to handle gently for fear of breaking or you will soon have some men that will not be worth 50 cts. per day. If such toys are shipped by mistake send them back at once, for every hours work with them is a loss. A story is told of an English manger in Montague who supplied his men with picks having light handles so slight that they were constantly breaking. On being told of it he gave orders that the men be more careful with the handles. On his next inspection he found fault because the men had done so little work and was told that they were afraid of breaking their pick handles.”

Shovel handles must be “heavy in the center where it first breaks, 14 inches long and sharp pointed so that you will not die of old age while a greenhorn is trying to stick it into a pile of slate.”

He said picks with only “a few inches of thin steel attached are not worth paying freight on and are sold by the dealers because they wear out quick and make business for them…Get single pointed picks. Double pointed picks…are too heavy for ordinary work and cannot be used in a tunnel anyway.”

“A good crowbar is very useful and will save many pick points where greenhorns are present. This kind of a------ delights in sticking newly sharpened picks into tight cracks and snapping the points off to show what a poor blacksmith you have. He is the limit, and should be drowned with the man who uses the sharpest axe to chop roots where rocks are plentiful.”

Prest’s complete list of recommended equipment, including “At least 1 months provisions,” is below.

Prospectors are the foundation of the mining industry because they are generally the first to find the indications of mineralization that eventually lead to mines being opened and essential materials being extracted. As Prest said in the book, “no prospectors, no mines."

Walter Prest was born in 1856 in Spry Bay, Halifax County, to Edward Isaac Prest and Ann Elizabeth McKinley. He died in Victoria General Hospital in Halifax on Christmas day, 1920. He lived much of his life in Bedford but was residing at 66 Granville Street in Halifax in his final months.

He left a widow, Maud Tuttle, and a son and daughter, all of whom lived in Winnipeg at the time of his death.

His obituary, published in the Morning Chronicle on December 28, 1920, described him as a surveyor and civil engineer and said he was “well known all over Nova Scotia, having been engaged on surveying parties in every part of the Province. He was for a long time connected with the gold mining industry of Nova Scotia and was one of the recognized authorities on the subject. He was the author of a very useful handbook for gold miners.”

Prest’s genius as a prospector is apparent in several of our write ups. For example, he succeeded in finding a gold deposit in Blockhouse after years of failed attempts by others ( He also brought his innovative approaches to the gold mining area that is now part of Kejimkujik National Park (

His comments about the Mill Village gold mines, and Nova Scotia’s gold mines in general, are fascinating (