The history of coal mining on Cape Breton began over 250 years ago. In the early 1700’s, coal was needed in Louisbourg for the French to construct its Fortress. Coal was extracted from exposed seams along the cliffs and in 1720 the first coal mine was officially opened at Cow Bay, or Port Morien as it is now known. In the 1800’s, rows of company houses could be found at Morien, along with hundreds of miners. During the period of 1784-1820, coal deposits were mined on a small scale by either the colonial government or through lease by private individuals.
In 1826, Frederick, Duke of York, was granted sole right by the Crown to all coal resources of Nova Scotia. The Duke subleased these rights to a syndicate of British investors called the General Mining Association who then sunk shafts mainly at Sydney Mines. The Association built workshops, company houses, a foundry and a railroad to North Sydney. In 1856, the General Mining Association surrendered its mining rights and the province invited independent operators to apply for leases and subleases. From 1858 to 1893, more than 30 coal mines were opened in the province, producing 700,000 tonnes in the last year.
In 1873, there were eight coal companies operating in Cape Breton. The miners were paid from 80 cents to a $1.50 per day and boys were paid 65 cents. The first large mine, the Hub Shaft of Glace Bay opened in 1861 and several other mines in Glace Bay and Sydney Mines opened within the next few years. In total, Glace Bay had 12 coal mines. In 1894, the government gave exclusive mining rights to an American syndicate, the Dominion Coal Company. By 1903, the Dominion Coal Company was producing 3,250,000 tonnes per year. By 1912, the company had 16 collieries in full operation and its production accounted for 40% of Canada’s total output. Francis Gray, an English mining engineer who had immigrated to Cape Breton, expressed it best by commenting “Take away the steel industry from Nova Scotia and what other manufacturing activity has the province to show as a reflex of the production of 7,000,000 tons of coal annually.
The coal mined in Nova Scotia, has for generations, gone to provide the driving power for the industries of Quebec and Ontario. For almost a century, Nova Scotia has been exporting the raw material that lies at the base of all modern industry. “The Cape Breton Development Corporation, a federal Crown corporation, currently controls all leases on the Sydney Coal Field. This coal field, which contains the only metallurgical coal east of Alberta, is part of a large carboniferous basin stretching from Cape Breton Island some 100 kilometers north-east. Its leasehold is a small portion of the total coal field which extends only eight kilometers off-shore. Currently there are no large coal mines in operation.