Salt of the Earth

Malagash: Not only Canada’s greatest salt mine but a strange world where miners go boating and climb salt peaks far below the earth’s surface

JOHN LEBLANC August 15 1944

Salt of the Earth

Malagash: Not only Canada’s greatest salt mine but a strange world where miners go boating and climb salt peaks far below the earth’s surface

JOHN LEBLANC August 15 1944

Salt of the Earth



WHEN Peter Murray struck his pickle well 32 years ago, he was just digging for water for his cattle. He couldn’t know then that his drill would lead to the development of a labyrinth of underground workings from which would flow millions of dollars in gleaming white salt crystals.

Now, right across from the Murray farm on Nova Scotia’s Malagash Peninsula, rise the headframes and other buildings of Canada’s greatest salt mine—one of the largest producers of rock salt in the British Empire. This snow-white deposit is 98.5%, pure, and is part of a series of deposits believed to be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere.

Not that Malagash Mines—as the district is now called—-looks like a mining community. It doesn’t, for it s strictly rural. The mine yard looks as though it had been set down intact in the middle of a fresh, green stretch of countryside. All around the hay grows tall and cattle graze placidly in the verdant meadows. There’s a general store, a post office, and a soft-drinks store, but these are the only concessions to the coming of industry. The nearest telephone exchange is still four miles away and the nearest liquor stores are at Amherst and Pictou, the latter 50 miles off. The “company house,” which usually goes hand in hand with mining, is not to be found here. The homes are farmhouses, most of them with their livestock and gardens.

Yet from this mine in the midst of a quiet agricultural community cascade more than 50,000 tons of salt each year—salt channelled into a wide variety of uses ranging from the preservation of food to the processing of steel for ship’s plates. Biggest potential market for Malagash salt is the salt-fish industry and to meet the exacting demands of Canada’s fishermen,

who will be battling for world markets after the war, both the Dominion and Nova Scotia Governments have taken steps to improve the grade and triple the output of Malagash salt.

But Peter Murray wasn’t able to foresee all this that winter day in 1912 when a spurt of brine leaped out of the artesian well shaft he was sinking near the corner of his barn. His first reaction was one of disgust. Wasted labor, he thought. But being a practical man he put the free-flowing brine to work pickling his slaughtered meat. Neighbors marvelled at Peter Murray’s pickling well, but he went right back to looking for fresh water. Eventually he found it, but not before tapping brine 14 tries in a row.

The general belief was that the salt water had seeped inland from Northumberland Strait which is only 1,600 feet from the Murray farm. Then someone discovered that the water in the wells was actually saltier than sea water.

It was, in fact, a saturated solution of brine, as laboratory tests made by the Mines branch in Ottawa proved. It was obvious that this was no mere inflow from the sea. Further exploration would probably locate the parent bed of rock salt.

In 1917 the first drill holes in search of salt were sunk. Sponsoring the project was an association formed by A. R. Chambers, a Nova Scotia mining engineer, and George W. McKay, New Glasgow, N.S. This concern, now headed by McKay, is called the Malagash Salt Company, Limited.

Drilling established the presence of a bed of rock salt. 79 feet thick. A shaft was sunk; it hit salt 85 feet below the surface, and was continued to a depth of 190 feet. From the 180-foot level an inclined

Malagash: Not only Canada’s greatest salt mine but a strange world where miners go boating and climb salt peaks far below the earth’s surface

winze (interior shaft) has been sunk and levels have been run off at various depths, the bottom workings being 1,150 feet below the surface.

Over these cavernous underground workings has mushroomed the tall, gaunt headframe that houses the hoisting gear for the shaft and the crushers that chew the tough rock salt into a variety of sizes for packing. Around the mine yard are spread-eagled a half-dozen buildings, most of them encrusted with the smoke and salt of years of operation. The bright red brick of a new powerhouse makes a vivid splash against its dingy fellow's. Piles of waste extracted from the salt grow skyward.

At Malagash, 150 tons of salt pour up from the earth daily. Most of this goes to market as rock salt after being cleaned by hand-picking on a conveyer belt and crushed and graded through sieves. The rest of the salt is purified by crystallizing it out of solution. This is done in evaporation pans that cover as much ground as a good-sized house. The brine solution used in this process is pumped up from a man-made subterranean lake far underground in the workings of the mine.

Going underground was a thrilling experience. My guide was burly Jim Anderson, the mine ' manager, a redhead froin Glasgow who learned the hard-rock business in the nickel mines of Ontario. He’s a silent man until his Scottish burr gets wrapped around salt talk, and then there’s no holding him.

Climbing with him aboard the skip, a bucket that brings salt to the surface, I was dropped 90 feet down the vertical shaft to the first level of the mine. Salt was everywhere. It sparkled about the low, arched roof of the level in rock form. In spots it appeared like table salt—“sweated out” by the action of dampness in the air. It was even underfoot.

Going along a drift, which is the passageway following the beds of salt, I crouched to get through a low opening in the earth and came out on the edge of a precipice. At my feet there yawned a canyon carved out of solid rock. Its sides fell away almost sheerly into the darkness. Peering gingerly over the side of the ledge, I picked out, by the glimmer of my headlamp, the bottom some hundred feet below.

Ragged peaks of rock jutted out from the bed and the sides where the drillers had left low'-grade salt ore as, with machines and explosives, they ate their way down to the level below. With a few bats the scene would have served as the setting for a horror movie.

Farther on I emerged from another low passageway into a mammoth, cathedral-like cavern into which a sizeable church could have been fitted without crowding. The vaulted roof rose about 150 feet overhead, its crystalline formations coruscating in the lamplight.

This cavern, too, had been dug out by the drillers, leaving just enough salt to support the thousands of tons of earth that pressed down from above. There was no artificial support or brace for this tall cave. Jim Anderson explained that in its rock state salt is extraordinarily strong. Where another mineral might crack and fall under the burden bearing down on it, here the elastic salt merely bends slightly. It has, in fact, considerably more tensile strength than good concrete. Thanks to this quality there has not been a serious roof fall in the history of Malagash, and not one fatal accident.

Swing Into Space

THE work is hazardous enough in spots, though.

An ability for alpine climbing comes in handy for drillers Eddie Canfield and Percy Rhude as they ply a jack hammer. The spot where I watched them drilling holes for dynamite was on a narrow sloping . ledge overhanging a precipitous drop of about 50 feet to the bottom of another underground canyon. To get on the ledge, they had knotted about their middles ropes fastened to a spike driven in the salt above them. Then they had swung out over the abyss to their working place. The rattle of their compressed air hammer sent a thousand echoes bouncing off the walls.

And it's down in the mine that you learn at first hand something about the ancestry of this white stuff. Geologically, I was told, Malagash sits atop a formation known as the Windsor Series in which are embedded the salt strata. The presence of other salt beds has been proved near Amherst, 44 miles w'est of Malagash, and also in the Mabou area of Cape Breton, 90 miles to the east. All three findings are m an almost straight line, indicating that salt may lie in an unbroken stretch between Amherst and Mabou. What is more probable, geologists reckon, is that a number of different beds lie along that line.

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The theory is that about 230 million years ago during the Carboniferous period in the earth’s evolution, the sea was gradually receding, leaving isolated lagoons. The evaporation of sea water left deposits of successive layers of salt, some other minerals and mud. Then in time the process was repeated until the original beds were far below the earth’s surface. Subterranean pressures and heat fused the salt into tractable masses, twisting it into grotesque shapes. Today, as I saw for myself while underground in the mine, these seams curl in hairpin bends or S-shaped bows, enough to give a mining engineer nightmares.

For this reason, there is no uniform method of knocking the salt down. At one spot, the miners may use the standard machine system of longwall mining. At others they have to resort to hand drilling and blasting. Or again, in one of the tall salt structures, they will work down from the ceiling in a series of steps like a giant’s stairway. Mining salt at Malagash is no job for a miner with a one-track mine.

I noticed that everything underground had been arranged so that gravity did a good share of the work. That’s one reason why the working force seldom exceeds 100 men. For instance, where a wall of salt is being hewn down, a chute may be driven down to. the next level. Down this, chunks of salt are toppled, carried by their own weight into the hand-pushed mine cars waiting to “tram” the salt to the hoisting slope. These hauls aren’t long, though the convolutions of the salt seams make for miles of tortuous tunnels. Even after 25 years of mining the digging hasn’t got very far from the shaft. A square mile would easily cover the whole operation.

Back at the spot where we had first stepped out of the “skip,” I was told the underground lake lay far below us. To get to it we went down a series of ladders and stairs. Jim Anderson pulled up a trap door in the floor and I saw a ladder. Its rungs fell away vertically in the darkness until they disappeared. It was not until I had climbed down it to the bottom—and a good thing for my peace of mind, too’—that I discovered the ladder was 90 feet long.

Briny Pool

But to get to the lake level I still had to go through two more trap doors and negotiate two more ladders, with a death grip on every rung. Then we went down a long stairway that runs down a sloping wall about as high as a six-story building. This took us to the lake, whose dark waters stretched in front of us for about 150 feet and then vanished around a bend in the cavern. There was a small jetty with a rowboat moored to its planking. The water was salt-saturated and extremely buoyant. If you pushed a small log under the surface, it popped up as though an unseen hand had heaved it back. This water contains about two and a half pounds of salt to a gallon (sea water holds only five ounces) and a swimmer couldn’t sink in it.

There are no fish in this dark pool, for it is really a synthetic lake formed by water which trickles down from the upper levels of the mine and collects in this underground cavern. This water—fresh to start with—is sprayed in a fine mist over the walls of salt in the upper levels of the mine, and as it trickles downward toward the lake it absorbs salt, becoming a strong saline solution. Then it is pumped above ground to the evaporation plant, where

the salt grains in the water are crystallized out. Salt so produced is known as “Liverpool” salt and is used mostly by the food trade, though some is used to dry-cure fish.

While I was underground I met Herb Wilson, the mine foreman, who was helping Peter Murray dig his well on the day that started all this.

“We certainly had no idea we were bumping into a salt mine,” he says. “But I’m still here.” Herb was one of the originals who went to work in the mine and he’s been there almost continuously ever since.

Jim Allen, 67 years old and a veteran of square-rigged sailing vessels, is another old-timer at the pit. He has been at the mine steadily ever since he left the sea. For the last 18 years he has been hoist operator.

Twenty-one years ago, he was one of six men trapped underground when the headframe burned down. “The cable and bull wheel crashed down the shaft,” he recalls, “and we had to wait below for hours until things cooled off so they could lower ladders for us to climb up.”

Jim is president of the Malagash Salt Mine Workers’ Union, formed in 1937 and affiliated with the Canadian Congress of Labor. He was its charter president and has served almost continuously in that office ever since. He explains his labor philosophy. “We get along well with the company,” he says. “Oh, we’ve had the odd strike, but I don’t hold with that much. In the first place, this isn’t a big concern— only about 85 men on the payroll now. Then, you’ve got to take into account that a man’s wages go farther here in the country than in the city.”

The men of Malagash face the future with confidence.

“Our natural market,” Assistant General Manager John L. Cavanagh told me, “lies in the Maritimes, the Quebec shore, and Newfoundland. There is a prospective sale here for 110,000 tons of salt a year to the fish trade alone.”

At current prices for fishery salt, that’s worth considerably more than $1 million, and Malagash is gunning for the whole business. In this it is being assisted by both the provincial and federal governments, which have conducted exhaustive laboratory research into methods of improving and purifying the salt taken from the mine.

Fishermen want a coarse, sharply crystalline salt for curing their catch. Salt produced by evaporation, better than 99% pure but velvety in texture, won’t do. On the other hand, the rock salt as it is mined at Malagash doesn’t measure up to the fisherman’s needs. Dark anhydrite and gypsum occur in small quantities in the salt deposits. It is impossible to remove them without reducing the salt to solution. While it does .the fish no harm, it speckles the flesh with greyish spots and damages its market value.

When fishermen complained about this, government officials attacked the problem. Eventually, their scientists came up with the idea of adapting to the salt industry the flotation process used in purifying metal ores. This had never been tried before.

Roughly, the principle was that some combinations of chemical reagents could he swirled up through an agitated bath of salt suspended in a saturated brine solution. The chemical would float the foreign particles to the surface, leaving the salt behind.

The trick was to find a compound of chemicals that would have an affinity for the impurities but wouldn’t pick up the salt itself on the voyage to the surface. That was a problem that took some beating, but finally it was downed in the laboratories of the federal

Department of Mines and Resources. There, the scientists duplicated the texture of the raw salt—at least they came near enough to it for the fisherman’s purposes — with a product analyzing 99.7% pure sodium chloride.

New Pilot Plant

Now, a pilot plant that will follow the test tube process on a practical scale is being set up on the mine property, 900 feet west of the present surface operations. A new slope has been sunk 400 feet to tap the workings at their extreme edge. Near it is the threestory building where the ore, after rough crushing at the pit mouth, will be transported by conveyer belt.

Tumbling about in a ball crusher, the salt rock will be reduced to the size of grains of sand. Washed to remove free mud and dirt, it will then go through the multi - stage flotation process, emerging, if the procedure holds true to the laboratory tests, almost 100% pure.

Even in this form, the salt is still far from the fisherman’s standard of texture. So it has to be roughened up for him. It will be remelted in a furnace at 1,473 deg. Fahr., cast into bricks, and then crushed into the right lumpy sizes for salting down fish.

They could get the same product by remelting, casting, and breaking down the salt that comes out of the evaporators now, but it wouldn’t be economical. Evaporation is more expensive than flotation.

The pilot plant, which will have a capacity of 25 tons a day, has been financed by the federal Department of Fisheries in the interests of the fish industry. As things stand now, the fishermen take Malagash salt, solar salt imported from the warm countries, or American - mined salt. The salt obtained elsewhere in Canada—almost all in Ontario— is an evaporation product from brine wells, and fishermen can’t use it.

Solar salt, rendered out by the sun’s warmth in seaside pools, is cheap but commonly harbors bacteria destructive to fish. American salt must come by rail, and this increases the cost of processing fish. That makes it obvious that a top-grade product available at Malagash, right at the hub of the east coast fish business, should both benefit Canada’s fishery and hit the jack pot for Malagash.

The mine has another advantage, too. It is the only salt mine on the continent located at tidewater, a circumstance that puts it a jump ahead of competition so far as transportation costs go. Two and a half miles from the pithead, large freighters can load for cheap water - borne transport.

Grizzled Jim Allen, who has watched this industry grow up through a generation, says, “I see a future for this place.”

At any rate, the virgin salt lies there waiting—the salt of the earth—as it has waited through the eons for the touch of man.