Early Hoists for Bootleg Coal

Bootleg mining was prominent in Cape Breton in the 1930s and 1940s

Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation’s work remediating the crop pits at the entrance to Port Morien reminded me of the days in the 1930s and 1940s when most residents here were bootleg miners. Likewise on both sides of Dominion Street, Glace Bay. The scarcity of cash and jobs meant that families resorted, literally and figuratively, to the underground economy.

Topics :

Dominion Coal Company , Cape Breton Post , Cape Breton , Toronto , Prince Edward Island

Morien residents sank pits on the old Blockhouse and Gowrie crop lines, some of them sophisticated — with slopes, small gauge railways, mechanized winches and bankheads. Dominion Coal Company police blew up the operations but they started up again the next day.

Roof Fell In Overnight – My father used to call these pits – A Hell Hole


I learned a lot about bootleg mining from the late Clifford Orr, who resided in Toronto after the war, and I relayed some of those stories in a previous column. Clifford worked on the old Blockhouse and Gowrie crop lines in the 1930s with the Clements brothers and Archie Butts. For example, they sank a shaft at Blockhouse and entered a room and pillar area, mined by the French, with lots of leftover coal. They relayed the coal, which came down in slabs a foot thick, by buckets to the shaft and winched it to the surface. Charlie Clements was in charge of the operation. Clifford recalled that one day Archie Butts and Gordon Clements were horsing around in the pit when Gordon fell over a handbarrow and hurt his back. Someone suggested he get a girdle. The next day he came to work wearing a pink lady’s girdle. It did the trick. To the amusement of Cliff and Gordon’s brothers, he showed his resilience by wearing it for days. 

Resourceful Cape Bretoners – A Primitive yet Effective Loading Ramp

In the Depression, bootleg mining provided necessary cash, the price of coal ranging from two to five dollars.

Cliff also worked with Eric MacIntosh and Gerald Kavanagh on the Gowrie crop line. One day they received an order for 20 tons of coal, at $3 a ton, from the skipper of a schooner moored at the Morien breakwater. It was October. The schooner was headed for the mainland. They delivered the coal in bags, and having loaded it, Clifford went below decks to collect the money. The captain brought out a huge wad of bills and passed him three 20s. Money being scarce, Clifford thought the captain had robbed a bank. Not so. The captain worked in the underground economy. For him, bootleg coal had a great resale value. He sold the coal on the mainland for a tidy profit, sailed to Prince Edward Island and bought a load of potatoes, then sailed to St.-Pierre-Miquelon, exchanging the potatoes for rum. He stored the rum in the hold, covering it with remaining bags of potatoes. When he was stopped by the revenue cutter in Cape Breton waters, he would display his potatoes only. Then he would come to this area and sell his rum. Local bootleggers would water it down and sell it for a profit. Everyone benefited. But, as you can see, bootleg coal was an important element in the underground transactions.

 In truth, resourcefulness and resilience have always been a hallmark of the Cape Bretoner. It was never demonstrated more fully, however, than in the old days when there was no work and little cash and people had to figure out a way to survive.

LeRoy Peach lives in Port Morien and may be reached at His column appears every week in the

Cape Breton Post.


(In a future article I will have an article on Bootleg Coal Mining on the Northside – CAPER)


2 responses to this post.

  1. Very interesting article, I read Mr Peach article in the Post earlier this morning. Looking forward for the article on Northside bootleg mining



  2. Posted by mike beaton on March 1, 2011 at 10:29

    there seems to be more room in this pit photo then i remember when i visited my father in his crop pit. the timbers remind me of Francis Ryan, he would cut timber and pull them to the road side with his horse, the miners would then pick them up for the pit


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