January 12, 2022
-by John Gillies, Chestico Museum
Growing up in Port Hood in the 1950s and early ‘60s was to be aware of the importance of the local coal mine to the village. Some of my classmates’ fathers worked in the mine. Most homes still burned coal in their furnaces or kitchen stoves for heat and cooking. It was fascinating to visit Johnny Moran’s forge in central Port Hood with my father and watch this blacksmith heat the coals red hot in his open fire by pumping his bellows as he hammered into shape hinges, hooks, and horseshoes. CNR rail cars filled with coal still rattled through the village destined for more distant markets in Nova Scotia and beyond.
From the mid-1800s forward Port Hood had a complicated and disappointing history with a number of entrepreneurs who acquired leases to develop mines and extract the considerable coal deposits which lay beneath the soil and harbour of the village.
Commercial coal mining had begun in Port Hood in 1864 when the Cape Breton Coal Company opened the American Mine which met with local opposition and was soon abandoned. The Tremain Colliery opened in 1875 but the lack of a good shipping pier made mining unprofitable and it closed in 1878 following a boiler explosion. It was re-opened in 1900 by the Port Hood Coal Mining Company. A wharf and shipping pier was built in 1901, solving the problem of sending the coal to market. As well the new Inverness railway line from Port Hastings to Inverness reached Port Hood in the spring of 1899 and coal could now be shipped in rail cars. The Tremain Colliery was taken over by the Port Hood-Richmond Railway and Coal Company in 1906.
In the first decade of the 20th century Port Hood was a boom town and by 1911 had reached its peak population. It had received a town charter in 1903 and elected a mayor and six councillors. A town plan laid out a series of new streets with 100 house lots for sale. As well, more than 40 single dwelling company houses were built by local business people. Mine generators made electricity available to local homes. By 1906 coal was king and the town was prospering. Business people, lawyers, doctors and other professionals set up offices and a general sense of well-being prevailed. Many homes and stores were erected and mining families moved into town. Census records show families who had come to the shire town from other parts of Nova Scotia as well as from the countries of France, Belgium, Spain, Bulgaria, Germany, Denmark, China, Britain and Lebanon, lending a cosmopolitan feel to the town. Currently, when the majority of our young people leave our county seeking employment, it is interesting to view this 1907 newspaper ad which is seeking 200 miners for Port Hood.
In February 1908, an explosion ripped through a section of the Tremain Mine, killing 10 miners. Work continued until 1911 when the Tremain was flooded. This was a concern since this mine had tunnelled under the waters of Port Hood Harbour. People assumed that sea water had flooded the mine but it was discovered in 1947 that the origin of the water was groundwater passing over salt beds as its salinity was greater than that of the sea water above. This mine closed in 1911, leaving many miners unemployed and with no option but to move on elsewhere – New Waterford, Springhill, and Stellarton among other places. This was the beginning of a population and economic decline.
A number of smaller mining operations followed. In 1918, Port Hood Collieries Ltd. started the Malcolm Beaton Mine which closed in 1922 due to flooding. The Colin MacDonell Colliery operated from 1926 to 1930. In 1930, The Port Hood Fuel and Coal Company opened the Henderson Mine. It was taken over in 1934 by the Port Hood Coal Company. The Chestico Colliery opened in 1940 near Lawrence’s Beach and closed in 1947. The Harbourview Colliery was opened in 1950 by The Margaree Steamship Company, which was later renamed Inverness Industries Ltd. Chestico Coal Mines Corporation took over Harbourview in 1959. Harbourview closed in 1966 due to costly production and labour issues. In January 1967, Inverness County Sheriff, Colin MacDonald, was ordered to seize all the equipment and close down the mine. This action brought Port Hood’s coal mining days to an end.
Over the century from 1864 to 1966, the total coal production from the various Port Hood mines was 1,115,021 tons. This was a relatively small output in comparison with other coal towns but significant in the community of Port Hood.
The Inverness Railway line, stretching 92 kilometres from Port Hastings to Inverness, was built primarily to transport coal from the newly-developed mines in Inverness, Mabou, and Port Hood. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the coal mining industry in Port Hood and Inverness County is the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail on this former rail bed. The multi-use trail provides experiences for hikers, bikers, runners, quadders, skiers, snowmobilers, and horse-back riders. It is an Inverness County treasure.
As one walks both the beautiful and peaceful Lawrence’s and Boardwalk beaches in Port Hood you are within sight of the one kilometer-plus stretch of land on which these mines were located. The territory stretches roughly from the present site of the Liquor Commission store to Sandeannie’s restaurant. Does anyone have photographs of these mine sites? The Chestico Museum is interested.