1872 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. As the 1872 Nova Scotia Department of Mines annual report put it, “The high average of this year’s fatalities…would seem rather to be due, if all the reports can be accepted as correct, to the rashness or ignorance of consequences on the part of individual miners.”

Here are some examples from the 1872 report:

William Skelly, Alexander Findlay and David Campbell were working in the Intercolonial coal mine in Westville on October 7. Their bord – the room where they were mining – had some gas in it so Skelly and Findlay, experienced miners, were brushing the gas out. They had safety lamps, special lights that were at least somewhat safer than the open flame of candles. They called out to Campbell, who was “quite a young man,” to join them, perhaps forgetting that Campbell carried a “naked light.” The report said, “Just as he reached the corner and before entering the bord, the gas fired at his lamp and all three were severely burnt. Apparently Campbell was the least injured, but he never recovered from the shock and died fifteen days afterward.” Skelly and Findlay survived.

On April 10, Angus McCormack was working at the Princess mine in Sydney Mines when he was “crushed by the fall of a stump of a fossil tree, a ‘caldron bottom,’ from the roof.” A caldron bottom is an old British mining term meaning a mass of different material in a coal seam, usually a fossilized tree root or stump. Because it was a different rock than the coal seam, a caldron bottom could become loose and fall without warning.

Angus Boyd and his fellow miners in the Meridian gold mine in Goldenville were climbing back into the mine after their dinner break when Boyd “lost his hold and fell a distance of fifty feet, passing five men who were on the ladders below him without touching them. The deceased is said to have been subject to fits of giddiness after smoking much. A pipe was in his mouth when he fell.”

According to the annual report, “Most of the casualties caused by falls of coal and stone were due to the neglect of the persons injured, to set props and sprags [ceiling supports] or remove blocks of coal and stone known to be loose and unsecured.” For example, on March 26, Norman McIver “warned those working with him of the danger in which they stood. He had sought a prop with which to temporarily protect himself, but not finding one in any of the bords near, returned to take down the shaken roof coal. He commenced to do so, when a greater quantity fell than he looked for, and his life was sacrificed.”

Edward Winter was a “filler” – a labourer, often shovelling coal - at Cape Breton’s Victoria coal mine. Winter “[O]n the morning of the 6th September, having some spare time on his hands and desirous of learning how to cut coal, went into one of the rooms where Malcolm McNeil and John Carey were at work and asked Carey for ‘a spell of the pick’…He struck but a few blows before a mass of coal weighing over a ton broke away from the face and falling on him crushed him instantly to death.” The annual report suggested that McNeil and Carey were “greatly to blame for allowing Winter to work where he did” because they knew the block of coal was loose and likely feared “some such accident” happening to themselves.

Alexander Ross, “a lad who had not been working long underground,” was helping put a tub back on a rail track at the Intercolonial mine on November 18. “While so engaged, a coupling link in the rake [train] of tubs broke and four of the tubs ran back, caught him, and crushed him so severely that he lived only three days. Those with him succeeded in making their escape, but he, unaccustomed to the position, failed to catch in time the meaning of their warning cries.”

On October 15, Anthony McDougall was leaning over a shaft in Cape Breton’s Lorway mine to shout something down the shaft, when the “cage [elevator] in descending struck him and he almost instantly expired.”

William Summers was working in the Princess mine on April 17 when he lost his footing while stepping out of a tub and fell down a shaft, a distance of 22 fathoms (132 feet).

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.