A History of Nova Scotia Page


Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
(1815-1867)
Chapter 20, Pictou And The General Mining Association (G.M.A.)

The first steam engine ever in Nova Scotia was in full operation at the Albion Coal Mines (Pictou) in 1817.1 The grimy twins of coal and iron which drove the industrial revolution in England for half a century had arrived in England in the earliest part of 19th century2; so the technology was available when industry started up in Nova Scotia. And so now we come to The General Mining Association (G.M.A.). We start by letting a contemporary observer speak to us. Captain Moorsom wrote in 1829:

"Company [G.M.A.] commenced active operations both at Pictou and at Sydney in Cape Breton, in a spirited style, under the superintendence of a gentleman of high professional talent and experience. These operations have hitherto been limited, at Pictou, to coal-mines, and iron-works upon imported material. It is probable that iron-mines will be opened in the course of the present year. The coal formerly procured was chiefly from surface pits, and was of very inferior quality: the principal shaft now in work has been sunk to the depth of two hundred and fifty feet below the surface, and steam power has been applied for the usual purposes of draining and of raising mineral. The veins of coal laid open by this procedure are of a quality much superior to those formerly discovered. The coal is overlaid by a decayed blackish shale; it is of jet-black colour, and contains a large proportion of bitumen : excellent coke is made from it, and for the furnace, it is highly esteemed. The Cape Breton coal is preferred for household use, on account of its producing less of the white or brown ashes than that of Pictou."3
The story is4, that there was a rich London family which was in the jewelry business, headed up by Philip Rundell. Royalty trusted this family and gave the firm business. Many of those of the French nobility, in anticipation of the Revolution, sent their jewels to London for safekeeping in the Rundell vaults; much of which remained with the Rundells as the guillotine did its work. One of Rundell's English customers was the Duke of York, who, upon his death left many creditors looking to get paid. The government tried to appease the creditors in 1826, and in the process the Rundells received a crown grant to mineral rights in the fair province of Nova Scotia. One of the Rundell companies was the General Mining Association of London (G.M.A.) which took over the rights and set out to do some mining in Nova Scotia. An English mining engineer was hired to go to Nova Scotia and oversee the works. His name was Richard Smith (1783-1868). The company had earlier sent a surveyor over to take a look and reported back that the company should open up a coal mine in the Pictou area.5 "Richard Smith reached Pictou June 4, 1827, in the brig Margaret Pelkington, loaded to the gunnels with mining experts and machinery, including the knocked down components of steam hoisting and pumping engines."6 Before the year was out the first coal was raised from a newly opened, 212-ft pit. By December 7th, a 20-horsepower steam engine started to pump water and hoist coal at the mine; its 75-ft stack became a local landmark.7

So it was, that the GMA opened the Albion Mines at Stellarton. What was necessary was to get the mined coal to a nearby dock, loaded onto ships, and sent off to market. The appropriate dock was some miles away and for the first few years the coal was hauled in trucks by horses. These trucks were mounted on rails: a horse tramway.

"In 1830 Smith turned to the important coal resources of Cape Breton Island, where GMA activities had been supervised since 1826 by the young mining engineer Richard Brown, later a chief agent for the GMA. Here too, after some confusion over the terms of the company’s grant, the GMA had taken over the existing lease from small-scale operators, completing its monopoly of the colony’s coal resources. A growing community of men, machinery, and buildings was established at Sydney Mines, where coal had been mined since 1785. Under the supervision of Smith and Brown a new shaft was sunk on the main seam there and steam-powered engines installed, but progress was delayed for two years by problems with the pumping machinery and heavy water flow in the mine. Smaller mines were also opened at Bridgeport and Little Bras d’Or. By 1833 more than 900 men were employed by the GMA in Nova Scotia and coal production had tripled to more than 50,000 tons."8
Richard Smith built a home for his family on company property; it was built like an English Country Estate and called Mount Rundell (Rundle).
"There were extensive lawns, including a raised lawn directly in front of the house, hawthorne hedges, and here and there palisade fencing seven feet high, consisting of small trees split and attached to stringers by the flat sides. To the rear of the mansion were cottages to house the estate staff, nearly all former negro slaves escaped from Southern plantations and brought to Halifax on British warships during the war of 1812."9
Mount Rundell was an attraction to most visitors to the Pictou area from within the province and from abroad. General Laurie who lived at a community a few miles inland from Halifax, at Oakfield, paid a visit and found the place charming, "quite English," "a well kept English country House."

Richard Smith returned to England, I am sure he and his family were glad to do so. In anticipation of his return, he invited his nephew, Joseph Smith, a graduate of the Royal School of Mines, to come out from England and join him in Nova Scotia. When Richard took his leave of Nova Scotia, Joseph took over and moved into Mount Rundell.10

To come to the Albion Railway: Because business was that good it was decided to change the horse tramway into a railway with steam engines. These engines would haul the coal to the dock over a new line of over six miles.

"Although a right of way for the new steam road was acquired in 1834, unexplained delays occurred, and it was not until 1836 or perhaps 1837 that construction actually got under way. It was a big job for those days, involving 400,000 cubic yards of rock and earth excavation, and exceptionally heavy masonry; no fewer than three large bridges and 15 smaller bridges and culverts. Only earth moving equipment available -- ox teams and horse carts."11
On May 27th, 1839, there arrived at the docks at Pictou three locomotives. They were transported from Newcastle, England, in a brig, the Ythan. The track on which they were to run on had taken four years to build and on September 19th, 1839, it was officially opened for business.

"The great celebration at Mount Rundell at Mount Rundell on that date has often been described, with its roast whole ox barbecue, its casks of rum and ale placed on convenient saw horses about the grounds for the edification of the proletariat, and its initial 'running of the locomotive carriages,' when 'John Buddle' and 'Hercules' in that order, made two round trips over the line, each hauling 35 cars and 700 passengers. 'Samson'12, first engine to be erected and given trial trips, was held in reserve, and did not run that day, but she had been in action two days previously (on the 17th. September) when she hauled the first coal trains over the new line."13
Samuel Cunard was named the official agent of the G.M.A. after which he would often be referred to, in Nova Scotia, as "Mr. G.M.A." The G.M.A. monopolized the the mines and minerals in Nova Scotia for a thirty year period (c.1827-57) after which the mineral rights were returned back to the province of Nova Scotia.

Charles Lyell, a Scottish geologist and the author of the ground breaking work, Principles of Geology; or Modern Changes of the Earth and Its Inhabitants published in England in 1830, visited Nova Scotia in 1842.14 Lyle wrote of his visit:

"I had arranged with Captain Bayfield, whom I had not seen for many years, that we should meet at Pictou, and the day after my arrival there, his surveying ship, the Gulnare, sailed into the harbour. I spent a day on board that vessel, and we then visited together the Albion Mines, from whence coal is conveyed by a railway to the estuary of the East River, and there shipped. Mr. Richard Brown, whose able co-operation in my geological enquires I have before acknowledged, had come from Cape Breton to meet me, and with him and Mr. Dawson I examined the cliffs of the East River, accompanied by the superintendent of the Albion Mines. Mr. Poole, at whose house we were kindly received."15
Before passing on and leaving the subject of The General Mining Association and more particularly of its operation at Pictou, we turn, once again to Captain Moorsom and his impressions gained on his visit, c. 1829:
"The mining establishment has hitherto had a more prominent effect upon the valley of the East River, than upon Pictou town. Good roads, increase of settlement, numerous wagons and horses where none were previously kept, and a market well supplied, where none formerly existed, are outward and visible signs indicative of the neighbourhood of two hundred well paid, beef-eating, and porter-drinking operatives. ... The town consists of about three hundred houses and stores, containing one thousand five hundred inhabitants, and is consequently the second in size throughout the province. The air of the place strikes a stranger's eye as peculiarly Scotch. ... Pity it is, that a little population which has plenty of fish to pickle outside of its harbour's mouth, and plenty of forest to clear, and of land to cultivate within its township, should distract its brain with political arguments upon abstract questions of privilege, and party squabbles for sectarian aggrandizement."16

NEXT: [Chapter 21, Gold Mining And Other Pursuits]

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Peter Landry