The Birth of a Steel Plant
By Sydney S. Slaven
The 20th century marked the rise and fall of a major steel industry
in Sydney, N.S.
A small government town was transformed into a large industrial
city that became known as “the steel capital of Eastern Canada”.
Today, bare acres and a few buildings are all that remain of the
steel plant. The demise of the steel mill was due to several factor.
The main factor was the reliance on only one product - the steel
rail. Another factor was the disappearance of the third world market
that began producing their own steel. Also, the North American Free
Trade Act affected sales to Mexico. At one time, Sydney supplied
all the rail needs of Mexico. It became cheaper for Mexico to produce
its own rails due to the lower wages paid to its workers.
In 1899, an American businessman and promoter named Henry M. Whitney
formed a consortium with the intention of constructing an integrated
steel plant at Sydney, N.S.
Mr. Whitney was well known as an astute businessman who, in fact,
had once been a chief advisor to the President of the United States.
He had already formed the Dominion Coal Company in 1893 and envisioned
a local steel plant as the ideal outlet for coal.
Another steel plant was constructed at the same time in Sydney Mines
by the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company, (Scotia). Mr. Whitney
negotiated a deal to share the Wabana iron ore mine at Newfoundland
with Scotia and named the Sydney operation the Dominion Iron and
Steel Co. (DISCO). Limestone was also available in Aquatuna, Newfoundland.
Consequently, all of the ingredients were on hand for the production
Sydney harbour also provided a shipping outlet to the world and
to the Canadian National Railway, which terminated at Sydney and
was a path to the central Canadian markets.
The Scotia plant in Sydney Mines was a basic iron and steel producer
feeding its finishing mills to New Glasgow, N.S. The Sydney plant
was for the sale of semi-finished ingots, blooms and billets.
The construction of Disco began in 1900 and finished in late 1901.
It was the most modern steel plant in the world with a state of
the art battery of 400 Coke Ovens capable not only of producing
coke, but also of recovering saleable by-products such as tar, benzene,
and industrial salt. Four Blast Furnaces with a capacity of 1200
tons of iron fed off of themselves and used the heated gas produced
to fuel further casts. Ten 50-ton Open Hearth furnaces of the tilting
variety gave Disco the most advanced steel making process of the
Construction of the plant finished late in 1901 and the first steel
was produced on Dec. 31, 1901(likely rushed in order to reach the
target of a 1901 completion date). This was the beginning of 100
years of boom and bust cycles for the Sydney Steel Plant.
The downside of this modern plant was, the iron ore from Wabana
and the coal from Cape Breton. The ore was of a very poor grade
and the Cape Breton coal had extremely high sulfur content. For
the next 60 years, removal of these impurities was a constant struggle
for the steel makers. The mountain of slag adjacent to Muggah’s
Creek is a testament to the amount of impurities removed over the
The Birth of a Steel