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Chapter V: Isle of Iron, Men of Steel

Opening up the Aguathuna limestone quarry, c. 1912. Beginnings of pier construction can be seen in the distance. (V/7.)
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One of the finest sights in Newfoundland is the early morning sun on Conception Bay warming the cliffs of Bell Island. The light accentuates their layers of sedimentary rocks and makes the strata, normally reddish with iron dust, positively glow. To the perceptive eye the angled rays also reveal vestiges of piers where ships once waited to receive ore from the Bell Island iron mines.

The Bell Island mines were originally operated by the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company Limited, both of which explored other mines in Newfoundland, namely the Workington iron mine, the Indian Head iron mine and, most important, the Aguathuna limestone quarry. These three operations and the Bell Island mines had one common feature: they were worked primarily to provide some of the raw materials required to make steel. The Workington, Indian Head and Aguathuna operations have given rise to many absorbing tales and are covered in this chapter, but only the Bell Island mines have been immortalized on film, in song and in verse:

"Bell Island Mines"

"Whether in Cambrian or in other earth
Conceived; or yet in Protozoic slime
And ooze in the abysmal depths of time,
Dawn has concealed thine elemental birth;
Or whether yet, on-creeping man in dearth
Of tool offensive, welcomed thee sublime,
Perverting all thy virtues but to crime
While unmatured lay thy finer worth.
It matters naught-save only this-that now-
Man's better nature to thy baser yields;
His heart is steeled with temper of thine own;
His soul is hardened with thy touch, and thou
Dost send him blindly forth to reap these fields-
'Blood, sweat and tears'-thine iron hand has sown."(1)

About 480 million years ago a shallow sea covered Conception Bay. Centuries progressed and layers of sediments settled to the sea floor, some of them sand and mud, a few of them enriched in iron. As surrounding pressures adjusted, the sediments altered to sandstones and shales with the iron-bearing layers forming beds of hematite or iron ore. Thus, when the whole are including what is now Bell Island became uplifted to the sculpturing effects of wind and precipitation, the exposed rock strata contained three iron-rich and mineable beds.

Awareness of the Bell Island iron deposits waxed and waned throughout the 300 years preceding their development. In 1578 Anthony Parkhurst wrote of retrieving ore samples from an island of iron near St. John's, but in 1776 Robert Newman and Company of Dartmouth, England recorded: "Belle Isle. Nothing received for it. Fell due to us thro' a mortgage,"(2) saying nothing of the iron deposits. Twenty years after someone allegedly opened an iron mine at Back Cove on Bell Island in 1819(3), Joseph Jukes visited the island and described a bed of "bright red sandstone" without mentioning iron ore.(4) Yet even as Jukes penned his report, fishermen were using what they called the 'red rock' to ballast their killicks and boats. The practice led indirectly to the opening of the Bell Island mines.

One day in the late 1880s, Jabez Butler of Port de Grave was sailing to St. John's when a storm forced him to land on the north side of Bell Island. He ballasted his boat with loose rock from the island and completed his journey. As he unloaded the rock at St. John's its obvious iron content attracted the curiosity of an English captain who took a piece home to be assayed. The assayer, however, needed a larger sample and wrote to Butler asking for 50 more pounds of rock. He, thinking the man wanted £50, ignored the request.(5)