Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mineral Prospecting in Newfoundland - North America

There is a great book called “Once upon a Mine” available online. The colourful history of mineral prospecting, exploration and mining in the pre-confederation days of the Colony – Republic of Newfoundland is presented in the pages of this book.

Incidents and happenings described in “Once upon a Mine” make for very entertaining reading at the very least. What the book actually brings to life is the true nature of early prospecting and hardnosed mine owners. It talks in much detail about hardships of early mining encountered at the hands of outside interests and brings to life the scams, conflicts, the greed and wheeling and dealing that took place in the pursuit of properties. This account of prospecting history also provides good insight into the nature of some of the best copper deposits discovered and how they became successful mines.

The history of prospecting in North America goes back longer in time than is generally recognized. In 1576 Sir Martin Frobisher examined the shores of what is assumed to have been Newfoundland's Trinity Bay , where he found a shiny heavy stone. This was in all likelihood Pyrite. Pyrite in that area is locally known as Catalina Stone after the name of the town where a great deal of pyrite can be found.

Up until 1949 Newfoundland was not a province of Canada. It was a part of the British Empire. That is why this post has Newfoundland – North America in its title. The overall history of Newfoundland is one that requires much more space that this blog permits. Suffice to say that it is a region of North America with remarkable history going back over 500 years.

I digress so back to the book. Here are some quotes from the book:

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. 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.”

We of the well-informed today can scarcely appreciate the dubious view that most mining speculators from a century ago had of Newfoundland. Nor can we in this scientific era fully understand the jaundiced opinion that laymen had of geologists, mineralogists and their like. Prospectors were generally regarded as more eccentric than enterprising: one Scottish gold-seeker in Newfoundland was described to St. John's authorities in the 1860s as being a "poor demented creature who went about hammering at the cliffs but otherwise he appeared to be quite harmless." I do not think we are directly related- personal comment, R Freeman

James P. Howley, director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland from 1883 to 1917, wrote in 1898 that:

"In the earliest stages of the Newfoundland mining industry, all sorts of drawbacks had to be encountered and overcome...mineralogical knowledge of the country, impossibility of procuring skilled labour except from outside...but beyond all a blind and unreasonable prejudice...which amounted almost to a prohibition of any attempt at mining enterprise...."

Howley, it seems realized that more than the elements where interfering in prospecting of the Island in what was then - a brave new world.

I present a section below describing the first real mining success in the new land, exactly as it appears in the book:

The overwhelming success of the Tilt Cove mine changed all this. As news spread of the immense profits being made by Charles Bennett and Smith McKay, prospectors and mining entrepreneurs began to converge upon Notre Dame Bay. When Bennett became Newfoundland's anti-confederate premier in 1870 and on 25 April 1872 abolished mining royalties completely, even the most reluctant speculators were stirred into action.

The subsequent rush for mining claims in Notre Dame Bay continued unabated for several years. Once an experienced mine expert staked a given property the surrounding territory was immediately blanketed by the claims of people knowing nothing of geology or minerals. Some claims were staked on non-existent land while others with alleged coastal frontage turned out upon survey to be situated miles inland.

Thus began the Notre Dame Bay copper boom. It peaked in the 1880s, died out with World War I and left in its wake over two dozen copper mines, the combined output of which transformed Newfoundland briefly into the world's sixth largest copper producer. During the boom years, literally scores of mining companies sprung up in and beyond Newfoundland for the sole purpose of wresting ore from the rocks of Notre Dame Bay. Local newspapers reported mineral discoveries with such frequent and cheerful exaggeration that, reading them, one has the feeling that mining ran a close second to weather in daily conversation.

A lot of those things described above sometimes happen today in the industry. Some remain the same; the rush to get in on the action when a new discovery is made, is one of them.

Here is a snippet about Betts Cove, a successful high grade copper mine discovered and developed. Much later it was also reveiled that the Betts Cove deposits also held gold (as did others). You have to read the book to find out that interesting story.

What Betts Cove lacked in refreshments it made up for in 'copper fever'. Copper formed the main topic of conversation. Everyone knew someone who had found a deposit guaranteed to become a mine. Prospectors wandered about town with ore-filled pockets willing, for a price, to conduct people to the original outcrop. Betts Cove even had a dog that retrieved pieces of discarded copper ore. He occasionally disappeared into the hills for days, leaving villagers convinced that he prospected for copper. Their assumption was not as far-fetched as it may appear, for some modern Swedish mining companies use specially trained German Shepherds to smell out sulphide minerals.

What is true in many mining regions is also true in Newfoundland and Labrador, the best place to find a new mine is next to an old one. To that effect many of the older mining areas of Newfoundland are experiencing considerable new exploration activity, some with excellent success.

This is getting long so here is the link where you can read the book, online at your leisure, thanks to the Wendy Martin and also others including Heritage Newfoundland and The Canadian Institute Of Mining And Metallurgy. It is worthwhile to check this out because it is a factual yet entertaining history of prospecting and mining in Newfoundland.

Once upon a Mine – Link to Full Contents

Happy reading and keep on propsecting!