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Life of a mining town

{Tilt Cove}
Tilt Cove

Today, Tilt Cove on the Baie Verte Peninsula is home to just 12 people. But in the late 1800s, this sparsely populated outport was a bustling mining community that, at times, was one of the world’s largest producers of copper. It was also home to Newfoundland’s first, but short-lived, industrial smelter.

Given Tilt Cove’s distinctive place in Newfoundland’s mining history, it is not surprising that it is the focus of Arm 4 of the Coasts Under Stress project, an interdisciplinary study which looks at the benefits and costs of non-renewable resources.

A team of researchers from Memorial, including project leader geologist Dr. Derek Wilton and graduate student Kerri Riggs, is studying what remains of the Tilt Cove mine and smelter in an effort to learn how the mine and smelter operated, but also to assess the short and long term impact of this early industrial complex on its environs. Historian Dr. Rick Rennie is widening the scope of this team study by researching how the Tilt Cove mine affected the community from economical, health and social points of view.

Since there is little documentary evidence on the Tilt Cove mine or smelter, gaining this insight demands a large amount of field study and subsequent detective work. Fortunately for Dr. Wilton and Ms. Riggs, mining companies in the 1900s were not as heavily regulated as they are today, and many of the structures were simply left untouched after the mine shut down.

"It’s a time capsule," said Dr. Wilton. "It hasn’t been redeveloped. They (the mining company) just stopped operations and closed it all down and forgot about it. That’s what’s interesting about it. To go back and get an idea of how it worked."

{Tilt Cove, 1916} border=
Tilt Cove in 1916. The impact of the copper mine and smelter in Tilt Cove is the focus of a Coasts under Stress research project.

After copper ore was discovered in Tilt Cove in 1857, mining took place in two phases. The first took place from 1864 to 1918, and ended with the beginning of the First World War when increased shipping costs no longer made the mine viable. Since Tilt Cove was a single-industry town, it collapsed and nearly all of the 1,400 inhabitants deserted the town. The community was later reborn in 1957 when improved mining technology and a revitalized demand made extraction of the ore economically feasible once again. This final phase lasted 10 years until 1967 when the Tilt Cove mine was closed for good.

During the first phase of mining, between 1888 and 1892, the Tilt Cove Copper Company also constructed a primitive smelter on site in an effort to save money by processing the copper ore locally, rather than just shipping it raw to England.

With the help of some texts on common smelting processes in the 1800s, Dr. Wilton and Ms. Riggs have been piecing together how the Tilt Cove smelter must have been constructed. They have realized that the smelter, though primitive, must have included at least five or six stages of melting and processing.

"It (the smelter) was really crude, and that’s the point," said Dr. Wilton. "It was so crude you can still see its fingerprint over 100 years later. It only operated for four years, and there’s still evidence today that it operated."

While Dr. Wilton and Ms. Riggs were interested in the Tilt Cove mine and its physical effects on the environment, historian Rennie has been investigating the historical and cultural significance of Newfoundland’s first industrial complex.

At the time the copper ore was discovered in Tilt Cove, the settled population was increasing, but the seal fishery, which was an important economic contributor in that area, was in a slump and unable to support the growing population. In addition, the cod fishery, although lucrative for some, employed the majority of people in serf-like conditions. As a result, the discovery of the ore deposits was a source of great hope for many Newfoundlanders and much rhetoric for many politicians and industrialists.

"If you read the local press at the time," said Dr. Rennie, "Tilt Cove became a propaganda instrument for the government and certain industrialists who believed that the future of Newfoundland prosperity lay not in the fishery, but in the untapped resources of the interior."

For a time, the discovery of copper ore at Tilt Cove, and the nearby communities of Bett’s Cove and Little Bay, did in fact lead to greater prosperity for some Newfoundlanders. The Tilt Cove mine boomed no less than three times, accompanied each time by dramatic population spikes.

These swings in population were largely due to Tilt Cove’s reliance on a single industry. The census of 1845, taken before the discovery of copper ore in the area, showed a population of only 17, and for good reason. Tilt Cove has no harbour to speak of, and its arable land is limited by the surrounding steep hills, which forced most residents to perch their houses wherever they could find a suitable outcropping on the hillsides. The small harbor which was some distance from the town, made it difficult to sustain a fishery, and farming was impossible because of the steep, rocky terrain.

According to Dr. Rennie, the Tilt Cove boom and bust experience was not unusual for mining towns of the past and notes that when the Tilt Cove mine was active it was a great boon to the Newfoundland economy and to the miners and their families. His interviews with people who lived in Tilt Cove in the final boom from 1957 to 1967 indicated that they were very happy with their standard of living while it lasted.

"Every person I talked to had very fond memories of Tilt Cove," said Dr. Rennie. "All winter they went bowling, they had movies, and they had shows and entertainment at the school. They said ‘you were never bored in Tilt Cove.’"

{Memorial University of Newfoundland}