February 2009

Worth their salt

A history of sweat and toil at Malagash mine

By M. Sabourin

Men fill 50 pound bags of salt using a machine invented by a Malagash employee. 

The deposit that led to Canada’s first salt mine was accidentally discovered by Peter Murray in 1912. Murray, a farmer in Malagash, on the northern coast of Nova Scotia, had dug a well that ran almost dry. Upon drilling a new well, he encountered water too saline to be used by his cattle. Local lore has it that Murray did find a use for the strongly briny water. When asked at the nearby Tatamagouche market how he got his pork so perfectly salted, Murray would reply: “Oh just the water out of my well.”

Word about this briny well water travelled quickly, due either to the fame of Murray’s pickled pig or to the results from a chemical analysis carried out in Ottawa that found the well water to be a saturated solution of common salt with very few impurities. This news eventually reached Robert Chambers, an engineer at an iron mine in Newfoundland, and George MacKay, a wealthy civil engineer. Both men hailed from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, some 80 kilometres east of Malagash. Their interest piqued, MacKay and Chambers travelled to Malagash in 1917 and obtained permission from Murray and a neighbouring farmer to start a diamond drilling campaign on their properties.

Breaking new ground

With a team of only five men and a horse, Mackay and Chambers began sinking the first shaft near Murray’s farm on July 1, 1918. Digging through nearly impervious clay, with the aid of a gin pole, block and tackle, the men hoisted all the material to surface with the assistance of the horse. On Labour Day, 1918, the first rock salt ever mined in Canada was raised to surface through this shaft, creating a major source of work for the people of Malagash for the next 41 years. Prior to this discovery, all Canadian salt had been obtained through ocean brine evaporation.

Commercial-quality rock salt was struck at just 87 feet below surface. The 300 foot-thick deposit was divided into three seams: Lucas, MacKay and Chambers. The Chambers seam was considered unsuitable for mining due to its frequent fracturing. The other two, however, were continuous and extended for miles.

Workers — local farmers turned salt miners — also became professional mountaineers, manoeuvring in steeply dipping salt beds. At most stope faces, the sole means of elevating or lowering oneself was overhand on a three-quarter-inch rope. Access in and out of the mine was by a single flight of 220 stairs, with some ladders descending almost 200 feet vertically.

It was hard work — eight- to ten-hour shifts, six days a week. On the plus side, the work was clean, relative to coal mining, and the ambient temperature was a comfortable 13 degrees Celsius — cool in summer and comparatively warm in the winter.

Shortly after the discovery, 30 to 40 tons of salt were coming up daily. An open stope overhand method, similar to coal mining, was employed. The salt rock was blasted underground from a series of ascending stepped benches. As the stopes progressed further and further from the shaft, the men shovelled the salt into a skip, transported it hundreds of feet in a lorry, and hoisted it up 200 feet to surface. Here, the salt was dumped onto two picking tables, crushed with a sledge hammer and sorted by hand.

Horse-drawn sleds or wagons moved 200-pound burlap sacks of salt from the mine to the wharf warehouse four kilometres away, or to the Malagash railway station, about 13 kilometres away. In spring, with the wagons often mired, the heavy salt sacks had to be carried the rest of the way in the mud. The salt was shipped to Newfoundland, the Magdalen Islands and the New England states. Trainloads of it went as far west as Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Primarily used in the fisheries industry, the salt was also used as a preservative for hay and in Canadian National Railway refrigerator cars. By the 1940s, growing demand for road de-icing salt in Ontario and Quebec brought great profits to the Malagash salt mine.


On July 28, 1923, a fire broke out in the mill, trapping about a dozen men underground. The men were forced to retreat 110 feet below. They built a brattice with jute bags soaked in water and used additional wet bags over their faces as filters. Raging for over two hours, the fire consumed the mill, the headframe and the BuschSelzer diesel engine — the second of its kind in America at the time. After it died down, the men emerged unscathed.

Others were less fortunate. On February 5, 1957, one man was killed and another severely injured when a scheduled blast caused a pillar to crumble unexpectedly.

Malagash after Pugwash

By the mid-1950s, Malagash had prospered from farmland into a self-sufficient community. It included a grocery store, a post office, a community hall showing a weekly movie, a pool room and a tea room for the ladies.

While things appeared successful above ground, it was not the same case below. The salt was becoming very costly to mine because the ore had to travel larger distances underground before being hoisted to surface. The narrowness and contortions of the seams precluded the use of larger equipment underground. Consequently, when a dome of salt over 1,400 feet thick was discovered in Pugwash, 29 kilometres to the northwest, mining in Malagash dwindled until the mine shut down permanently in 1959.

Today, the main industries in Malagash are agriculture and fishing. Malagash’s temperate microclimate is also good for growing grapes, making wine production a successful enterprise.

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