Mining Techniques & Equipment


Richard Brown, GMA engineer in 1826, tells of crude methods used in a Sydney main, first opened in 1785. As workings advanced from the shore in a westerly direction, new shafts were sunk at intervals of about 200 yards so that the length of haulage from the faces of the bords to the bottom of the shaft never exceeded that distance.

Brown also said that coal was hauled in two-bushel tubs on small iron-shod sledges, over a roadway formed of round poles, two to three inches in diameter, laid transversely. After 1827, steam-hoisting engines were installed and used in the movement of coal in the mines, according to author, C. Gerow.

To move materials into the mine and to remove coal, rails were laid from the slope shaft bottom to the working areas of the mine. Horses or “pit ponies” were first used for this haulage. During and following the First World War, underground mechanical haulage began to replace the horses and gravity balance systems in the mines of Pictou County. It was also in that area, sometime around 1890-1900, that air-driven machines were installed.

In some of the working areas of the old mines, a system of overhead pulleys and cables pulled materials in coal boxes along the rails to workplaces where horses or “balance systems” took over.

In the early 1920s, small air or electric hoisting engines began to replace horses in the balances and sinkings, and in due course gradually took over from “horse draft.”In a report dated June 1925, author J.R. Dinn talked of underground haulage in Cape Breton mines. He noted four distinct operations in the movement of coal from the faces to the pit bottom: horse, single-rope, main and tail rope and endless rope.

“It was necessary to haul coal either by horses or by pushing it to the headway which was driven to the dip and rise. The cars were gathered by an electric or air hoist and lowered on a headway (a passage connecting other passages), to a level road, from which point they are hauled by main and tail, or by single-rope engines to the landing at the main deep. From this point, they were transferred to an endless system which delivered coal to the shaft or bottom or tipple.”

In 1948, mine cars were hauled at up to 8 miles per hour by electric and diesel locomotives.


Pit Ponies
In the early years of coal mining in Cape Breton, the coal industry employed the use of “pit ponies” to haul coal from the mines and later, as the workings progressed, in the mines themselves. Operators of these mines were compelled to use these “ponies” both by considerations of economy and necessity, and their use is said to have been instrumental in making coal mining a success.

Generally, the ponies were maritime bred, bought from dealers or farmers, and were by far the most satisfactory class of horse to deal with. They needed some training, but proved easier to train than the Western horse.

The selection of the pit pony was a matter of extreme importance. Various characteristics of the horse were weighed before it was chosen for work in the mines. For instance, because of low roofs, steep grades and forced production, a pony must be low set, heavily bodied and heavily limbed with plenty of bone and substance. It must be low-headed and must be “sure-footed” and should be not under five, and possibly not more than 14, years of age.

The weight of the animal was important because heavy loads had to be moved up and down steep grades that, in turn, necessitated sure-footedness because of road conditions.

Another consideration was the temperament of the pony. A nervous or shy horse would be very expensive to break in and would cause a great deal of lost time. A good pit horse was one that was even tempered and kind. A vicious horse was a menace to the drivers, liable to cause bodily injury and/or fatal accidents.

Stable conditions were very important and much was done to tend to the comfort of these animals and lengthen their term of usefulness. In the stable, the height of the roof was to be seven feet when a five-foot horse was in use. It should be able to raise its head and relax its muscles because it had to work all day carrying its head low. Ventilation was to be arranged so that the direct current would not strike the horses. As little wood as possible was used in the construction of the stables to lessen the chance of fire. All stables were well drained with pipes and well whites washed for sanitary purposes.

The stableman usually shod the horses with shoes made on the surface. Sometimes, a ferrier went into the mine when a higher degree of shoeing skill was required. He would take the measurements underground and make the shoes on the surface.It was desirable that the horse have only one driver who would take more pride in the animal and so that they might both understand one another. It is true that a horse’s disposition was spoiled when drivers were changed.

The roadways were to be kept in the best possible condition to prevent accidents. The roof was also to be carefully brushed to rid it of protruding booms and rocks that might cause head injury to the horse.The horses were taken below ground in a cage or were walked into the slope mines on the footpath. Their daily working shift was normally the same as a man’s and drivers did not like their ponies to be double-shifted. When the animal got older, their work period was usually reduced to four hours. They generally stayed below ground for approximately five years, unless killed or maimed, and then they were either moved or replaced.

The work of the horses was as follows: “They pulled material in coal boxes from the shaft or slope bottom to the working places and pulled the filled boxes to the point near the surface, and in the later period to where underground sections converged. They were used in the same manner as railway yard shunting engines.”

The efficiency of pit ponies depended upon the manner in which they were treated and the amount of food they received. A man (stableman) was hired to take charge of the underground stable and also to take care of and feed the horses. Usually, an hour before work, they were fed hay, watered and grained.

A constant supply of pure water was considered one of the best investments possible in animal care. At each landing a generous supply of clean water was placed where it would always be available for the horse. This would prevent gorging and eliminate many ailments that often proved fatal.


Railway Transportation
Railway transportation in Cape Breton was developed as a necessity for the growing coal industry in the area and a need to transport this coal to markets in central Canada and New England. From the mid-1850s on, 30 new mines had been opened within a period of 36 years. An efficient method of connecting these collieries together was established to make the entire industry more profitable.

North Sydney was considered situated in a very good geographical location because it was the most direct line of travel. Being located on the harbour with Sydney’s coal mining district adjoining eastwardly, it played an important role in the trade and transportation of coal to Canadian and international markets.

Some historians believe the first railway in Canada to have been laid from the Albion Mines, Stellarton, to a point near Granton on Pictou Harbour. However, there is no doubt that before 1833, railways were definitely in use in Sydney Mines. Wagons carrying coal were hauled by horse along the road from a stationary engine halfway and then the cars would be drilled down the hill to the pier. To carry the horses down hill, special dandy cars were attached to each train. By 1839 horses were being replaced by steam engines because production reached such proportions that they could not handle the output.

Other mining operations located near points where coal could be shipped had constructed their own private railways. For instance, Lingan Colliery Tramway was one mile long and had a gauge of three feet, six inches. It was constructed from a mine to a wharf on the bar at Lingan in 1861. In that same year a group under General Strong obtained a lease for the Union Mine at Bridgeport . The Group was reorganized as the International Coal and Railway Company under A..C. Morton who had been an engineer with the earlier company. The new company proceeded with the development of the mine and the surveying for a railroad.

Other mining operations were doing the same. In 1858, E.P. Archibald of Sydney obtained a lease for a coal mine in the Little Glace Bay area. Three years later the Glace Bay Mining Company was formed and operated two mines at Glace Bay and at the Stirling. In 1865, two 450-foot piers were erected on the west side of Glace Bay Harbour. A railroad approximately one mile long was built to connect the Glace Bay mine (Caledonia) with the piers. Later, a half-mile was added between Stirling and the harbour. Horses were still used at this time to haul the wooden coal cars to the piers.

Later, a second railroad was constructed across the sandbar at Port Caledonia. The Ontario Mining Company, which operated a mine some two miles northeast of this site, assisted in the dredging of this artificial harbour. However, because the sandbar was exposed to ocean storms, the railroad proved impractical and the task of maintaining the line was great.

During this time several newer companies were formed, opened mining operations, and found it necessary to develop some form of transportation system. In 1868, an English company known as the Glasgow and Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) Coal and Railway Company Ltd. was organized and authorized by the Nova Scotia government to build a railway from Sydney Harbour to Cow Bay (Morien) via Bridgeport.

In 1870, The Low Point, Barrasois and Lingan Coal Company opened the Victoria Mines Railway. It was about three miles long and connected the mines with the shipping pier at South Bar at the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Also in the same year, 1870, a line 12.5 miles long was completed from Glace Bay to Sydney where there was a 100-foot pier on the middle harbour.

In 1871, F.N. Gisborne, owner of the Schooner Pond Coal Company, associated with the Glasgow and Cape Breton Coal and Railway Co. Ltd. A lease was obtained to mine coal at Reserve but the lease required that a railroad be built from Reserve to Sydney, a distance of 10 miles. Two years later, in 1873, these two companies amalgamated with the Lorway Coal Co. to form the Cape Breton Coal Company. The railroad was then extended by a distance of eight miles to Schooner Pond. Next, in 1874, the company began construction of a railway to Louisbourg, about 21 miles away. However, due to limited capital, Captain D.J. Kennelly immediately terminated construction on the line to Louisbourg and closed the Schooner Pond, Lorway and Emery Mines.

In 1878, the property was sold at auction and bought by Kennelly who organized a new company called the Sydney and Louisbourg Coal and Railway Company (no connection with S. & L. Co.). Kennelly envisioned Louisbourg as a seaport with a great future as the terminus of transatlantic steamship lines. In 1881, his company took over the Glasgow and Cape Breton Coal and Railway Company.

In 1877, Robert Belloni, organizer of the Blockhouse Mining Co. at Cow Bay 1864, took the lease of the International Coal and Railway Co. He conceived of the idea of a railroad from Bridgeport to Louisbourg connecting all the small mines operating along the coast, providing them with transportation for their coal both to Sydney and Louisbourg. A survey was done, but nothing more.

In 1893, Henry M. Whitney, a Boston financier, merged all important coal mines into the Dominion Coal Company. Included was the old Sydney and Louisbourg railroad plus the International. On April 22, 1910, the Sydney and Louisbourg Railway Company was incorporated by an Act of the Nova Scotia government. It had been said that Louisbourg had the busiest piece of railroad in North America. It handled freight, passengers, miners and mail.

The line with steam locomotives and the Company kept these locomotives going as long as parts and service could be provided. By 1960, because of economic reasons and the unavailability of spare parts, 29 steamers were abandoned. In 1961, diesels came into service and, in 1966, the last steam engine was retired.

Soon the availability of gas and oil reduced markets for coal and so, the link with Louisbourg was no longer necessary and the tracks were removed. In 1968, all operations ceased and what remained of the tracks later became the Devco Railway.