On Saturday, April 30th, 2011, a special ceremony was held at Moose River Gold Mines Provincial Park to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1936 cave-in and rescue effort at the mine site. This mining disaster became one of the biggest international media events before World War II. It made Moose River a household name.
Gold was discovered in this vicinity in 1866 but it was not until l876 that prospecting began in earnest. The Icelandic immigrants began to settle in Markland in 1875 - 1881. Many walked the three or four miles to Moose River to get employment. Even very young people looked for work at the mine. Labour regulations in Nova Scotia forbade the employment of children under the age of 10. However, they did allow for boys of 10 to 12 to “do light work as long as the work week did not exceed 60 hours”.
Johann Magnus Bjarnason lived with his family in Markland on Lot 15, Hlidarhus – Hillside House. He was 16 when he left Markland to move to Manitoba. There he became a teacher and writer. In 2001 Borga Jakobson, a member of the Icelandic Society of Nova Scotia, translated 14 short stories which he wrote for various almanacs. Many stories are told in this book about people working in the gold mines. The book, published by Formac Publishing Company Limited in Halifax, is called “Errand Boys in the Mooseland Hills”. Copies of this book can be purchased from the Society for $20 plus $3 shipping.
Gold mining reached its heyday between 1890 and 1909 long after the Icelanders had left Markland. Caribou Mines, Moose River and Tangiers were declared to be Gold Mining Districts which entitled the government to collect royalties on from any gold found. In all, 26,000 troy ounces of gold were taken from this particular area establishing Moose River Gold Mines as one of the more productive gold districts in the Province. By 1910 the mines were abandoned.
In 1936 a gold mining syndicate headed by Herman Magill, a Toronto barrister, and Dr. David E. Robertson, a Toronto doctor brought renewed hopes of prosperity to the area with the reopening of the abandoned mine. Despite reports that the mine was unsafe, on Easter Monday, April 13, 1936, mining operations began. On April 12, 1936, Magill, Robertson and Alf Scadding, the mine timekeeper, entered the shaft to inspect the workings. The mine collapsed, trapping the men at the 141 foot level for 11 days. After 6 days there was no sign of survivors. On day six, a government diamond driller reached the 141 foot level and made contact with the entombed men.
On April 19, 1936, Herman Magill developed pneumonia and died before he could be rescued. On April 23, Roberston was removed from the mine and Scadding followed afterwards. The broadcasts of J. Frank Willis of the CBC were carried to over 700 radio stations in Canada, USA and England. Radio was just in its infancy. This was the largest broadcast hookup originating on the continent and set a world record for that time. These broadcasts represented North America’s first major “media event” and are claimed to have changed radio.
The Province of Nova Scotia designated the site to be a Provincial Park in the 1980’s. A proviso was made in the designation to remove the park status if a mining operating was ever to resume in the area. Atlantic Gold NL, an Australian mining company, recently made plans to develop the mine. Many of the homes in the immediate area have been purchased by the mining company and the village now truly looks like a “ghost town”. The Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association has been actively campaigning against the gold mine project.
Next door to the mine site, the Moose River and Area Gold Mines Museum, established in 1986 provides detailed information about mining activities in the area and the 1936 disaster. Dolly Belmore, past president of the Icelandic Society, and her family (Betty Belmore , Kathy Didkowsky and Glenda Burrows) are instrumental in opening and operating this Museum. Each year the Society takes bus tours of visitors from Iceland to Markland and then lunch at the Mine Site and a tour of the Museum. The Museum has several pieces of furniture which the Icelanders left to the local people when they abandoned their homes in 1881 and 1882.
This area has had a rich history. It has close links with the Icelandic settlement at Markland. The Icelandic Society will watch with interest to see what the futureholds for this area.