Throughout the 19th century in Nova Scotia, the search for sustainable domestic sources of iron parallelled the discovery and development of the province’s coal reserves. The ready availability of these two resources, in quantity and quality, was key to positioning Nova Scotia for early industrial development; and, after 1867, for supporting continued economic growth within the new Dominion of Canada. The search for domestic iron reserves ultimately proved elusive, however, and this combined with the slow demise of the provincial coal-mines adversely affected the province’s ability to participate competitively in steel production and heavy industry, well into the 20th century.
Nova Scotia’s first iron mines were developed in 1825 at Nictaux Falls, southeast of Middleton in Annapolis County; and a Catalan forge the province’s first was set up on site to produce wrought iron. Also in 1825, the Annapolis Iron Mining Company built a blast furnace at Moose River (Clementsport) between Annapolis Royal and Digby, in order to smelt the magnetic ore recovered from three small local seams (the Miller, Potter and Milbury), as well as to accommodate production from the Nictaux deposits.
By the 1890s additional iron reserves had been discovered at Torbrook, near Nictaux, leading to a sporadic succession of mining and smelting initiatives. Altogether, some 350,000 tons were produced in the area between 1825 and 1913. However the Nictaux-Torbrook reserves like the others in Annapolis County were generally small and of poor quality, with a high phosphorus content; all the undertakings eventually failed.
In 1828, iron deposits were found along the banks of the East River in Pictou County, near present-day Bridgeville. This was a promising discovery, given the proximity to the collieries being developed at nearby Albion Mines (Stellarton). In 1829, the General Mining Association of London, England, built a small blast furnace at Albion Mines and began to produce pig iron.
Significant development of the iron reserves in Pictou County did not occur until the 1880s, however, when the local availability of both coal and iron prompted several industrial ventures. In 1891, the Pictou Charcoal Iron Company built a blast furnace at Bridgeville and began manufacturing pig iron for railway car wheels. Meanwhile, the New Glasgow Iron, Coal and Railway Company was formed in 1890 to take better advantage of the reserves. They opened up a new mine at Bridgeville and developed a purpose-built community nearby, called Ferrona ('ferrum' ~ Latin for iron). At Ferrona they installed a coal-washing plant and blast furnace that were state-of-the-art production facilities in Canada at the time, and began producing pig iron in 1892.
In 1895 the New Glasgow Company amalgamated with the Nova Scotia Forge Company, which had operated an open-hearth steel-making furnace at Trenton since 1882; their new name was Nova Scotia Steel. The iron reserves at Bridgeville, however, proved to be unsatisfactory for sustained iron and steel production; during the 1890s NS Steel began to import iron ore instead, from the Wabana Mines at Bell Island, Conception Bay, Newfoundland The Ferrona blast furnace closed in 1904 when operations were transferred to the Sydney Steel Works.
The most significant iron-mining initiative ever undertaken in Nova Scotia was the development of the Acadian Iron Mines at Londonderry in Colchester County. This enterprise began in 1848, when the Acadian Iron Mining Association was formed to exploit reserves of limonite (hydrated iron oxide) first discovered locally in 1844; mining began in 1849 and continued until 1908.
In 1850, a complementary iron works was built at Londonderry by the Acadian Charcoal Iron Company; the forge operated intermittently until 1870, when a small steel mill was constructed. In 1874 Acadian Charcoal was bought out by the Steel Company of Canada, which held exclusive patent rights to the new Siemens-Martin manufacturing process then revolutionizing steel production in Great Britain. In 1875 the Steel Company set out to create a huge new industrial complex in the woods at Londonderry blast furnaces, stoves, engine-houses, offices and warehouses, company housing, local tramways and branch rail-lines.
In 1878 the company completed its scheme of an ultra-modern steelworks at Londonderry by renaming the community 'Siemens,' in honour of Sir William Siemens, developer of the process and company chairman at the time. Here was industrial opportunity writ large indeed using Cumberland County coal to smelt Londonderry iron ore, then taking the pig iron that resulted and converting it directly into steel. At its peak, Londonderry had a population approaching 5,000; this included several hundred miners brought out from England in the 1870s, specifically to accelerate production of the iron reserves which were concentrated in three locations East Mines, the Old Mountain Mine and West Mines.
All was not well in the woods, however. In 1887 the Steel Company of Canada was reorganized; a subsidiary, the Londonderry Iron and Steel Company Limited, was created to run the Nova Scotia operations. Increasingly, provincial iron reserves were being overshadowed by the huge deposits discovered at Wabana and in northern Ontario. As well, Nova Scotia was geographically isolated from the new centres of industry developing in eastern North America, competition was stiff, and transportation of goods and raw materials was problematic. Steel production at Londonderry halted in 1898, and in the following year Londonderry I&S Company assets were sold to a new concern, the Londonderry Iron and Mining Company.
Before operations could resume under new ownership, a disastrous fire in 1900 destroyed the foundry, rolling mills and pipe shop, marking a point of no return. Both the mines and the blast furnace were re-opened with much brave optimism in 1903 and construction of a new steel plant began in 1910. The company ceased operations in 1915, however, and in 1920 a second, even more disastrous fire swept the community. After this there was no recovery. Foreclosure proceedings began in 1924 against the Londonderry I&M Company, and in 1928 what was left of the great industrial complex was sold for scrap.