1860s Accidents

We often tell the stories of historical mine disasters because they are an important, though sad, part of our history. They are also partly why the modern mining industry is so safety focussed - Nova Scotia's mining and quarrying industry has reduced its injury rate 90% since 1997.

However, most accidents in historical mines were not major disasters but small accidents, often involving just one or two people, when miners often paid a steep price for mistakes, breaking a safety rule or just bad luck.

Department of Mines annual reports from the late 1860s provide examples:

On October 23, 1867, an accident occurred “under very peculiar circumstances,” according to the annual report for that year. John Bennois and James Matheson, miners at the Princess Colliery in Sydney Mines, fired a shot (blast) to extract coal. The fuse was lit and, according to Matheson, Bennois got into the tub and shouted to be pulled up the shaft. He was hoisted a short distance before he “perceived or remembered that Matheson was not with him. He then shouted for the tub to be lowered, and Matheson was able to get into it, but before it could be raised again from the bottom the blast occurred. Bennois was killed on the spot, and although Matheson was severely injured he ultimately recovered. The extraordinary act of the unfortunate man can only be accounted for by the supposition that he had become unnerved and lost all command of himself.”

(Today, the storage and use of explosives is stringently regulated by the federal and provincial governments to ensure safety. For example, explosives must be stored in a magazine separate from operational areas and any combustible materials. Detonators and explosives must be stored separately, and magazines must be kept locked and closely monitored. Miners are kept at a distance from blasts as they are being prepared and fired.)

William Forsyth and two other men were prospecting in Lawrencetown on December 31, 1867. They were removing a portion of a sand bank and had begun a tunnel when a large mass of it fell and buried Forsyth. “Some time elapsed before he could be got out and life was then quite extinct,” according to the annual report.

Daniel Fraser sent the tub up the shaft at the Marsh coal mine in Pictou County on June 23, 1868. When it was about 20 feet up, it suddenly fell and struck him, “breaking his ribs and otherwise severely injuring him. In the absence of any other cause to account for its fall, it is supposed that it had not been properly hooked before being sent away.”

On June 26, 1868, miners John McCormack and John McDonald, and Albert Campbell, a boy who worked as a horse driver, went into the Princess Mine “without the knowledge of those in charge of the mine. The pit was not being worked that day and they went with the intention of getting some coal ready for the next working day.” They did not have empty tubs to put coal in, so they went looking for some. One of the places they checked had not been worked for a short time and gas had accumulated while it was idle. “On going into it an explosion occurred fortunately without any serious result to any of them although the boy was severely burnt; the horse however was so injured that it died shortly after.” Flame from their lamps had ignited the gas.

On August 7, 1868, John Conway and another man were prospecting for gold in Aspy Bay, Cape Breton, and were about to do a blast. Conway “told his partner to stand back and almost immediately after, the shot went off, killing the poor fellow on the spot.” Conway’s partner, who survived the explosion, believed Conway had accidentally lit the squib of explosive, not the fuse, so it exploded virtually immediately.

At the Mulgrave Company's gold mine in Isaac’s Harbour on October 3, 1868, T. McDonald was walking from his working area toward the shaft when, having somehow lost his lamp, “he very incautiously proceeded in the dark, and stepping into the shaft, fell a depth of forty feet; fortunately without any more serious injury than a broken leg.”

On January 29, 1869, Henry Hickman and Robert Palmer were in a tub being hoisted up the shaft at the Marsh mine. “When they had ascended about 170 feet, the tub became detached from the hook, and they and it fell to the bottom. As they were the only persons in the pit at the time, it was their duty to see that the tub was properly attached before giving the signal to hoist.”

On May 6, 1869, Adam Laidlaw was killed by “a stone falling down one of the shafts of the Waverley gold mining Co. He and another man were engaged drilling a hole in the rock a short distance from the bottom of the shaft. A man who was preparing tamping in the shaft heard the stone coming, and shouted to warn them. Although they were about seven feet from the bottom of the shaft, the stone, probably by a rebound, struck Laidlaw on the side of the head, and caused instant death. Whether the stone fell from the surface, or from a scaffolding, is not known.”

D. Finlayson was working in the Lingan coal mine on July 28, 1869, without using timber uprights to support the roof (ceiling) of his area: “He had been cautioned respecting the risk he was running, but being desirous to get his coal away he neglected to set some timber, and a portion of the roof fell and severely crushed him.” He recovered from his injuries.

According to the 1869 annual report, “The death of the boy McPherson was caused by his being run over by the loaded tubs as they were being drawn up the slope [incline tunnel] at the Intercolonial mine” on August 31. “He was riding on the front of the train, and when endeavoring to get off before it reached the top, to evade detection, he slipped, and falling across the track, the tubs passed over him, and so severely injured him that he died a few hours after.” There were many historical accidents associated with miners getting on and off rakes/trains while they were in motion, which was against the rules for safety reasons.

A similar accident occurred on September 8 at the Uniacke Company’s gold mine. William Hatch was working about 40 feet from the bottom of the shaft. “When attempting to get into the tub as it was being drawn past him to ascend the shaft he slipped and fell to the bottom. Both his arms were broken, yet it was hoped he was not fatally injured. He died, however, two days after the accident.”

On September 23, D. McDonald was preparing a blast in Westville’s Drummond coal mine when he “went to take the charge required from the keg containing the powder while in the act of smoking. An explosion occurred, with such fatal consequences as might, under such circumstances, be expected.” The annual report for that year called it “another instance of the recklessness which too often prevails among miners.”

Today, Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying industry is committed to continuous improvement in safety and its goal is to have zero injuries. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner. Nothing is more important than ensuring our friends and colleagues get home safely to their families each night.