1877 Accidents

An unusual accident happened at a Nova Scotia coal mine in 1877 – unusual because it happened to a woman.

Historical annual reports by Nova Scotia’s Department of Mines contain information about accidents that occurred each year. We often rely on these reports to tell the stories of historical mine disasters which are an important, though sad, part of our history. Such disasters 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 the Westray public inquiry report was released in 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. The reports’ short, simple descriptions of injuries and how they happened are often heartbreaking.

Sometime in 1877, a “young woman” was taken into the pump engine building at Stellarton’s Foord Pit by what the report called a “friendly fireman.”

While watching the engine’s “great beam” turning, the woman was struck on the head by part of the machine and pinned by it, “inflicting injuries from which she was not at first expected to recover. The place was difficult of access and not a proper one to which to take strangers and certainly not women.”

Other accidents discussed in the 1877 report include:

At 6:40 a.m. on April 26, a boiler exploded at the Lingan coal mine, instantly killing Murdock MacDonald and scalding William McNamara and John Nearing so badly that they died later that day. There were many historical accidents involving boilers, often caused, as was the case in this instance, by corrosion weakening boilers to the point that they could not withstand the pressure generated by the steam. (The expression “blowing off steam” comes from the practice of venting steam to reduce pressure and prevent explosions of steam boilers and engines.)

A box of detonators exploded in early July in the Caribou gold district when a spark from a forge landed on the box which had been “carelessly” left open. Two men were injured. “A broken box of dynamite was also in the forge at the time, but luckily was a few feet away, or probably there would have been no one to tell about the box of detonators. It is only wonderful how often such foolhardiness escapes extreme punishment.”

(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.)

In January in the Uniacke gold district, a young man named John Patriquin, contrary to the advice of his colleagues, used a spoon to scrape away sand that had been used to cover a charge of dynamite. The dynamite had not properly exploded when triggered five days earlier. Unfortunately, Patriquin’s efforts triggered the remaining charge, driving the spoon into his hand and sand into his eyes, blinding him. It was believed that water on the ground caused the dynamite’s nitroglycerine to separate from the dynamite. The nitroglycerine settled in the water where the friction of the spoon on the grains of sand triggered it.

On March 19, “a man named Rolf returned too soon to look at a shot that had hung fire, as he was doubtful whether he had really lit the fuse, when as he was within a few feet the shot went off, and a flying piece of rock struck him, broke his jaw and badly cut his neck.”

On June 20, John Burchell was running the horse gin that raised and lowered a cage (elevator) in the Queen Pit. Burchell walked over to the mouth of the shaft and moments later, a colleague heard Burchell cry as he fell into it. “It is presumed that he must have had a return of the fits to which he had been subject some years before, otherwise it is supposed had he only tripped over an obstacle, he could not have failed to have caught the planking over the shaft top, as the portion uncovered was so small.” Burchell fell 360 feet to his death.

On February 15, 13-year-old Alexander Gillies jumped on the rake (the train that carried coal) in Stellarton’s Cage Pit to save himself some walking. Riding the rake was forbidden so Gillies hopped off before it reached the top of the tunnel to avoid getting caught. The rake ran him over and one of his legs had to be amputated. There were many historical accidents associated with miners getting on and off rakes while they were in motion, which was against the rules for safety reasons.

“June 9th, William Cathcart met with serious injuries in a most foolhardy way. It seems that to save himself from going round the bottom of the shaft at the International…he occasionally took a short cut through the bottom while the cage was in the shaft. This day the cage caught him, luckily only by the leg, or his chances of recovery would have been slight indeed.” Cathcart had apparently been repeatedly warned not to cut through the bottom of the shaft.

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.