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Mining Railways and their Locomotives in 19th Century Cape Breton

by Herb MacDonald

This article is adapted from my book, Cape Breton Railways: An Illustrated History, Sydney:
Cape Breton University Press, 2012, and is made available here by permission of Cape Breton University Press.
Of the 27 images reproduced here, 18 appear in the book.

See the Library section on this website or the Cape Breton University Press website for more details about the book.

GMA's Samson at Albion Mines, Pictou County. The coach is now in the Baltimore & Ohio Museum, Baltimore.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

For more than 150 years, the mines producing bituminous coal dominated the economies of northern Nova Scotia and parts of Cape Breton Island. Many of the earliest railways in the province were established by mining companies to move coal from pits to shipping wharves where the black gold would be loaded onto vessels bound for markets outside Nova Scotia.

The General Mining Association

Based on the model in use at many collieries in northeast England by the end of the 18th century, Nova Scotia's first railways were iron-rail horse-powered lines built by the General Mining Association [GMA] at the beginning of the 1830s. One was at Albion Mines, modern-day Stellarton, in Pictou County. Four more were built on Cape Breton Island, two at Sydney Mines, one at nearby Little Bras d'Or and one at Bridgeport located to the east of Sydney Harbour. These lines marked the first serious use of railway technology in Canada. By the late 1830s, the two horse-powered railways that remained in service, the one at Albion Mines and the second Sydney Mines line that opened in 1835, were each moving about 50,000 tons of coal a year to their shipping piers.

The Albion Mines line was rebuilt in the late 1830s and Nova Scotia's first three locomotives, ordered by the GMA from Timothy Hackworth of Shildon, County Durham, UK, went into service on the first part of the new railway in 1839. Samson, one of the three 0-6-0 Hackworths, is preserved at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton where a nameplate from a second 1839 loco, John Buddle, is also on display. A fourth engine arrived in 1848 from Michael Longridge's Bedlington Iron Works at Morpeth near Newcastle upon Tyne and two more, Albion and Pictou came from Newcastle in 1854. Albion is also at the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. The British tradition of giving names to locomotives would also come to Cape Breton for almost all the engines used on the island before 1890 came from England.

The long-forgotten date of the arrival of Cape Breton's first locomotives, Sydney and Halifax, at Sydney Mines remained something of a mystery throughout the 20th century. Various dates from the late 1830s through the late 1850s were offered, though always without documentary evidence, for replacement of the horses by steam power. I found the date with a bit of very basic research. The Cape-Breton News of 17 September 1853 reported the locomotives had been "recently put into operation" and were "performing their work in the conveyance of coal from the Mines to the Shipping Pier at North Sydney." The account in the News was later confirmed by a British newspaper reference that will be noted below. At the same time, a new mine, the Queen Pit, was being sunk at Sydney Mines and the railway was extended to serve it. Plans for the new pit and the introduction of locomotive power appears to have been influenced by the company's hopes for improved access to the American market as a result of negotiations for the Reciprocity Treaty that was signed the next year.

There are passing references to these first two locomotives in GMA documents at Cape Breton University's Beaton Institute but relatively little is known about them and no photos of them have been found. GMA locomotive rosters from the 1870s do indicate they had separate coal tenders, something that sets them apart from the tank engine design usually found on Cape Breton's 19th century mining lines where distances were very short.

As with their arrival date, there was also uncertainty about the source of Cape Breton's first locomotives. Some writers claimed that Sydney and Halifax were built by the Neilson company of Glasgow though no evidence was ever offered and the surviving GMA records provide no reference to their builder. Perhaps the speculation was a result of the fact that Neilson had delivered 16 locomotives for the Nova Scotia Railway in the 1850s. The engines, however, came from Rayne & Burn, a Newcastle firm that had been supplying iron work and mechanical gear in various forms to the GMA for three decades. From Frank Jux of the Stephenson Locomotive Society in England, I received the text of a reference in the Newcastle Courant of 29 April 1853 which had noted Rayne & Burn testing two engines, "Sydney and Halifax," prior to their shipment to "a railway originally constructed for horse-power." The next year, the Newcastle firm also shipped Albion and Pictou to the GMA's Albion Railway and Albion still carries the original Rayne & Burn builder's plate.

Resolution of the Cape Breton engines' source, the physical evidence of Albion, a photo of Pictou, and another newspaper story from 1930 combine to provide a basis for a speculation about Sydney and Halifax. A brief account of the Sydney Mines engines in the Halifax Herald of 29 May 1930 included a brief description by Albert Somers who had driven the locos. Somers offered one critical detail. "The cylinders," he said, "were set up at an angle of 45 degrees." It seems quite possible that the original Cape Breton engines were similar to the two that went to Albion Mines the following year.

GMA's Pictou at Albion Mines, Pictou County.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

In 1866 two additional locomotives came to the GMA in Cape Breton from other suppliers in Newcastle. Black, Hawthorn & Co. built Fairy, an 0-4-0 tank engine for the company's railway at Lingan. This pit, across the bay from the GMA's earlier mine at Bridgeport, had opened in 1854 supported by a 42 in. gauge horse-powered railway. This was the only use of narrow gauge by the GMA and the original line was retained when the line was converted to steam power. Fairy worked at Lingan until 1885 when that site was abandoned. The engine was then rebuilt to standard gauge and used at Sydney Mines by the GMA and its successor, the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company, until it was scrapped after World War I. No identified photos of Fairy have been located but one print in the Merrilees Collection at the National Archives of Canada might show that engine in its later years.

Also in 1866, Stephenson, another 0-4-0 tank, came to the GMA at Sydney Mines. Those who had claimed that Sydney and Halifax were built by Neilson said that Stephenson also came from Glasgow. Recent evidence found in England, however, proves this was not the case. Another British colleague, Michael Bailey of Manchester, found that the records of Robert Stephenson & Co. show delivery of this engine, Stephenson works # 1727, in May of 1866 to J.H. Burn (of Rayne & Burn) on behalf of the GMA.

GMA's Stephenson at Sydney Mines.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

Two later Sydney Mines locomotives were named after men with GMA connections. The name of the John Bridge honoured one of the original GMA directors whose name was also probably the source of the name for Bridgeport in 1830. This 2-4-0 tank engine came from Fletcher, Jennings & Co. of Whitehaven, Lancashire in 1870 and was the only engine sold by this firm in eastern Canada. Despite the fact that they came from different builders, photos of John Bridge and Stephenson show each had an unusual rounded roof over the engineer's cab. It seems likely that these were added at the GMA shops after the engines arrived in Cape Breton, a modification that engine crews would have been appreciated on a rainy day.

GMA's John Bridge at Sydney Mines.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

John Bridge and Stephenson at Sydney Mines.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

New GMA wharf built at North Sydney 1876 and its rail links.
Detail from Cape Breton County map, A. F. Church & Sons, Halifax, 1877.


While far from the first to operate in Cape Breton, the C. G. Swann should be the best known of the island's early locomotives. Named after the Secretary of the GMA Board and constructed at Sydney Mines, it was the only locomotive ever built on the island. Within a few months after its completion in 1888, the Swann went into service on the GMA railway at Victoria Mines where it operated until after Dominion Coal bought that property in the early 1890s. Note the similarity of the design of the cab roof on the Swann to the roof design seen on Stephenson and John Bridge.

GMA's C. G. Swann.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

This unidentified loco was grouped with GMA photos from North Sydney - Sydney Mines in the Andrew Merrilees Collection at National Archives of Canada. Could this have been Fairy when rebuilt to standard gauge?


After the end of the GMA monopoly on Nova Scotia's coal reserves in 1858, a number of new mining companies had appeared on the south side of Sydney harbour and opened locomotive-powered railways there.


International Coal and Railway Company

The most successful of these new firms was the International Coal and Railway Company. This New York-based company was established in 1864, sank new pits on the old GMA property at Bridgeport, and built a standard-gauge railway from Bridgeport to their new pier on Sydney harbour. Both the railway and the pier went into use in late 1870.

International Pier at Sydney. After 1893, the site became known as Whitney Pier named after H. M. Whitney, head of Dominion Coal Company, the firm that consolidated most of the earlier mining companies into a single corporation.
Note the coal cars on top of the pier and the loading chutes, three on each side and one on the end.
Detail from Canadian Illustrated News, May 20, 1871, 312.

The 14-mile railway was equipped with three English tank engines all named after company executives. Henry Day and Alfred MacKay were built by Black, Hawthorn, and A. C. Morton came from the Hunslet Engine Works of Leeds. The Morton became one of the best known 19th century engines because of its longevity. When International became part of the Dominion Coal Company in 1894, the Morton wound up on that firm's new Sydney & Louisburg Railway as S&L # 3 and ran till 1942, a working life of over seventy years. Upon the Dominion Coal takeover, the original International track was also kept in service and became the western end of the standard gauge S&L.

International Railway's Henry Day.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

International Railway's A. C. Morton.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

In 1891, the International railway became the second Cape Breton line to redirect its locomotive purchases from England to the USA when it ordered two 2-6-4 Forney-type engines from the Rhode Island Locomotive Works, the first of a number of this design that would come to the Sydney area. International # 4 also carried the name, Sir Donald, named after Sir Donald Smith of Montreal who was a member of the company's board of directors. Naming the engine after Smith would have been an easy decision given his prior railway experience, particularly that as a temporary CPR sectionman at Craigellachie in 1885. In physical appearance, Sir Donald was the first Cape Breton loco that looked more like a 20th century North American engine than one from the earlier days of railroads. As a result, it was fitting that this engine also had a long working life. On the S&L it was renumbered several times, rebuilt to 0-6-0 design in 1950 and ran on the S&L until the end of the age of steam in 1961.

International Railway's Sir Donald.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.


Glace Bay Mining Company and Caledonia Coal Company

Some of the American investors in the International Company had interests in other firms. One of these was Gardiner Hubbard of Boston whose name generated the name of Gardiner Mines and whose influence on Cape Breton was extended through his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell of telephone fame. Hubbard was involved with both Glace Bay Mining and Caledonia Coal, two related firms that opened mines near Glace Bay in the 1860s and built short rail lines to wharves at Glace Bay. Glace Bay Mining acquired an 0-4-0 tank locomotive from Neilson of Glasgow in 1867, an event that offers another possible explanation for the suggestion that Neilson had built the first engines for the GMA at Sydney Mines. This engine acquired the name Pinkie and, like the Morton and Sir Donald, had a long working life. Glace Bay Mining also became part of the Dominion Coal Company in 1894 and Pinkie in its later years became the first to carry # 1 on the S&L. A number of photos have survived of Pinkie over the years making it one of the best documented of Cape Breton's early locomotives.

This photo has appeared inaccurately identified as Pinkie when new though it almost certainly shows what Pinkie did look like in Glasgow in 1867. In a high resolution form, the photo clearly shows the Neilson plate with works # 1367. The Neilson Order Book at the UK National Railway Museum at York identifies Pinkie as # 1366 and built to the same specs as # 1367. Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

Pinkie still with British buffers but the photo definitely dates from 1895 or later when Glace Bay Mining had become part of the Dominion Coal Company. Another print includes several S&L hoppers, the numbers on which show them as part of an order of hoppers built by Rhodes, Curry of Amherst in 1895. Note the oval spot on the outside of the cab where the Neilson builder's plate had been removed. The loco in the background has not been identified and I can not offer even a guess as to its identity. Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

Pinkie at a later date with a knuckle coupler during its days as a S&L engine but without its S&L # 1.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

Pinkie (on right) as an S&L engine. The second loco appears to be one of a series of 2-6-4T engines that came from the Schenectady Loco Works in 1899-1900. No S&L number plate was present when the photo was taken but it is possible that the engine could have been the famous # 42. That engine was rebuilt after WWII to a 2-6-0 tender loco, survived to work on the Cape Breton Steam Railway in the 1970s, subsequently ran on the Salem & Hillsborough in New Brunswick, and is now preserved at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton. Andrew Merrilees Coll., National Archives of Canada.

In the late 1880s, Glace Bay Mining added a second locomotive, the E. P. Archbold. Built by the Baldwin Company of Philadelphia, this was the first American built engine to appear on Cape Breton.

Glace Bay Mining's E. P. Archbold.
Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

Caledonia Coal was late to convert from horses to steam power despite the fact that for over 20 years its railway was over two miles long in comparison to the Glace Bay Mining line, where Pinkie worked, that was only a half-mile in length. Details on Caledonia Coal and its railway from the Nova Scotia Department of Mines Annual Reports and the reports on mining railways in the federal annual "Railway Statistics" are even more fragmentary and contradictory than those on most of Cape Breton's railways. Caledonia may have acquired its first and only engine in the early or mid-1880s. In the 1950s, Robert R. Brown suggested this was an 0-4-0 tank that was a second-hand rebuild of a Grand Trunk broad gauge tender engine that had been built at the Canadian Locomotive Works in Kingston. If so, regardless of the exact arrival date, this would have been the first Canadian-built engine to go into service on Cape Breton.

Horse powered rail operations at Caledonia Coal Co, Glace Bay.
From George Monro Grant, ed., Picturesque Canada, vol 2, Toronto: Belden, 1882, 848.


The Great Narrow Gauge Project: The Glasgow & Cape Breton, Etc, Etc.

In 1868, a group of British investors obtained mining rights to part of the area that had been held "in reserve" by the provincial government and opened the Reserve Colliery plus several smaller mines in the area. They built the Glasgow and Cape Breton Railway, opened from Reserve to Sydney in 1871 and soon extended eastward to Schooner Pond, modern-day Donkin.

The Emery Colliery, a mine near Reserve that was taken over by the Glasgow & Cape Breton Company in 1873.
Detail from Canadian Illustrated News, December 20, 1873, 388.

The original plan of the G&CB, shown in the 1868 prospectus, was to build a standard gauge railway to serve the new mines. The line was actually built as 36 in. gauge, one of the very few examples of this track width in Nova Scotia. Company restructurings and changes of name were the order of the day with this venture. The G&CB was reorganized and became the Cape Breton Company Railway in 1873. Construction of a branch to Louisburg was started in 1874 and probably completed the next year. The objective was to be able to ship coal through the normally ice-free harbour at Louisburg when Sydney harbour was closed by ice. In 1881, the company was reorganized once more and became the Sydney & Louisburg Coal and Railway Company though this narrow gauge line should not be confused with the standard gauge Sydney & Louisburg railway opened by the Dominion Coal Company in the mid-1890s.

The Cape Breton Company's pier at Louisburg under construction.
Sir Sandford Fleming Collection, National Archives of Canada, Negative # PA-027636.

An 1875 map of the Cape Breton Company's narrow gauge railway that also shows the International line,
the GMA railways at Sydney Mines, Victoria Mines, and Lingan plus the Gowrie Railway at Cow Bay.
Note also the "proposed railway New Glasgow to Louisburg," a project originally proposed by the G&CB company in 1872.
Detail from Cape Breton Company Ltd, "Notice to Ship Owners and Coal Agents," London, March, 1875.

One of the most interesting features of the narrow gauge railway was its set of three very unusual locomotives acquired in 1872 to support a single 0-4-0T that had arrived the previous year from Fox, Walker of Bristol. Built by the Avonside Company, also of Bristol, the three new engines were known, after their designer, Robert Fairlie, as Fairlie Patents. They were mechanical versions of the "push-me-pull-you," the two-headed llama of the Dr. Dolittle stories. Also known as "double-enders," the basic Fairlie Patent design included a central cab with separate boilers linked to separate sets of driving wheels and smokestacks at each end regardless of the wheel configuration or gauge of the engine. Most Patents, however, were narrow gauge. The profile diagram of the G&CB Fairlies, one in a set of 18 drawings of different models of Patents built by 1874, indicates clearly how this strange-looking engine design appeared to have two front ends. The illustration of the bridge over the Mira River shows the double-ended profile of one of those locomotives as well as the engineering challenge of this river crossing on the branch to Louisburg. After the main line coming out of Sydney was abandoned upon the company's takeover by Dominion Coal in 1894, much of that route served as the roadbed for the Sydney-Glace Bay tramcar line opened in 1901.

One of the Fairlie Patent locomotives that arrived on the G&CB in 1872. No photos or references have been found to show either names or numbers on these engines. Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

A drawing with some physical specifications of the Patents built for the G&CB.
From Engineering, London, August 21, 1874, 144.

The Patents apparently performed very well. Donald Binns' book, Fairlie Articulated Locomotives on the American Continent, (Trackside, Skipton, Yorks, 2001: 51) quotes an 1872 letter from the G&CB resident engineer, E.W.Young, that indicated a high level of satisfaction with the locomotives. "The engines ride easily on the rails," wrote Young, "and are comfortable and conveniently arranged for the driver and the stoker. So far as our present experience goes, the engines are a great success. A train of 40 loaded cars can be brought in from the Reserve by one engine." The 200 original G&CB cars were reported in the Nova Scotia Department of Mines Report for 1872 as having four tons capacity so the train weight would have approached 200 tons.

A Patent under the Charlotte Street bridge in Sydney. Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

A Patent on Blacket's trestle on the Louisburg branch of the Cape Breton Company Railway.
Sir Sandford Fleming Collection, National Archives of Canada, Negative # PA-027634.

A Patent on the Mira River bridge on the Louisburg branch of the Cape Breton Company Railway.
Detail from Canadian Illustrated News, June 5, 1875, 356.
The date of the drawing suggests that the Louisburg branch may have been operational in 1875.

The demise of the last of the three narrow gauge companies apparently left an unusual legacy in addition to its name. Many sources, including Omer Lavallee's book on Canadian narrow gauge, suggest the Patents were scrapped in 1894. However, there appears little doubt that a section of narrow gauge track was retained between Reserve and the new S&L standard gauge main line at Dominion. To it was added a third rail permitting the use of new standard gauge cars and continued use of more than one of the Patents. This short section of track was one of only two known examples of dual gauge operation on Cape Breton. The other location was on the Glace Bay Mining Company railway for an unknown period beginning in 1878. The survival of more than one of the Patents for almost another decade is confirmed by an account in The Railway and Shipping World, (January, 1903:15) stating that "the old double-end locomotives … have recently been taken apart at the Reserve, and will be disposed of as old junk. The machinists who took them apart say it was the hardest job they ever tackled, as the engines were very strongly built and the parts mostly forge-made."

The Gowrie Company

Some of the smaller, locally-owned mining companies also built railways. Best known of these was the Gowrie Company that built a short 42 in.gauge line from its pit to a wharf at Cow Bay, now Port Morien. It opened with a single 4-4-0T locomotive that had been one of a set of seven built by the Hunslet Company of Leeds for the Prince Edward Island Railway in 1871-72. Hunslet's archival records at Armley Mill, Leeds, show all seven were shipped to PEI but no evidence has been found to explain why one wound up in Cape Breton almost immediately. A second Hunslet 4-4-0T was apparently acquired at the end of the 1870s. It has been identified as a second-hand engine though from an unknown source. This railway operated until the Gowrie Company was purchased by Dominion Coal in 1894 and the two engines were apparently scrapped at that time.

One of the Hunslet tank engines for Prince Edward Island, almost certainly a builder's photo taken before the loco left Leeds. Andrew Merrilees Collection, National Archives of Canada.

Two Other Early Mining Railways

Two other mining railways appeared outside the core area of the Sydney coal field. A mine owned by C. J. Campbell was opened in the 1860s at Kelly's Cove, on the north side of the northern end of the Great Bras d'Or Channel. The owner's name led to the site being named New Campbellton. The provincial Department of Mines Report for 1874 shows arrival of a locomotive that year for the mine's 42 in. gauge rail line. Federal reports on mining railways for the period 1875-1888 show a locomotive in service on a line reported at various lengths from 1¼ to 5 miles and with 40-45 coal cars in use. The line disappeared from the federal report for 1889, presumably an indication that the company had shut down though it appears to have been revived on several occasions over the next 25 years. Nothing has been found to shed any light on New Campbellton's single locomotive.

Also in the early 1870s, a railway was proposed to run from a mine at Broad Cove (modern day Inverness) on Cape Breton's west coast to Port Hastings on the Strait of Canso. The Inverness & Richmond was eventually built on this route though it did not appear for almost 30 years when Mackenzie & Mann obtained the construction contract and ultimately ownership of both the railway and the mines it served. The Inverness & Richmond opened in 1901 connecting the Inverness mine with a new shipping wharf at Port Hastings and with the Intercolonial which had been built across Cape Breton from the Strait of Canso a decade earlier. As a 20th century line, the I&R falls outside the parameters for this article and is left for the reader to research independently.


Details on sources can be found in the footnotes to chapters 1 and 2 and the bibliography in Cape Breton Railways: An Illustrated History, pp. 222-30 and 249-59. One detail that should be mentioned here is the precise source of the Merrilees Collection photos. All come from one box of photos that is a treasure chest for someone interested in Nova Scotia mining railways. The National Archives of Canada identification code is # 1980-149, Group D, Subseries I, Box # 2000725251.

I must acknowledge the aid received from the staff of the Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University, Sydney, the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Halifax, and the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa. In the UK, additional vital assistance came from staff at the Durham and Northumberland County Record Offices in Durham and Newcastle respectively, the UK National Railway Museum in York, the Guildhall Archives, the Science Museum Library and the British Library in London, the Stephenson Locomotive Society Library in Hersham, and from many friends and colleagues in the UK in addition to those named above who have helped me over the past decade and more with my research on the British links to Nova Scotia's 19th century railways..

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