Inverness Miners' Museum
Inverness, Nova Scotia

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The Broken Ground: A History of a Cape Breton Coal Mining Community

 

 

THE INTERLUDE

The evolutionary stages of Inverness were formulated through settlement by a very few enterprising and adventurous individuals. Once established along the coast, other pioneers arrived and settled on the scattered clearings that made up the rugged geography. The immigration continued and the isolated settlements grew to communities that relied on the land and sea for survival.

It was not until 1834-35 did the County, then known as Juste-au-Corps, take on the qualities of an independent entity. In 1837 it became known as Inverness County.

The early history of Inverness was mainly agrarian in outlook. The people were quite satisfied with raising enough crops and animals for their own needs. It is rather obvious to note why they did not get involved with exporting or other commercial enterprises. The initial priority was self-sufficiency and therefore one had to work long hours on the farm in order to make this a reality. The fishing areas off the coast abounded in potential catches but a commercial fleet was an impossibility due to the conditions of the time. One got involved in fishing to supplement a family's diet and not to supply the various markets.

As the pioneer worked his land and put out to sea he would hardly perceive the transition that was soon to take place. He was surely aware of the presence of a black ore but did not take full advantage of its potential since wood was plentiful and cleaner. However, coal was to drastically alter the environment of this relaxed agrarian community. Its existence is a story of growth and decline, corruption and mismanagement pain and sorrow. It is also a saga of courage, determination, sacrifice and endurance.

The first indication that coal was in abundance was in 1863 when John Beaton (Red) arrived from South West Mabou and purchased a farm from Alexander MacIsaac at the Big River. Alexander was the son of Donald MacIsaac (note Chapter 3) who decided to emigrate to New Zealand after his wife died.

In any case, John Beaton discovered the first regular seam of coal and although his work was crude an excellent face of coal was exposed. The discovery caused a great deal of excitement. Prior to Beaton's discovery the early settlers gathered coal with picks and shovels along Broad Cove Banks. Some families used the coal for &el but its main use was to generate heat for the local Blacksmith. It was not a feasible industry and interest was not such to warrant continued work.

John Beaton sold Ms land to a Rev. Hugh Ross, who started a small mine and went into production. The coal was sold locally but according to J.L. MacDougall "History of Inverness County," Rev. Ross was "...something of a speculator and a fine talker, but did not excel in fruitful work " In 1865, a one square mile lease was granted to McCully and Blanchard to explore and develop a section of the Broad Cove area. Their attempts to form a company ended in failure.

It was not until the arrival of two Moncton men, H.G. Wright and J.H. Ladd, that the first commercial shipments of coal were exported. In 1872, they established a mining operation along the bank of the Big River and initiated a new era for Inverness and its inhabitants. They prepared the river as a means of transporting the coal by damming it and building lockgates. They loaded the coal on large scows (raft-like vessels) capable of holding up to 11 tons and floated them to the open sea. In a Department of Mines Report (1872) it stated that, ''the coal was conveyed on a wooden tramway to the mouth of the river where it was then dumped into lighters and then transferred by shows from the river's month to the vessels anchored in deep water. " The coal leaving this mine was sold in Prince Edward Island.

This type of operation and facility was certainly not advantageous to shipping and it was suggested that MacIsaac's Pond should be opened. The entrance would be protected by piers and a secure harbour for ocean-going vessels would end the transportation problem. Another suggested option was the construction of a railroad to the Strait of Canso. Both recommendations were sound but no action was taken to put them into effect. The Wright and Ladd Mine continued until 1880 when the wharf was destroyed in a major storm. It was not until 1894 that a form of renewed interest became a reality. The quality of coal was well known but the problem of transportation was discouraging even for the optimist. There was a lack of harbour facilities, local markets, railroads, and a very uncertain world market. One man was to make a tremendous change in the economics and lifestyles of the inhabitants. This man was William Penn Hussey, a mining speculator from Danvers, Massachusetts.

 

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