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.