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Chapter IV: Coal, Quarries and Concessions (continued)

Sir Robert G. Reid. (IV/1.)
The Reid mining enterprises entailed one iron mine, two copper mines, three granite quarries and four coal mines, most of which were unprofitable. The iron mine near Grand Falls yielded 100 tons of ore that left for Britain in 1898. The two copper mines, located at Goose Arm in the Bay of Islands and at Saunders Cove in New Bay, survived only a few months. The coal mines and granite quarries were more significant, not just because they operated off and on for a decade, but also because their inland location forecast the twentieth-century trend toward developing the interior mineral resources of Newfoundland. As well, they represented a key stage in Newfoundland's fossil fuel and building stone development that started years before the first train crossed the Island.

Fossil Fuels

The recent energy crisis has greatly increased exploration for the fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. Although the economic viability of oil and gas in offshore Newfoundland and Labrador is still being determined, the province's onshore fossil fuel deposits are almost certainly too limited for commercial purposes. Yet in the late nineteenth century, just as the world's energy supplies seemed inexhaustible, so Newfoundland's onshore oil and gas reserves appeared to have great potential.


Of all Newfoundland mineral resources, coal was especially favoured by government geologist James P. Howley, who spent much of his time as director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland trying to develop the Island's coal-bearing regions. He oversaw and partook in the opening of the Reid coal mines and was bitterly disappointed by their demise.

Reid's coal mines represented the peak of Newfoundland coal explorations, which began in 1765 with the English explorer and navigator, Captain James Cook. Cook conducted the first systematic survey of Newfoundland's coast between 1763 and 1767. During one of his sojourns in the interior he found coal deposits "so commodiously situated, that the coals might be thrown directly from the coal works themselves into the ships as they lie close to the shore."(2) Cook probably overstated the facts, for such 'commodiously situated' coal deposits have yet to be found in any of the three principal coal-bearing regions of Newfoundland: Grand Lake, Codroy Valley and St. George's Bay.

Grand Lake is the largest body of fresh water in insular Newfoundland and presents magnificent scenery for those willing to visit its hidden corners. Cliffs that are in places 1000 feet high line its central shores; rolling hills, some of them containing coal, lie at its eastern extremity.

Alexander Murray, first director of the Newfoundland Geological Survey. Geological Survey of Canada Photo 81367. (IV/2.)
Government geologist Joseph B. Jukes published the first account of the Grand Lake coalfields after being shown a coal seam north of the lake in 1839 by an Indian named Sulleon.(3) The next two government geologists, Alexander Murray and James Howley, also examined the coalfields, but it was Colonial Secretary Robert Bond who indirectly caused them to be developed.

In 1891, Bond told Howley: "If you can find a workable coal seam at Grand Lake it will be the means of insuring the construction of the railway to the West Coast."(4) Howley spent portions of 1891 to 1893 costeening and drilling coal deposits along the shores of the lake. He encountered ludicrous difficulties in the process. The drilling equipment had to be sailed from Halifax to the Bay of Islands and poled and rowed on a barge up the Humber River to the beginning of the portage into Grand Lake. The portage of the nearly two tons of equipment took what Howley described as "several days desperate drag"(5) with a horse and dray. He and the accompanying drillers erected the drill beside the lake and then discovered that the drill sat over 150 feet of sand and gravel. They tried boring through this glacial debris to the underlying coal-bearing strata, struck the drill bit on a rock and smashed the pipes. While trying to extricate the pipes, the drillers broke the rods and lost the chopping bit.

Fortunately, Howley's later drilling efforts were more encouraging and delineated the extent of three sizeable coal deposits at the east end of Grand Lake along Goose Brook, Alderly Brook and Coal Brook. In 1898 and 1899, Reid's employees quarried about 8000 tons of coal from the deposits. As work progressed, Reid ordered construction of a short branch line from the main railroad down to Grand Lake and called the junction 'Howley' after the geologist, not, as is often assumed, after James' brother, Bishop Michael F. Howley. Reid's gesture may have had conciliatory overtones, for in 1899 he shocked Howley by stopping all coal operations.