The Sydney Mines Steel Plant
1902 – 1921
by Sydney S. Slaven
A stroll through the barren fields between Pitt St. and the Atlantic
Ocean at Sydney Mines reveals two odd coloured mounds, one reddish
and the other white. These are piles of iron ore and limestone,
the only legacy of a large steel plant that operated on this site
for almost twenty years.
The steel plant at Sydney Mines was built to feed the Trenton Works
of the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Corporation (SCOTIA) in order
to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding railroads of North
America. The plant was ideally located in Sydney Mines because Cape
Breton was the most easterly termination point of the trans continental
railways. Sydney Mines also provided a waterway to the world.
The Trenton Works, near New Glasgow, produced metal rail cars, axle
and wheels. Prior to the Sydney Mines Plant, a primitive iron and
steel plant had begun operations at Ferrona near New Glasgow. Unfortunately,
the technology was uneven and the local iron ore was of poor quality.
In 1879 a Siemens Open Hearth Furnace produced the first steel in
Canada here although it was noted to be a “mild steel.”
In 1893 Scotia acquired the iron ore mine at Wabana, Nfld. They
sold a half interest in the mine to the Dominion Steel Corporation
who intended to construct a steel plant at Sydney. The proceeds
from this sale were used to buy out the General Mining Associations
coalmines and to construct a steel plant using the most advanced
technology of the day.
Construction of the plant began in 1901 and it began operating in
1902. Iron ore was shipped from Wabana while the limestone came
from a quarry at Point Edward, (still used as a swimming hole by
local youths.) The set up of the plant provided for a very efficient
operation. A battery of Coke Ovens was built next to the Princess
Coal Mine. Close by was a Blast Furnace capable of an output of
300 tons of iron daily. This iron fed into three 50-ton Open Hearth
Furnaces. There was also a 30-ton Metal Mixer on site although the
Open Hearths had the ability to accept iron directly from the Blast
Furnace. There was also a Compressor Press Shop located in line
with the Ingot Casting Floor and could handle 5 to 30 ton ingots.
The Sydney Mines Plant was about one third the size of the plant
constructed simultaneously by Disco at Sydney. The Scotia Plant
employed about 1000 to 1500 steelworkers. The population of Sydney
Mines increased from 3000 to 5000 with the arrival of the mill.
For the first twelve years the plant was moderately successful as
it had a ready market for steel at the Trenton Works. However, a
hoped for offshore pig iron market never materialized. The first
part of the Great War, 1914 – 1918, was a boom time because
a munitions factory was built at Trenton and this took the entire
product the Sydney Mines Plant could produce.
1920 saw the establishment of the largest corporation in Canada
by a British syndicate known as the British Empire Steel Corporation,
BESCO. Included were the steel plants at both Sydney Mines and Sydney.
At about the same time the steel industry went into a recession.
(Many historians claim the Great Depression started in Cape Breton
tens years before the rest of the world.) Besco was vastly undercapitalized
and as part of a survival mode decided the Sydney Steel Plant could
easily feed the Trenton Works. This resulted in the closure of the
Sydney Mines Plant in 1921.The Compressor Shop was shipped to Trenton
and a few overhead cranes and roll motors went to Sydney. However,
the rest of the plant was scraped.
It was certainly an economic blow to the town of Sydney Mines but,
fortunately, over time it recovered from the closure. Some of the
steelworkers went to the Compressor Plant at Trenton while others
procured work at the Sydney Works. A number boarded the “Harvest
Trains” to Western Canada and never returned. The coal industry
was still expanding and most of the former steelworkers became coal
miners in time.
The plant seems to be an almost forgotten part of the industrial
history of Cape Breton. This is unfortunate, especially because
of the important role it played in producing steel for munitions
and ships, which immensely helped the Allied Powers to triumph over
the German – Austria Hungary Axis in the first part of the