While Bell Island is quite well known today, it was not like that in the past. It used to be a sparsely populated place, where most people settled to fish or farm. Newfoundland is a very large island and fishing is possible throughout its territory. But what made Bell Island so special in history? The answer is not in its fishing resources, but in the mining potential hidden on such a tiny island. At one point, tiny Bell Island was the largest iron ore producer in all of North America.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, while fishing was developing in Newfoundland, Bell Island served as a point for other activities as well. The people of Bell Island already knew about the presence of iron ore for centuries. In 1578, an English merchant claimed to have found valuable deposits on the island. And in 1628, the first analyzes of the iron were made in England. But it would take a long time before mass exploitation began and met the needs of an industrializing world.
By the 1890s, Bell Island finally received the attention it deserved from professional mining companies, such as the New Glasgow Coal Iron and Railroad Company (later called Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company). The deposit was under the control of the Butler’s of Topsail. They trusted in New Glasgow Company to begin the development of the site. The company secretary, Thomas Cantley, named the mining site Wabana. A name that today, is very well known, as it is the largest town on the island, with a population of over 2000 people. This word comes from the language of the Abenaki native tribe, and means “the place where daylight first appears.”
Mining Activity Begins
Once everything was ready, the mine began its activity in the summer of 1895. Workers quickly realized that the mining deposit was huge and of high quality. It also had another major advantage, its location. Small Bell Island, in the bay of conception, was very easy for ships to transfer the minerals extracted, especially to the steel mills of Sydney (Nova Scotia.) Which were beginning to expand their production, favoring the development of both settlements. This made the island’s population swell, with the arrival of more and more people who wanted to work in the mines.
The Wabana mining deposit not only served the interests of the Canadians and British, but also became a vital point for world steel production. Wabana ore was shipped to many areas of the world, such as the United States and Continental Europe. Bell Island was now a part of an international network in the mining and steel industry. So while the world’s industry grew, the island contributed to a great extent, providing the raw materials for the construction of so many great works and machines during this time period.
IIt was evident that extracting the valuable mineral was in the interests of many companies. In 1899, the Whitney Company (later known as Dominion Steel Corporation) joined the mining activities. Together with Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company, they would increase production further. While the new company would be in charge of the “lower bed” of ore, the old company would continue to be in charge of the “upper bed” of the ore. The problem was that the surface mining resources were quickly depleted. The resources of the submarine bed of the Conception Bay soon became the objective of the companies, an activity that was not easy. But thanks to the interests of both, it was possible to begin the submarine slopes in 1905 and reach it in 1909. This made Bell Island not only the largest iron producer in North America, but also home to one of the largest underwater mines in the world.
Problems in sight
The NThe Nova Scotia Company was the main owner of the underwater mines with 32 square miles. Dominion Company controlled an additional 8 square miles. For several years, everything was going well with the mining production and for the development of the island. However, in 1914 with the start of the First World War, production would suffer a setback since the German Empire, now at war with the British Empire, could not access this mineral. From the beginning of mining operations, the Germans had been one of the main buyers of iron ore from Bell Island. Now, however, the companies could not sell this resource to its rival. Nonetheless, iron production continued, and was crucial to the Allies, who ended up winning the war four years later, in 1918.
The end of the conflict did not mean that everything returned to normal immediately. New problems arose that affected the economic activity of the island. In 1920, the two companies that extracted the mineral from the island were absorbed by the British Empire Steel Corporation. It seemed, Bell Island no longer seemed to count in the defeat of Germany. Also, in 1923, France occupied the German region of the Ruhr (rich in iron) with the aim of acquiring compensation. Of which, the now Weimar Republic could not pay due to its own economic problems. So now the mine could not count on France as a trading partner, either.
In Addition, many problems linked to the enormous debt the new British owners had made, caused this new company to go bankrupt in 1926. The Company assets were acquired by the National Trust, one of its largest creditors.
Still, the biggest blow took place in 1929, when the world plunged into the great depression. This global financial crisis affected the price of iron as well as its production. For several years, production remained low. In 1930, Dominion Steel Corporation bought the holdings back from the British Empire Steel Corporation.
Mines in World War II
The years passed and the world was slowly recovering from the economic depression that it had suffered years before. This was a benefit for the iron industry. The Bell Island mines were beginning to recover from its problems too. The rise of Nazism in Germany and the strengthening of its army required a lot of raw material for the war industry, so once again Germany became an important buyer of the mineral from Bell Island. However, as before, when the new conflict began on September 1, 1939, the sale of iron stopped. Germany became a threat yet again. The island’s iron would contribute very valuable resources to the war effort for the allies and the development of their weapons.
Knowing the importance of the island, the allies strategically placed two large 4.7-inch Quick Fire guns on the island. These large artillery pieces would face the attacking German submarines that were trying to attack the allied ships. The Battle of Bell Island took place in 1942. Two clashes did occur, in which the German submarines U-513 and U-518 launched attacks and sank several transport ships, leaving several dead. Despite this, at the end of the conflict, the victory went to the allies.
The Wabana mines in the postwar period
After the end of the conflict, the mining activity on the island continued. The first mine was closed in 1950 leaving 3 in operation. Over the decades, the miners had gone deeper and deeper to extract the mineral. By 1951, they were three miles out under the sea. This was amazing example of mining activity over the years. The decade of the 50’s were a time of modernization. New methods were developed to simplify the extraction of minerals and reduce the cost. New technologies, together with competitiveness, affected the importance of these mines. Prior to 1950, Bell Island was the sole source of iron for the Sydney steel mills, a very important partner in continuing resource extraction. But, with the emergence of other major iron markets now overshadowing the popularity of the island, the mines now had to compete with iron from other parts of the world. This caused another of the mines to close in 1959.
Bell Island Mine closure
At this point the Bell Island mines had lost much of their global relevance; however 2 of them continued to operate trying to cope with international At this point, the Bell Island mines had lost much of their global relevance. However, two of them continued to operate, trying to cope with this new international competition. But these underground operations were very expensive and linked to other deposits discovered in Canada. This forced the closure of another of the mines in 1962, leaving now only one. Which finally closed in April 1966. The mine with the largest continuous operation in Canada had finally come to an end. Bell Island could not face the competition, and the Sydney steel mills also scheduled its own closure, ending an era.
At the time of its closure, Wabana had grown enormously over the decades and had a population of 7,884 people. Unfortunately, due to the end of its main economic activity, citizens were leaving the island in search of new opportunities. By 2016, the population was down to 2,146 people, a number that is still getting smaller and smaller.
As time passed, the mines were flooded and were completely inoperative. The population moved to other cities such as St. John’s to work. Many people found employment in the fishing industry. But ironically, the mining legacy still endures on Bell Island, transforming into a tourist attraction for the island. Many visitors were interested in seeing one of the largest iron mines in the world.
In Wabana, you’ll find the Bell Island Mine Museum, where visitors can learn more about the mining history of Bell Island through photographs, artifacts and machines of the old mining industry. Tours, where visitors can explore part of what was once mine #2, provide a unique experience that transports its visitors back in time.
The Bell Island mines forever changed the development of the tiny island. Its rich and proud legacy lives on in each of its inhabitants. Visitors will leave Bell Island, marveling at what was once one of the richest sites in the world, and how it contributed immensely to the development of humanity.
Bell Island No. 2 Mine is a registered heritage structure.
communitystories.ca – Digital Museums Canada – Bell Island Newfoundland Mining History
heritage.nf.ca – Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador – Iron Ore Mines of Bell Island
heritage.nf.ca – Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador – Work and Life in the Bell Island Mines
Earth Science Erratics – The Iron Ore of Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland