Many small brooks throughout Cape Breton have waterfalls and some energy potential. Grist mills, sawmills, shingle mills, and woolen (carding) mills were built harnessing the power of the tumbling mountain streams. Some were large operations with several mills attached to the power of the brook. Most were located close to a waterfall. Some were located in deep ravines where the miller constructed a dam or two to develop the necessary hydrostatic head of water. The water would then be released to travel down a flume and turn the waterwheel. Some wheels were overshot types while others were undershot. Turbines were even used at a few mill sites.
One of my favourite trips to an old grist mill site is to a small brook that tumbles off North Mountain on the west side of West Bay of the Bras d’Or Lake. The site is in Valley Mills and was the grist mill established by Dougald Blue in the 1840’s. His father, Donald Blue had emigrated from the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides in the 1820s.
I guess I was looking for waterfalls that day and heard about the mill site. Not only did we find the old mill site, but also found the beautiful 50-foot waterfall just around the corner of the mill site. It was the power of this waterfall that Dougald Blue tapped for his grist mill. The brook is called Blue’s Mountain Brook.
Several mill stones were still in place with vegetation beginning to cover them over. Three were grey granites and a fourth one looked to be fashioned out of sandstone. In some places, the cut stone walls were still intact. The rocks of the walls are over six to eight feet high. The corners are still as perfect as the day they were put in place. In many cases, the cut stone granite stones (grindstones) came from the Highlands of Scotland and the eastern seaboard of the United States.
As I wandered around the site, my mind began to wander and I marveled at the amount of work to cut and procure the cut stone for the walls of the mill. Where was the flume that carried the water to turn the wheel? How big was the waterwheel? How many men were working at the mill? How busy was the miller grinding wheat and oats for the local farmers? What grains were grown locally and brought to the mill?
Before the trip was finished a lot of questions went through my mind and some of them were answered. Sadly enough several years later the mill stones were stolen. The whole site would have made a wonderful historical site for the public.
On the way up to Piper’s Glen and Keppoch is a small brook that parallels the road (Sloy Brook). It drops fast. Could there be potential for some water power? Yes ! A small dam and grist mill helped to furnish the neighbours with much needed grinding of wheat and oats. The miller was Aonghas “Bhan.” The nickname was a result of “him wearing a coat of white flour dust” while he worked.
In 1851 there were 75 gristmills, 30 sawmills, and six weaving/carding mills in Cape Breton, all harnessing their power of small waterfalls and tumbling brooks. In no case was the integrity of the mountain brooks diminished. Cape Breton’s brooks are still in healthy conditions. Near Tatamagouche, the Balmoral Grist Mill has been restored and is an interesting tourist attraction.
In Cape Breton all we have to remind us of this interesting page of our history is a few scattered grist mill stones that ornament people’s driveways. Too bad this tidbit of our history is slowly being erased.