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The Gypsum Train

By: Patric Mills

Photo provided by Lee Goodick, National Gypsum

Have you ever been held up at the lights in Elmsdale by the long train with grey hopper cars? That is the Gypsum Train! Once, sometimes twice a day, a train carrying over 5,000 tons of gypsum runs from the Milford quarry to the dock in Burnside. The gypsum is stockpiled at Burnside, then shipped to wallboard manufacturing plants from New Hampshire to New Orleans. 

Gypsum is an ancient mineral that has been used for thousands of years all over the world. The Aztecs and Mayans used it in Ancient North America. The pyramids  were crowned in sheets of alabaster ( a form of gypsum), and the Egyptians also used it in buildings and monuments. Selenite, a clear  glass-like form of gypsum, was used  in Greek temples for windows. They named it after the goddess of the moon, Selene. 

Gypsum is an evaporate mineral. It is created when sea water is trapped and as it evaporates, mineral deposits are formed. Salt, gypsum, potash and barite are all evaporates. These minerals became part of the land mass of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.


As Nova Scotia grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, gypsum deposits were identified and developed. Vibrant gypsum producing areas sprouted up all over Nova Scotia, including Windsor, Cheverie and Walton  in Hants County, and Saint Annes, Big Harbour, Baddeck, Cheticamp, and Dingwall in Cape Breton. 

In the early days, gypsum was shipped by schooners which were loaded by hand, so the gypsum had to be of a certain standard size. It was called “a man size rock”. As demand grew, quarries became more mechanized and efficient. It was not uncommon for these operations to have small railroads to carry the rock from the quarry face to the dock.


After World War II, there was a tremendous housing boom in North America. At the same time, gypsum wallboard became the main finishing method for the inside of buildings. Previously, the interior of buildings had been finished with lathe and plaster. This was labour intensive, time consuming and expensive. 


As the American housing market exploded, the demand for Nova Scotia gypsum grew rapidly. Most large American wallboard manufacturers had quarry operations in Nova Scotia. One of the larger wall board producers, with a strong Nova Scotia presence, is National Gypsum. 

National Gypsum’s main quarry was located in Dingwall, at the top of Cape Breton Island. It was isolated, expensive to operate, had limited reserves, and the port was ice bound during the winter.  

The company carried out an extensive exploration program to locate a gypsum deposit that was both large enough to meet their long-term needs in a rapidly growing market, and was also close to an  all-weather port. 

What they found was Milford: a deposit with hundreds of millions of tons of gypsum, a major all-weather port located close to the main rail line going into Halifax. The solution ended up being the National Gypsum Quarry in Milford with the shipping terminal on Halifax Harbour. 

So the next time you are stuck in Elmsdale waiting for the “Gypsum Train” to pass, take the time to think about the trajectory of history in our very own neck of the woods. From people loading schooners by hand with “man size rocks” to that 5,000 ton train speeding by you at 50 kilometers an hour, on its way to load 50,000 ton ships in the port of Halifax.  Nova Scotia is the home of “World Class” gypsum deposits.

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