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Chapter I: Dawn of Mining Days

Young men and boys hand-cobbing ore in Tilt Cove with what likely is the East Mine 'rabbit warren' in the background, c. 1900. (I/7.)
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Mark Twain once maintained that 'a mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top', an unflattering view which supports the common belief that mines are prospective derelicts owned by derelict prospectors. The Newfoundland mining industry has, even so, survived for over 100 years and currently holds a lucrative position in the Newfoundland economy.

The mining history of Newfoundland extends further in time and space than is generally recognised. Nearly every major bay around the Island contains at least one abandoned mine that still lives within the memories of adjacent communities; and although the first recorded mining attempt happened only two centuries ago, a knowledge of Newfoundland minerals has existed for twice that time span.

Sixteenth-century English explorers made the earliest documented references to Newfoundland minerals. When Sir Martin Frobisher examined the shores of what is assumed to have been Newfoundland's Trinity Bay in 1576, he found a shiny heavy stone(1) - probably pyrite, a mineral now known locally as 'Catalina stone' after the Trinity Bay town of Catalina. Anthony Parkhurst returned to England in 1578 with pieces of copper and iron ore from the St. John's and Bell Island areas. On the strength of the Frobisher and Parkhurst discoveries, Sir Humphrey Gilbert took a Saxon ore refiner named Daniel of Buda with him to Newfoundland in 1583. Daniel, an energetic individual, retrieved an array of copper, iron, lead and silver ores from the Avalon Peninsula. Unfortunately, both Daniel and the samples disappeared a few months later in a shipwreck off Sable Island. A contemporary expedition member hinted that Gilbert lamented the loss of the ores more than that of the ship and men.(2) Be that as it may, the hapless Sir Gilbert mourned but a scant 11 days before his own vessel sank north of the Azores on the voyage back to England.

King James I became curious about these earliest mineral indications and listened carefully to occasional court rumours of English fishing boats arriving from Newfoundland ballasted by metallic ores. The idea of mineral riches stirred him; when Sir John Guy and others of the London and Bristol Company left England in 1610 to form a fishing colony in Newfoundland, the king ordered them specifically to search for minerals.

This was more easily said than done, as the company expended much energy in coping with roving pirates and fractious West Country Settlers. Between interruptions, members of the company found time to write enthusiastic reports about iron ore on Bell Island.(3) The reports had a two-fold effect: they made one member, Sir Percival Willoughby, determined to obtain a grant for all of Bell Island; they also led the company to draw up regulations whereby it could demand one-fifth or one-sixth of the profits from minerals mined in Newfoundland, could forbid leasing of land to aliens without consent and could repossess land left vacant for over three years.(4) Although the company used its powers to deny the disappointed Sir Percy a grant for Bell Island, it did not enforce the three regulations seriously or long enough for them to become mining law.

Except for a titled few, mining laws and mining did not concern the several thousand people who populated Newfoundland by the end of the seventeenth century. They concentrated instead on fishing - a safer livelihood, considering the Island's incessant French-English skirmishes and Britain's inconsistent policy regarding permanent Newfoundland settlements. Not until the late eighteenth century was Newfoundland sufficiently stable for its inhabitants to take more than a passing interest in their geological environment. By then the most heavily settled area of the Island was the Avalon Peninsula, where English, Irish and Scottish immigrants lived in an uneasy truce, bound together by a common antagonism toward the reigning British government. It was here, at Shoal Bay just south of St. John's, that the first mining attempt in Newfoundland took place.