Although not as well known as the gold rushes of California, the Klondike, Australia, and South Africa, gold mining has been an “on again, off again” part of Nova Scotia’s economic and social life for 150 years. People are often surprised that over a million ounces of gold have been produced in the province since mining began in the 1860s. Gold is Nova Scotia’s hidden treasure; not many know about it. During three distinct “rushes,” gold mining brought significant riches to individuals, communities and companies. It affected the growth and decline of many settlements and was a factor in encouraging immigration and foreign investment to the province. As well, gold mining became the way of life for hundreds, its lure imprinting on many the possibility of getting rich quick.
Miners who learned their trade in the hard rock gold mines of Nova Scotia often went further afield – to Colorado, Australia, the Yukon – beguiled by the siren call of gold discoveries. Many left Nova Scotia never to return. Robert Henderson from Big Island, Pictou County, and Antigonish County’s “Big Alex” MacDonald played leading roles during the Klondike gold rush. John “Klondike Jack” Horne made a fortune in the Klondike too; his cousin, Edmund H. Horne became a multi-millionaire after discovering the Horne Mine in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec and founding the mining company Noranda Inc. These men were industry leaders who transferred mining expertise tried and tested in Nova Scotia to mines opening up abroad or in the West.
The first mines began production in 1861. As mining activity increased, attracting ever more gold seekers to the fields, the provincial government stepped in establishing districts and regulating claims. Three-quarters of the 65 gold districts are in Halifax and Guysborough counties; the other districts are spread out to the west and northeast in Cape Breton, Hants, Lunenburg and Queens Counties.
During the 1860s officials worried that too many farms were being abandoned by men who wanted to escape the drudgery and poor prospects of subsistence farming leaving for the gold fields. In a society of scarce money, the possibility of earning $100 for two or three month’s work was irresistible. There are myriad stories – some heartwarming, others tragic – about gold miners and the 350 or so mines they worked. Despite improved methods of extracting gold over the years, mining has never been easy, involving isolation, injuries, cave-ins and environmental degradation. Old-fashioned prospecting has existed alongside mechanized mining which uses heavy machinery, dynamite and chemicals to extract and process gold-bearing ore in Nova Scotia.
By the 1950s few mines were still in production. A decade later, there were probably less than twenty full-time gold miners in all of Nova Scotia. But with the soaring value of gold on world markets in recent years, there has been renewed interest to reopen old mines, and explore for new lodes. Nova Scotia may be on the brink of another “gold rush.”