Nova Scotia Archives

Men in the Mines

A History of Mining Activity in Nova Scotia, 1720-1992

Disasters in the Mines

The miner's life has always been a dark, dangerous and precarious one, carried out in the earth's margins and depths, usually far underground — and in the case of Nova Scotia's coal mines, frequently in dank subterranean tunnels stretching for kilometres out beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Sweat from the miner's brow has often been mingled with blood on the coal or gold.

Miners live with death as a constant threat, and are frequently the victims of underground tragedies — dust explosions, falling coal and rock, asphyxiation from gas; still others drown, are caught in machinery, or are run over by coal cars. Above ground, coal miners die from silicosis, black lung and other related diseases caused by breathing coal dust, while gold miners fall victim to silicosis as well, and sometimes to arsenic poisoning.

Over nearly three centuries of mining activity in Nova Scotia, countless numbers of miners and quarrymen have been killed in disasters large and small. Major coal-mining catastrophes in the last 130 years include:

while the most memorable gold-mining accident is the Moose River Mine Disaster of 1936.

Whether small or large, every one of these disasters has caused death and destruction, and has resulted in emotional turmoil and economic distress for the families left behind. On a broader scale, for every accident that happens, there is a direct correlation between the event and its impact on the economic and social viability of that community.

For example, Perley W. Smith in his History of Port Hood and Port Hood Island (1967), tells the story of a coal-mine which opened in the community in 1906; new houses and stores were constructed, miners and their families flocked to the area, and lawyers, doctors and other professionals opened offices to provide community services. "A general prosperity took place throughout the district," Smith notes, but "This prosperity soon met a serious setback." On 7 February 1908, an explosion in the Port Hood Mine killed ten miners — four residents of the area and six Bulgarian immigrants. This tragedy was followed by another in 1911, when sea-water flooded the sub-ocean chambers of the mine. Many miners left town to find work elsewhere; many who remained turned to the fisheries instead; doctors and lawyers also drifted away. Much of the town's vitality was gone, and as a final reminder of the economic downturn, the community's electricity was turned off and not restored until 1938.

Over the years, the names of some 2581 individuals known to have died in Nova Scotia as a result of mining accidents or disasters have been identified and recorded. Their memories are now honoured in a database of Nova Scotia Mine Fatalities 1838-1992 which forms part of this Website. The database records their names; date, place and circumstances of their death; and the type of mining activity in which they were involved. The list will never be complete; their memory is forever.

The Drummond Colliery Disaster, 1873

The Drummond Colliery Disaster of May 1873 was Nova Scotia's first large-scale mining catastrophe. The Drummond Colliery, located in Westville in the Pictou coalfield, employed approximately 350 men and boys; both gunpowder and pick-axes were used to extract the coal.

On Tuesday 13 May 1873, a miner named Robert McLeod set a routine gunpowder charge in the uppermost coalface; an unusual amount of gas was ignited and poured out. Although he attempted to extinguish the flames for twenty minutes, the mine filled with smoke, ventilation stopped and gas continued to accumulate. The manager, John Dunn, recognized that the fire was out of control and ordered an evacuation. It was too late; as he attempted to leave, the first explosion occurred and most of the miners then working underground were immediately killed or injured.

Miners from nearby collieries quickly arrived and began attempts to rescue trapped men and boys — whose moans could be heard distinctly, carried upward through the mine's air shaft. In the midst of the confusion there was a second explosion. Edward Burns was caught while descending into the mine and was killed immediately; two other rescuers, Hudson and Coxon, were busily studying a plan of the colliery when they narrowly escaped being crushed by a boulder hurled from the depths.

Fourteen-hundred-foot flames shot up from the mine, while stones, timber and gear were hurled from smaller pits adjacent to the main shaft and thrown a quarter-mile into the woods. Residents of the nearby miners' 'square' (company housing) were driven from their homes by falling debris, while explosions continued to rumble throughout that night and into the following day.

Provincial newspapers soon reported that "The earth for miles around was shaken with the violence of the explosion. The people living at Westville and Stellarton were very much frightened, as they knew not how far the disaster would extend, or how soon another such explosion would occur." Westville was in mourning, shops were closed, and "Men and women wander about in groups, their saddened countenances betokening the great grief that has fallen upon them....Nearly every family here lost some relation or friend by this terrible calamity."

Over the next five days, the mine was flooded and filled with brush, gravel and debris until it was hermetically sealed.

The No.12 Colliery Explosion, 1917

The No. 12 Colliery Explosion in New Waterford, July 1917, is another of Nova Scotia's significant mining disasters. About 270 men were in the mine at 7:20 a.m. on 27 July when there was an horrific explosion concentrated between the Nos. 5 and 7 levels, 2000 feet down the slope. Ninety men were still missing several hours after the explosion; 25 of them were subsequently rescued.

John McKenzie and Phillip Nicholson, two 17-year-old surface workers, died after they entered the mine to provide assistance. Miner William Cook made nine trips into the depths to rescue fellow-miners, before being overcome by gas. The final tally of 65 killed included 22 Newfoundlanders, seven of them from one small fishing village; their bodies were returned to their home community for burial. By this time, many European immigrants were employed in the Cape Breton collieries, and one of the miracles of the No.12 Colliery disaster was the story of a German miner stranded underground, who remained alive by holding onto an air line until finally rescued.

The Springhill Mine Disasters of 1891, 1956 and 1958

Springhill is a legendary community in Nova Scotia's mining history, its triple disasters indelible reminders of the tremendous human cost paid for challenging the earth's depths. The first Springhill Mine Disaster occurred on 21 February 1891, when accumulated coal dust caused an horrific explosion which swept through Nos.1 and 2 Collieries, leaving 125 dead and dozens more injured. Contributions to the Miners' Relief Fund came from across Canada and the British Empire, including from Queen Victoria. The number of dead was unprecedented for the nineteenth century in Nova Scotian and Canadian mining history.

The second Springhill Explosion occurred on 1 November 1956. A mine train hauling a load of fine coal dust to the surface encountered fresh, ventilated air being forced down the No. 4 shaft. The dust was blown into the air and dispersed widely in a particulate mist. At the same time, several railcars broke loose from the train and began rolling backwards down into the mine, derailed, and then hit a power line; this caused an arc which ignited the suspended coal dust. The resulting explosion, fueled by the additional oxygen, created a massive blast which levelled the bankhead on the surface. Heroic draegermen (rescue miners) and barefaced miners (no breathing equipment) entered the mine immediately and were able to rescue 88 miners; another 39, however, were beyond rescue and died in the explosion.

The third Springhill mine disaster occurred two years later, on 23 October 1958, the result of a 'bump' — an underground seismic event caused when coal is dislodged from a seam or coalface, usually as a result of erratic natural forces or unexpectedly during extraction. The resulting stress can cause the immediate collapse of surrounding bedrock, bringing down as well wooden support pillars and the roofs of mine tunnels and chambers. The tremendous internal pressures thus created and released can also reverberate along and throughout the coal seam. The 1958 'Springhill Bump' was the most severe in North American mining history.

The bump at Springhill spread as three distinct shock waves, each resembling a small earthquake. People on the surface were quickly aware that the disaster covered a wide area underground. Draegermen and barefaced miners descended immediately, working under extremely dangerous conditions. They assisted early survivors found walking or limping to the surface, they encountered increasing concentrations of deadly gas released by the bump, and they worked in shafts that were partially collapsed and unstable, or completely blocked by debris. The last survivors were found on 1 November; thereafter, the rescuers encountered only the deceased, their bodies so decomposed that they were brought to the surface in airtight aluminum coffins. Of the 174 miners working in No.4 Colliery at the time of the bump, 100 were trapped and later rescued; 74 were killed.

Mine disasters then and now attract immediate, world-wide public attention. Canadian and international news media travelled to Springhill in the aftermath of the bump. The disaster made an unusually deep impact on the general public, because it was the first major international story in Canada to be covered by live television broadcasts — a new service being developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Media interest was also heightened on 30 October by an unexpected visit to the disaster site by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by the premier of Nova Scotia, Robert L. Stanfield.

The Westray Disaster, 1992

The Westray Mine opened in Plymouth, Pictou County, on 11 September 1991. Miners soon complained about poor working conditions, noting especially the fact that they were continually working in deep coal dust. A local union official stated in a safety report that he felt someone would be killed there in the near future. Two months after his prophetic remark, a methane gas explosion rocked the mine on 9 May 1992, killing 26 miners.

Once again, Canadian and international media converged on Nova Scotia to cover a mining tragedy. Draegermen searched the shaft and tunnels for survivors, but found only the bodies of 15 deceased miners; underground conditions were so hazardous that recovery efforts had to be abandoned. The Nova Scotia Government sponsored a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Westray Mine, and the final report, issued in 1998, recommended a sweeping overhaul of the province's existing mining and labour legislation. Today, a monument to the victims sits in a small park in the tiny community of Plymouth, marking the approximate above-ground location of where the remaining 11 Westray miners lie entombed deep below, caught forever in the earth's dark grip.

Moose River Mine Disaster, 1936

A small and seemingly insignificant mining accident in Nova Scotia in 1936 quickly assumed international importance, and has since become a legend in Canadian broadcasting history — all because the right people and the right technical equipment came together at the right time.

On 12 April 1936, Dr. David E. Robertson, Herman Magill and Alfred Scadding were trapped by a cave-in at the 141-foot level of the Moose River Gold Mine in the far interior of Halifax County. Robertson, the Chief of Staff at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Magill, a Toronto lawyer, were two of the mine's owners; Scadding was an employee.

Roland H. Sherwood's Story Parade explains that "two way conversation with the men below was important so the telephone company [Maritime Telegraph & Telephone] rushed in wire, men and amplifiers, while back at their workshop in Halifax...[employees built and tested] a tiny microphone that would be small enough to be lowered down a pipe with only one inch in which to slide freely."

Reporters also converged on the disaster, providing the first-ever live radio news coverage in Canada:

The radio broadcasts began on Monday, April 20th, at 6 p.m. when two minute bulletins were given out at half hour intervals. During the course of the broadcasts, 93 two minute flashes were transmitted. These passed from the radio car at Moose River Mines over covered wire strung along the ground and on the trees, over 17 miles of built up circuit on the farmer line to Middle Musquodoboit, then on to Halifax, out onto the telegraph lines of the Canadian Pacific to Ottawa. From there it was distributed to 58 stations over the entire network of the Canadian Radio Br oadcasting Commission in Canada, and on to the networks of the United States to serve 650 radio stations there. Everywhere on the North American continent, sponsors of radio programs cut their regular shows by two minutes in order that their listeners might receive the radio bulletins from Moose River. This was the largest broadcast hookup originating on this continent, and set a world record for that time.

Robertson, Magill and Scadding remained entombed in the shaft for eleven days, until rescue miners and draegermen reached them on 23 April; in the meantime, however, Magill had developed pneumonia from exposure, and died before he could be rescued.



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