Nova Scotia

Century-old earthen dam near Sydney to be reinforced

The steel plant in Sydney, N.S., has been gone for more than 20 years, but the earthen dam built in 1913 to provide water for the industry still serves a purpose. It's getting some much-needed repairs.

Grand Lake dam, built in 1913 to provide water for Sydney steel plant, showing its age: Nova Scotia Lands

Donnie Burke, executive director of Nova Scotia Lands, says the spillway and fish ladder at Grand Lake have been repaired recently, but the earthen dam needs to be reinforced. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The earthen dam built more than a century ago to provide water for Sydney's steel-making facilities is getting some repairs.

Donnie Burke, executive director with Nova Scotia Lands, says even though the industry is long gone, the water source at Grand Lake is still needed for industrial use in the commercial park where the steel plant used to be.

He said the dam is showing its age and needs reinforcement.

"It's 100 years old," Burke said. "You can look down it now and you can see some tree growth in it, so it's just more or less just to bring it up to current standards somewhat, or make it a little more robust."

Burke also said the dam needs to be made higher than ever before.

"We're going to increase the elevation a little bit," he said. "Some of that is due to what we suspect is climate change — more storms coming quicker with heavier rainfalls."

The 1.5-kilometre-long earthen berm was built in 1913 to ensure the lake level was high enough to provide up to five million gallons of water a day for the coke ovens and steel plant. (Nova Scotia Lands Inc.)

"High-intensity storms really affect lake levels, because the water coming into them comes a little quicker, so that's part of what we're trying to do is make sure that we can sustain this for another hundred years, hopefully."

Grand Lake, east of Sydney, runs out through a spillway and fish ladder on its northeast shore.

The spillway is part of a 1.5-kilometre-long earthen dam that was built in 1913 to ensure the lake level was high enough to provide up to five million gallons of water a day for the coke ovens and steel plant.

The water is chlorinated, but it's not fit for drinking, said Burke.

Instead, it is used for dust control at Harbourside Commercial Park and at the coal piers on Sydney harbour, and it is also available for firefighting, if needed.

Some repairs have already been done after small breaches in the dam over the last couple of years, said Burke.

Nova Scotia Lands has issued a tender for final repairs, requiring the winning bidder to have design work done in a month and reinforcement of the dam completed by the fall.

A photo included in the tender for repairs shows some of the erosion and tree growth making reinforcement of the Grand Lake dam necessary. (Nova Scotia Lands Inc.)

Burke said engineering studies were done in 2017 and 2018, so there is only a little bit of design work left before the berm can be built up.

He said the contract has a short time span because work has to be done when fish are not migrating.

"It seems a little rushed, but in our opinion it's not," he said.

"Most of the work has been done, it's just a matter of putting pen to paper and doing some drawings up."




Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 17 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at


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