Bootleg Coal Mining – Northside


Bootleg Mine Shaft with Winch

      For those who do not know or don’t remember many years ago all mineral rights belonged to the Government of Canada. Specific rules governed a variety of ores/minerals lying below the surface and included coal. An outfit known as the Dominion Coal Company (absentee landlord) was granted ownership and control of all of the coal in specific areas of Canada including Cape Breton Island. What they couldn’t economically mine was still theirs and no way would they permit it being mined without their authority. They went so far as to hire “coal cops” who drove around in unmarked cars and conducted searches and made arrests if they found anyone mining “their coal” even though the land above the coal may have been owned by the miner. Operating a crop pit which provided you the ability to get access to this coal was simple enough. You dug a hole into the ground down thirty, forty, fifty or sixty or more feet until you struck coal. You then arranged a pit top with a winch, built a road out to the main road and started to mine coal and sell it to those who were willing to buy it and deliver it to customers all over the Northside and even as far afield  as St. Peters, The Margarees, The Straights, Ingonish,  Cheticamp and Dingwall and all points in between. You were now in business, in the business of bootlegging coal. Although it was continuously attempted it was virtually impossible to stop this business. Too many men and families depended upon it for their livelihood and jobs were not very plentiful. The coal company sent out their cops who for obvious reasons rarely if ever went near an operating pit for fear of being shot. There is at least one incident that occurred in Point Aconi where one man did fire a couple of Lee Enfield .303 calibre bullets into the side of the coal cop car. Those coal cops were not seen on that particular road afterwards. So they concentrated their enforcement efforts against the trucker who was easy to catch on the open highway. It appeared as though they caught enough that kept everyone happy. Rarely did the RCMP get involved unless you were stopped for some other violation and of course once found to not have a legitimate load of coal you were charged with bootlegging coal together with the original offence. It happened to me once for having four in the front.


Father and Son Bootleg Miners – Waiting for a Ride

During the war years there must have been up to 200 or more men working in the crop pits and hauling coal in Little Pond and Alder Point. Jimmy Jerry LeBlanc and Gordon Buffet had pits out on the Shore Road  (now called Beachview Drive) that ran down to the Back Shore. Alder Point had pits starting at Ratio Plant’s reef, then MacLellan’s, Pascal LeBlanc’s, Arthur Plant’s, and Solly LeBlanc’s later operated by Jim Walsh. These all changed ownerships as the years went on. Some of these operations became somewhat sophisticated with mechanical hoists and motorized pumps. In addition to Alder Pointers some of the truckers came from Sydney, North Sydney, Sydney Mines, Florence and Bras d’Or and surrounding area.

Note: In the 1930’s and 1940’s it was not uncommon for men in dories to row out to Arsenault’s and Plant’s Reef and fill up a dory in no time with coal off the shore. You could see the seam of coal up along the cliff and with time and erosion the coal would simply break off and fall to the beach area where it was simple enough to load it into the dory. Newfoundland fishermen, who fished out of The Gut, would spend a few days late in the fall prior to heading back home and go out there and fill their cargo holes with coal for the winter. Little of this was done after the 1950’s. Coal on the shore was scarce and times were getting easier so the demand dried up as did the falling coal.

      It was no easy task to create a crop pit and for the bootleg coal miner of the day it could be very expensive. To begin with a shaft had to be dug down to the coal seam. This was not unlike digging a well. It was a hole in the ground that was at least 6 – 8’ square. It was dangerous work because of the small space one or two men had to work in while they dug the dirt which often included large rocks or solid stone. When large stones or solid rock was encountered it would have to be blown with dynamite and shoveled into tubs and hoisted to the surface. One of the very first tasks was to build a pit top. This consisted of a stepped up platform with a winch and cable. It was about 4’ off the ground usually built to the level of a dump truck box for ease of getting the covels or tubs onto and into the truck box. The winch had two steel handles so that two men could hoist at one time. To hoist alone was a hard and arduous task and to do it over a day was brutal although some did. Cyprian LeBlanc for years hoisted alone at Pascal’s day in and day out – a back breaking chore to say the least.

 Bootleg Miner coming Home – He put those damp Clothes on  Next Day 

(note boots)         

 Once the pit was sunk there was a requirement prior to the commencement of operations to have on hand as in any undertaking material supplies. These supplies consisted of: coal picks, (small and large), augers, pan shovels, grain shovels (no. 6 or 8 scoop), monobel (dynamite), ignition caps, battery in order to set off the monobel, long electric cord, (to run from the coal face from the explosive device(s) to a safe spot in order to blow the face), timber, cap pieces, tubs or covels, stemming rod, and tram wheels so that a tram could be built for the transport of the coal from the face to the bottom of the pit enabling them then to be hoisted to the surface. Hard wood rails for the trams to run on or on a rare occasion steel rails which would be a luxury. You required an axe and a saw, a hammer and nails, a mall hammer, a five foot pinch bar, a clay pick and maybe a spade or clay shovel.

            If you were in a wet area you might need a pump and an engine to pump water out of the pit up to the surface and clear of the pit top. This would add an additional danger so you had to ensure the engine fumes were exhausted out of the pit and up to the surface. These bootleg coal miners on both sides of the Gut were as are all Cape Bretoners were resourceful and possessed a resilience in the invention and use of derricks, water pumping, hoists, and even the use of ponys to haul coal out of slopes. They did this even while the Coal Company repeatedly attempted to deny them a living for mining coal on their own land that the Coal Company could not mine. The Coal Company was owned and operated by absentee landowners who never saw Cape Breton. I am pleased to say however the bootleg coal miners were in the long run the winners and the bastards from Britain the losers.

            Usually a team of three men worked a crop pit. One digging the coal, one shoveling the coal into the tubs and one running it out to the bottom of the shaft and hooking it on. Oftentimes the pushing out and hooking on was done by a young greenhorn or a beginner and it was a job called, “hooking on.” A “room” was driven forward from the bottom of the shaft into the seam of coal leading away from the bottom of the shaft. This room was about fifteen to twenty feet wide. In order to keep the roof up it required at least two rows of timber with cap pieces at the top of the timber in the form of the letter ‘T’ running the full length of the room. As the men loaded the coal at the face and moved forward they had to ensure it was timbered or else there was danger of a fall in. As soon as part of the coal face became clear of loose coal one of the miners would start mining the face and getting it ready to be shot. This meant this miner who had the task of mining the face of the coal used a small pick and was required to dig out a horizontal slit in the face approximately 6-8 inches in height and as deep as the length of a man’s arm together with the length of the pick handle. This too was dangerous because the whole weight of the top shelf of coal was suspended from the roof and was in danger of dropping at any time. By the time all of the loose coal from the face was removed and transported to the surface by tram first and then by hoist the mining of the face was finished and ready to be shot. The miner then bored a number of auger holes in the top half and the bottom half of the face of the coal and stuffed in sticks of monobel fitted with the ignition caps. Once inserted they had to be snugged up with duff and any available soft muddy substance and packed in very tight in order that the explosive device did not blow back but would do its job by exploding in all other directions and loosen the coal so that it could be shoveled and picked with a measure of ease. This plugging of auger holes was called stemming. You used a long broom handle like object called a stemmer. Once these explosive devices were in place with the loose dangling wires from the ignition caps hanging there, the wires were connected to an electric cable and everyone then cleared out and went back to a protective area normally up a cross cut which was purposely cut between rooms for this purpose as well as to provide the free flow of air and out of range of the face. There a miner connected the battery to the charges and blew the face. The top half usually came tumbling down in great lumps whereas the bench (bottom) was loosened but had to be dug out with a pick. The whole process then started over again. The bootleg miners used carbide lamps on their pit caps which showed enough light to work by. It wasn’t the best of light but it did the job.

      Bootleg Miner’s Soft Cap – Note hook for Carbide Lamp     

(no protection when you walked into cap piece or coal roof – you didnt have WSB to pay for injuries either)

 The bootleg coal mine operator created like everything else a measure of honesty, reliability, reputation and the ability to deliver as promised. These attributes attracted truckers who invariably became steady customers with established times etc. Soon you were in business with a steady stream of truck drivers coming to the pit. Oftentimes between trucks, one of the miners would go on the surface and hoist a load or two in order to get ahead of the rush that would surely come. It was not uncommon to have hoisted on the surface two or three loads consisting of amounts such as 24 tubs, 36 tubs or 48 tubs or more. This also provided the miners the opportunity to leave at a decent hour where the driver had arranged to come late in the evening or during the night to shovel on his load and be on his way.


“Carbide Pit Lamp & Cabride Container”

In the early days the miner used a candle for light. He stuck a lump of yellow clay to the wall of the mine and stuck his candle in the clay. A great invention was the carbide lamp. This lamp was clipped to the front of the miner’s helmet or pit cap and afforded “hands free” light. It was an ingenious little contraption made up of two chambers. The lower chamber which screwed off from the upper one contained the small cubes of carbide which were like cubes of sugar. A pocket full of these would keep a miner going for a shift.

The upper chamber had a little lid on it and was filled with water. A tap protruded into the lower chamber from here. On top of the lid was a small handle for the tap which when turned on allowed a small flow of water into the lower chamber and on to the carbide. This fusion of water and carbide produced a gas which traveled up through the upper chamber and out through a nozzle on the front of the lamp. The front of the lamp consisted of a shiny reflector, the nozzle and a small flint (similar to a cigarette lighter).

When the miner wanted light he turned on the tap and flicked the flint and out shot a burst of flame like a mini blow lamp.

My father would send me to Arsenault’s store for one, two or three pounds of carbide. I, for some reason, always said “carbon” and Ludgie wouldn’t serve me until I got it right and said carbide. Everyone I knew said carbon so for the longest while I didn’t appreciate what the big deal was but Ludgie did and insisted I get it right.

Point Aconi – Not to be outdone by Alder Point and Little Pond, Point Aconi was also very much involved in bootleg coal mining especially during the 1930s, 1940s and the 1950s and to a lesser degree into the 60s and 70s. At the height of this activity there were well over a 100 men involved especially during the winter months. Easton and Howard Forrest owned land with crop pits on it. Easton (he was a character) would call on the miners working for him on Sundays and collect his pit share. Earl MacNeil from Alder Point bought land at Point Aconi and operated a number of crop pits for years.

Off Loading Bootleg Coal from Alder Point at Whycocomagh

The property going back the “back road” was owned by Tom Bonner’s father and then Tom who then sold it to Russell Bonnar. It then went to Gerald Marsh. A McIntyre man sold land to Old Tony Iannetti who had pits on both sides of the road and a slope. At Iannetti’s slope they had half ton boxes on rails hauled by a pony to the surface where the coal was dumped on a platform and shoveled into the truck box.  

Typical Bootleg Slope – Not Iannetti’s

Point Aconi coal, although it burned well enough, was very much softer then the Alder Point and Little Pond coal and not at all lumpy. Customers for a strange reason liked lumps little realizing that they usually had to smash it up in order to burn it. So when we hauled out of Point Aconi we had to set the lumps aside and then decorate your load with the lumps to ensure it showed well. The act of presenting your load was not unlike a hooker presenting herself well with spiked heels and short skirts and low bodices in order to attract the customer. We did pretty much the same when we hauled bootleg coal and attempted to sell it. Mickey Beaton claims that there were ten seams of coal with some as small as 18 inches. He said they worked the second seam which was located down about 65 feet. He further states that the seams dropped one foot in ten and then came together out under the Atlantic to form a 9 foot seam which is the one the Prince Mine is said to have worked.

(I must acknowledge input for this Post from Mike and Mickey Beaton, Jim and Marilyn Broderick and Johnny Iannetti the son of Tony. CAPER) 

Of course Point Aconi bootleg coal miners were subjected to the same scrutiny as the others on the Northside and were visited from time to time by the Dominion Coal and Steel coal cops. These cops made periodic visits “back through” from time to time until one of the miners well hidden in the bushes placed a couple of 303 bullets into the side of their vehicle one day. Although he gained some notoriety for his actions and was charged and convicted he nevertheless gained a measure of stardom the result of which we never saw the coal cops going back through again. It was difficult to get out of Point Aconi without being trapped by the coal cops. You could go out the back way which added distance and time to the trip but usually you relied on others to let you know if the dreaded threat was on the road so when you loaded you headed for  Bras d’Or where you had some options to get to Upper North Sydney or to Sydney and beyond. If they were on the road, other drivers heading for Point Aconi let you know so you could take evasive action.

Bootleg coal was mined in Point Aconi as early as 1742 at a spot along the bank towards where the light house is located today and past the land owned at one time by Stubbert’s farm. Then Coal Pit Hollow was mined in later years extensively. Even my father mined coal on his property up by Peter Beaton’s property. Strip mining pretty well put an end to bootleg coal mining in recent years up to the present day where you might be able to claw out a load for home heating but little more.


                  Drawn by: Simon (Doc) Fraser

“Crop Pit – Pit Top”

Doc has depicted here the perfect pit top. It has the steel winch handles, a brake and the coiled wire on the drum attached to a cross stick. This cross stick or tree clipped onto the rope handles of the covel. It also served to hoist you up or lower you down into the pit. You just slipped it between your legs (like a bosun chair) and grab onto the cable and away you went.

Included is a covel or tub which contained when full approximately two hundred pounds of coal. You hoisted 12 of those to make a ton. Note the rope handles on the tub which were slipped over the ends of the cross stick. In order to be lowered into or hoisted out of the pit you simply slipped this cross tick between your legs and wrapped your hand(s) around the wire cable and someone you trusted (who asked?) lowered you down or hoisted you up.

The top edge of the pit top was about level with the bottom of a truck box. This enabled you to drag the tub into the truck box and empty it. Some drivers hoisted alone and loaded their trucks with 3 or 4 tons of coal. It was a tough job to hoist alone especially if done day in and day out. Cyprian LeBlanc did it for years, hoisting coal tub after tub all day long and dumping them on the ground around the pit top. Mickey MacNeil, truck coal hauler, from Florence did it as well as did many others. Wally Briggs did it often alone and he was crippled up but he still did it – he was a wonder and a great worker.

Three Coal Mining Women

(I recruited these three women one night at the Legion. They came from Meat Cove after being promised jobs at the fishplant in North Sydney which they didnt get. Because they didnt get hired they were desparately looking for work. I was able to place them in three different crop pits but they didn’t pan out and soon landed work in other places better pay and better positions and were gone. They were willing enough but were gone in a short time and found better employment. I will now remove my tongue from where it was planted firmly in left cheek. CAPER)


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Melvin D.Pearo on March 5, 2011 at 14:38

    George— this story sur did hit the nail on the head & bring back a lot of memories of the Boot- leg pits, in Alder Point&Point Aconi a lot of family,s survived on this method of earning a living to bring up their familys. Yet today when I meet someone who left home and went to live in Ont. and are back visiting(like 2 yrs. ago Iwas talking to Lawrence Roland) he said to me I never forgot your father(Melvin) he was the first man to ever give me a job in the crop- pit because I wouldn,t go to school,then one day when I saved a few dollars, he said Lawrence why dont you head for Ont. and get a better job as their is no future in the crop- pits so Lawrence said I took his advice , like others he never looked back.Emmett Jessome just last week at the Pensioners Hall mentioned his 1st. job was in the crop – pit.,he was cleaning off the tables at a function, he laughed and said this job beats working in the crop- pit.l.ol.Guess he was right but many had to do this dirty job for money.Thanks George job well done,Melvin ,Jr.


  2. Thanks Melvin. I “hooked on” for a few years on Saturdays and then worked for Uncle Johnny at Point Aconi for several months. I was only 14 at the time and Johnny paid me a full share. I remember my father telling him, “you shouldnt be paying him a full share he is only a boy.” Uncle Johnny would say, “he is a better worker then half of those lazy b…… sitting by the fire on the bankhead many of them who worked for me.” ha ha That puffed me up. Thanks for comments.


  3. Posted by marilyn broderick on March 7, 2011 at 22:27

    Gee george you put a lot of time & effort in your can certainly make them interesting,there is a lot of great information
    in brings back some fond memories,& some not so fond like when i would have to go & stand by the side of the road to stop a coal truck to give them daddy’s lunch ,he always wanted his tea hot ,,it was always in a lg. jam btl. no Tim Horton Thermos then ha. I think it was Sammy Clark that usually stopped.


  4. Thanks for the positive comments Marilyn. I can just see you on the side of the road with the hot tea lol. I had to work hard on the bootleg coal article because I didnt want to be outdone by Rannie Gillis in the CB Post on his article about bootlegging in and around Glace Bay.
    Take care. Hope Jimmy enjoyed it.


  5. Posted by mike beaton on March 8, 2011 at 08:36

    Marilyn, your probably right, Sammy stopped for everybody, I know when i needed a ride to Bras d’Or it was Sammy i watched for. He would never pass you.


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