KÜHL Ambassador Jill Heinerth shares her exploration of the submerged Bell Island Mine. During her exploration projects, Jill also takes time to talk about exploration and discovery with students across North America.
Rebreather checked out, lights charged, underwater cameras working; I’m ready to enter the Bell Island Mine and dive into the hidden geography of Canada. But first, the entrance to Mine #2 needs digging out. The snow is piled high against the doorway that leads to a shaft that pitches 650 feet down to the waterline where our dives begin.
You might wonder why an international team of exploration cave divers converged on a remote corner of Canada in the middle of winter, but the opportunity to explore Bell Island Mine has enticed this group since initial dives here in 2007. Bell Island’s mining history dates back to 1578 when a Bristol Merchant noted, “certain mines in the Island of Ore.” But it wasn’t until 1895 that Nova Scotia Steel & Coal Company purchased the property to harvest the rich resources that lay beneath the island. The mines became the lifeblood of the community, and by 1923, Bell Island had transformed into the second largest community in Newfoundland. The high value ore was prized for use in shipbuilding and was exported to England, Germany and beyond. World War II, however, changed everything.
With the war of the Atlantic spreading west, guns were placed on the decks of ore-carriers and an artillery shore battery was positioned on Lance Cove’s steep cliffside. This improvised solution facilitated intercepting U-boats approaching the shore. Yet in 1942, German U-boats twice raided the island, causing death and destruction. The Germans knew if they could disrupt the flow of ship building materials, even temporarily, then the Allied war efforts would be seriously affected. In two separate attacks, German Submariners sunk four vessels and destroyed the loading wharf. In all, 70 men were killed and the sheer temerity of the attack awakened North Americans that they were now the front line for the Battle of the Atlantic.
Soon after the war, the demand for ore decreased and Mine #2 ceased operating. In 1966 the final nail in the coffin was struck. Over Christmas Break, owners of the mine decided that it was no longer financially feasible to continue running the pumps that kept the mine dry. With little warning, owners flooded the depths of the mine, with all the assets inside. Frozen in that moment, the mine became a submerged time capsule filled with equipment and the personal effects of generations of hard working men.
On a bitterly cold and snowy day, we made our first dives into the mine to begin exploration to survey and catalog the matrix of tunnels and artifacts. A sudden snow melt led to a torrential inflow of cold meltwater, wiping the visibility out for the first 150 feet. I carefully eased the yellow guideline through my fingers while protecting my delicate glass camera dome from the rock walls. Slowly, my dive buddy Cas Dobbin’s bright diving light came into view.
The chocolate water yielded to wispy veils of white, and then, suddenly the tunnel was fully revealed. Rusty industrial pipes guided us down the slope of angular walls stretching 17-feet from floor to ceiling. At times we lost sight of the distant walls in giant rooms where the ore was fully scooped out and removed. The vein of hematite carried us down a slope dropping one foot for every six traveled.
We passed a rusty bucket and saw a discarded hand saw and shovels. We found crude inscriptions and caricatures drawn on the wall, including a more somber epitaph that catches my attention. A simple white cross beside an old ladder indicated the place where a miner lost his life. “Struck by ore car, fall of ground and dynamite explosion,” read the fatality account in the archives. Mining Bell Island was a dangerous business, taking the lives of over 100 men in the course of operations.
Cas and I turned the corner and followed a narrow gauge rail track to the undercarriage of an ore cart. Pausing only briefly, the disturbed ferrous-oxidizing bacteria filled our view with chunky orange shreds. We continued forward, spotting a monumental pumping station looming out of the darkness. A large wheel connected with long-ago silent gears. The triple pistons appeared broken and the supply lines were partly severed, perhaps indicating a relic hulk not worth moving when extraction operations were relocated to other sections of the mine.
Another inscription caught our attention. James Bennett has scrawled his name on the wall with lamp black. I couldn’t find his name listed on the list of fatalities and assumed he was one of the lucky ones who made it safely home. Bennett drew a caricature of himself with a small pipe and watchman’s cap, and I envisioned this man taking a smoke break in the already dusty mine. A nearby curl of rusty box springs may be evidence he also took a few covert naps.
Diving farther into the industrial tangle of gear, Cas, an engineer from the oil and gas industry, began to piece together an impression of how the mine might have operated. Recognizing the limited materials and technology available 100 years ago, he viewed this place with historic scrutiny. He later described the pneumatics that would have run tools and a system of pump stations needed to overcome the great depths in the mine. He took note of the telecoms and electrical system and reflected that the Motherlode of equipment is likely to be found at the greatest penetrations, where ore removal was most recent.
During our short stay on Bell Island, we weaved a web of lines through tunnels covering 1,000,000 square feet of territory, yet our meager doodles on the master map seem implausibly insignificant. Our tiny fragments of exploration line represent only preliminary pieces in the puzzle of pillars and shafts that make up the Bell Island Mines. Extending some 1800 feet deep and plunging beneath Conception Bay itself, we’ll need to drive a small submersible to even begin the job of fully investigating this place.
Bell Island Mine is a time capsule, frozen the moment the pumps were turned off. This museum of cultural history has many more secrets to offer, but for now we must be content with the first steps we’ve made to open this location to future visitors. With a permanent guideline established and the seeds of a visual baseline planted, we’ll be back soon to document this hidden underwater geography of Newfoundland, Canada.
Jill Heinerth is a Canadian cave diver, underwater explorer, writer, photographer and filmmaker. Many consider her the best female underwater explorer in the world, and she has dived in some of the most extreme locations on the planet, from underwater caves to icebergs in the frigid waters off Antarctica.