Coal Boom & Bust in Port Hood

by Mary Anne Ducharme

The story of Port Hood coal is one of great expectations, of human tragedy, of economic disaster for a small village. Yet much remains to be gathered of this history, and the story is incomplete. Do you have valuable information that could help?

The operation of the Port Hood coal seam has been a very disappointing one from its early history. French historians reported that coal of excellent quality could be obtained at Juste au Corps and early surveys after the fall of Louisbourg refer to the large coal areas in the district. American interest in the 1860's tried to develop the coal mines, but met with opposition from local interests and the project was soon abandoned. By 1889, the Port Hood Coal Company, Ltd. had done considerable work, but with the explosion of a boiler causing the death of Alexander Watts, the mine soon ceased operations and was sold to the Port Hood and Richmond Railway Coal Company in 1906. A large development program was started which brought a mining boom to the town and District. Many new homes and stores were erected, and many men flocked to the area. Lawyers, doctors, and other professional men set up offices and a general prosperity took place throughout the district.

The company houses in Port Hood, all identical, were built circa 1905. They were located on what is still known as "The Company Road," -- the same road on which the Hebridean Hotel is now situated. Unlike the company houses in Inverness, these were single dwellings. None of the structures remain at the original site, and only four remain still standing. Two were moved to the village of Port Hood, and two others were partly dismantled and transported by water to Port Hood Island. The foreign miners from Bulgaria and Denmark who lived in these houses did not remain in Port Hood after the closing of the mines. Those that died in various mining accidents were buried adjacent to the Catholic cemetery at the time. This cemetery now includes their gravesites, but there are no stone markers.

The early mining prosperity soon met a serious setback. The miners worked with naked lights and loose powder as an explosive. On February 7, 1908, an explosion took place in the mine and some ten miners lost their lives, four of them residents of the area, and six Bulgarians. It took the community some time to recover from this, but soon further development was carried on. Then on June 22, 1911, a mine on a main seam, producing 86,847 tons in 1910, was flooded from the sea. This disaster caused many to leave the place and seek work elsewhere. The seam was opened again and J.L. MacDougall in his History of Inverness County reports that in 1920, it produced 53,745 tons. However, Perley Smith in The Smiths of Cape Breton states that the town became almost destitute within a short time.

Electricity in the village was cut off and was not restored until the fall of 1938. Former miners turned to the fishing industry. After 1911, many small operators acquired leases of the coal seams in the Port Hood area, but they all eventually failed They were closed up and equipment and other assets were seized for debt. It was during this period that many boot-leg mines were opened and the residents of the district were supplied with cheap fuel. In 1937, the Henderson mine, operating with Montreal financing, employed 125 men. This mine was located across the road from the present home of Mrs. Sadie MacInnis of Harbourview.

From the road can be seen a cement abutment with 1937 engraved on it. Lofty MacMillian of Port Hood has proposed this location as an appropriate site for a monument to the miners of Port Hood. There seem to be few photos of the early mines, and the Chestico Museum and Historical Society requests information, photos, or artifacts relating to the mining history of Port Hood. Please call John Gillies at 787-3441. Or call the editor of Partici-Paper, Marie‚Ä® Aucoin at 945-2982, e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

In the 1950's and 60's, mining operations were carried out under several companies with government assistance. In his book This is Nova Scotia by Will R. Bird, published in 1950, a local man comments to him that "A fellow's been trying to get going again (coal mining), but the sea stopped him. There's all kinds of coal here, if you can keep the sea out". Keeping the sea out, labour problems and costly production, all conspired against coal mining in Port Hood and in January of 1967, the Sheriff of Inverness County seized all the equipment and closed down the mine completely.

One of the largest Port Hood mines was on the site of the present liquor store, and there were different mine areas at the J.C. Store and behind. There is a tunnel entrance to a mine at Lawrence's Beach which fronts on the water. The entrance is plugged with driftwood, but traces remain of metal tracks and oak wood. In the summer of 1993, David Sydney Jones gave John Gillies, the editor of the Chestico Museum and Historical Society Newsletter, a copy of an 1864 Report done for the Port Hood and Boston Coal Company. It concerns the Port Hood Coal seams. The report comes from the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library and was located by David Jones' son, Sydney, who is the Assistant Director of the Systems and Technical Support at the library. Following are brief segments of that report. The report in full is available through the Chestico Museum and Historical Society.

The 1864 Report:

"This property upon which you have the right to search for coal, embraces five square miles, forming a strip of land two miles long and two and a half wide, bordering the harbor. It takes in the whole village of Port Hood, comprising sixty or seventy dwelling houses. I conceive that the large bed of coal to be described underlies the whole of the five-mile tract. About a mile north of the Court House, on the John Roper place now occupied by the brothers Watts occur three or four narrow beds of coal. On Mr. Smith's land, near the Court House and wharf, there crops out a bed of excellent bituminous coal which furnishes fuel to many of the inhabitants of the village.

The next location is upon Hugh MacDonald's farm, a quarter of a mile below the Light-house. We suspended operations on account of the water which flowed in upon us faster than our limited means afforded of bailing. Large and valuable deposits are at a mill-dam a quarter of a mile from the salt water, and near Mr. Bull's, a half mile from the ocean. The former {mill?} caught fire accidentally, and the coal continued to burn until the soil fell down and suffocated the flames, and concealing the outcrop. The coal bed comes quite near the surface in the west part of your tract, often from twenty to twenty-five feet. Fortunately, the land is very cheap. By commencing well towards the sea, and working upwards, the mine can be made to drain itself to a large degree, and as the bed dips under the water, you will have the right to work a tract of unlimited dimensions beneath the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

As a harbour for exportation of coal, Port Hood affords every needful qualification. It is the only good harbour on the west side of Cape Breton. The whole shore is exposed to the north and west winds of the Gulf, except his harbour, which is protected from them by two large islands, so situated as to give ample protection to a large amount of shipping, as for instance, to the immense Gloucester mackerel fleet every summer. The vessels anchor half a mile from the wharf at Port Hood from three to four months in the winter, navigation is closed from the Gulf to the Strait of Canso, on account of ice. You will not be at the mercy of turnpikes and railroads, but have the ocean at your service for two-thirds of the year. Labour is abundant and cheap. and I may add that you will find the citizens of Port Hood very obliging and very desirous of assisting the development of coal."

Respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
C.H. Hitchcock
Geologist of the State of Maine

July 6, 1922:

"It was sad in Port Hood today" Perley Smith relates in his book The Smiths of Cape Breton, this story: "Two young chaps went into one of these openings [shafts into the coal seams] and became affected with coal gas; one was able to get out and he ran for assistance to the father of the boy in the pit. Alexander MacDonald and Donald R. MacDonald both went into the pit to rescue the boy, and both men met with the same fate. The three bodies were recovered later that day. The father and son James were within a few yards of their home."

By coincidence, a July 6, 1922 letter from Flora Smith to her daughter Isabel also describes this incident: "On Tuesday, some children were playing around the Port Hood mine. One little boy climbed down an old shaft and the other children heard him fall. His father is a section man. A brother of Maggie Maud's husband started down the ladder and they heard him fall, then the boy's father started down and he fell. It was near the station. Rory [MacNeil?] The Roadmaster said it was gas and wouldn't let anyone else go down. He fastened a hose to an engine and pumped air. They recovered the bodies at 6 pm. One man left thirteen children, and the other nine. It was a sad funeral in Port Hood today."