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When Darkness Falls

For the week of Monday August 23, 2004

On August 24, 1896, the first miner’s strike at the Wabana Iron Ore Mines took place. The Mines were located on Bell Island, off the coast of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Once regarded as one of the largest deposits of red hematite iron ore in the world, the Wabana Mines became an essential contributor to the local economy.

A miner loading an ore car
© Bell Island Museum

Unlike Newfoundland, Nova Scotia had a prosperous iron and steel industry, which caused Nova Scotia mining corporations to take note of Bell Island. These corporations realized the value of Wabana’s iron ores in the early 1890s. Soon after, the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company named the mines.  Wabana is thought to be an Abenaki Aboriginal word that means the place where daylight first appears.

The Wabana Mines were the largest sub-marine iron ore mines in the world. By 1951, the submarine tunnels extended five kilometres under the ocean. The employees of the Wabana Mines worked under dangerous and unpleasant conditions. Until 1943, most workers spent ten hours a day, six days a week underground. Originally, workers used candles to light their way. Carbide lamps became available in 1911 and battery-operated electric lights connected to hats were introduced in 1935. Shovellers were expected to load at least ten cars of 1.8 tonnes per shift. Horses were kept in underground stables so that they could pull the cars to the ground level. As the years went by, the introduction of more modern machinery made the work less difficult.

An ore car from Wabana Iron Ore Mines is on display in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador to attract visitors to the No. 2 Mine
© Bell Island Museum

The Wabana Mines reached their peak just before the First World War. Unfortunately, the Nova Scotia companies who owned the Wabana Mines experienced financial difficulties during the war as they had previously derived a large portion of their profits from Germany. The Great Depression caused further troubles for the Wabana Mines, but profits soared with the onset of the Second World War. In the years following the Second World War, Bell Island’s economy thrived. This stability was short-lived. Rail access to the Labrador Mines was the beginning of the end for the Wabana Mines. International competition from South America and West Africa also diminished Wabana’s profits. Eventually, Wabana Iron Ore Mines were completely closed in 1966.

Although the Wabana Mines are no longer operational, the No. 2 Mine is a historic site. It is now part of a museum that attracts tourists from all around the world. The Wabana Iron Ore Mines were recognized as a National Historic Event in 1988 for their role as a major source of iron ore between 1895 and 1966.

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