Reports of iron ore on Bell Island go back to at least 1578, when a merchant from Bristol, England, reported finding iron deposits there. In 1628, members of Sir John Guy’s colony in Cupids sent iron samples from Bell Island to England for analysis. The colonists apparently thought the ore was valuable for they tried, unsuccessfully, to have the deposits added to their colony’s property grant.
It was not until the 1890s, however, that the Bell Island deposits drew serious attention from professional mining interests. By 1892, the deposits had come under control of the Butlers of Topsail, who brought in agents of the New Glasgow Coal, Iron and Railroad Company(later called the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company) to begin developing the site. Thomas Cantley, Secretary of Nova Scotia Steel and Coal, called the minesite “Wabana”, which is believed to be an Abenaki Indian word meaning “the place where daylight first appears”, and mining began in the summer of 1895.
The Wabana ore deposit was vast, of high quality, and close enough to the Cape Breton Coal fields to feed the giant steel mills in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Bell Island ore was also shipped to more distant parts of the world, such as the United States and Germany. The iron mines drew Bell Island into the international network of the mining and steel industry, and over the period of mining operations (1895-1966), distant powers and events shaped much of the history of the mines
and of the island itself.
Being an underground operation, the Bell Island iron ore mine was extremely expensive to operate. During the 1950s, some of the largest surface iron ore deposits in the world were discovered in northeastern Quebec and the western part of Labrador. After the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway was built in the latter part of the decade, Bell Island iron ore became uncompetitive.
A Canadian Forces Labrador helicopter landing on “The Clapper”, a sea stack off the tip of Bell Island, in 1987. During the early 1960s, the steel and coal industries on Cape Breton Island began to falter in the face of foreign competition. In 1966 the steel mill in Sydney and nearby coal mines were slated to be closed. At the same time, iron ore mining at Wabana stopped.
Bell Island’s resource-based economy was hard-hit by the shutdown, resulting in a large out-migration of residents. Some moved to the nearby growing metropolitan centre of St. John’s. In recent decades a reverse move has occurred where housing is being built on Bell Island to accommodate residents who wish to commute by ferry (20 minutes each direction) to Portugal Cove and travel
to work in the city.
The scenic and sheltered waters of Conception Bay are also seeing an increase in pleasure boating activity as the suburban communities grow around nearby Conception Bay South.
In September 2015, concerns were expressed over the possible collapse of the abandoned tunnels that formed part of the Bell Island mine. A retired miner, Peter Young, told CBC Radio’s On The Go that tunnels under the abandoned mines, going down as far as two kilometres, hold the potential for a large-scale disaster. He felt that a collapse would initiate a local earthquake giving rise to the secondary effect of the water level in Conception Bay around the mine dropping which in turn could force a tsunami from the surrounding ocean.