1908 Princess Fire

It was only a “slight fire,” but it highlighted the need to make significant changes to improve safety in Nova Scotia’s historical coal mines. Today, the province’s mining and quarrying industry is one of the safer industries in Nova Scotia and we believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner.

A shot (a small blast to extract coal) was fired about noon on Wednesday, September 9, 1908, in a room in Sydney Mines’ Princess mine. The shot was fired by Thomas Price, a miner and certificated shot-firer. The shot was well prepared but it flamed – not something you want in a coal mine - and Price had to put out the flame with a piece of canvas. He then remained in the room and examined the area for about five minutes to ensure the flame did not trigger a fire.

The miners in that room, John Mann and Adam Allen, filled a box with coal after the shot and then left the room to eat lunch. Norman Ludlow, the chain-runner, smelled smoke. He went into the room to check it and found it was full of smoke. He told Allen and Mann who went into the room and began turning over the coal, looking for any that had caught fire. However, they could not get it all turned over because of the smoke, and they sent for Edward Lockman, the overman in charge of the area.

Lockman arrived on the scene about 12:20 p.m. He sent for help and water and tried to extinguish the fire. He also sent for Robert Robertson, an Underground Manager, who arrived at the scene at 2:00 p.m. He and some men went as near to the fire as they could, but smoke held them back. Robertson called for pipe to be laid to carry water to the room.

Mine manager George Greener arrived about 6:00 p.m. and the Department of Mines deputy inspector, Neil A. Nicholson, arrived shortly after. They tried several ways to get a good look at the room with the fire, but the smoke was too thick.

Miners built small dams near the room’s entrance and made preparations to flood it, in case that should prove necessary. Flooding a mine to extinguish a fire was generally a last resort because it often took many months of pumping to empty a mine of water afterwards.

Draegermen (mine rescue workers) from the Dominion Coal Company arrived at the scene at 7:00 a.m. on Friday with their Draeger machines, a combined gas mask and oxygen inhaler that allowed draegermen to work in smoke- and gas-filled mines after accidents. The Draeger machines allowed them to get closer to the fire than anyone else. They confirmed that it had not expanded beyond the room in which it started. They were also able to erect brattices (canvass sheets) in the immediate vicinity of the fire to help control air flow.

At 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, the room was flooded, and on Tuesday the mine resumed work on the south side. By Wednesday the whole mine was back at work.

The 1908 Department of Mines report described it as a “slight fire,” saying “only 700,000 gallons of water was allowed to go into the mine, and only three working places have been lost, and these only for a few days.” While 700,000 gallons is a lot of water, a larger fire could require millions of gallons and many months to pump the water back out before work could resume in flooded sections.

The fire did not spread beyond the room where it started, and no other damage was done to the mine.

While no one was found to be at fault for the fire, a special rule was put in place for the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company, requiring that shot-firers double check all preparations for a shot; stay at the scene of a fired shot until all the coal is turned over to ensure there is no fire; and report the results of the shot to his boss and enter them in the “report book when he reaches the surface.”

The Department of Mine’s annual report highlighted the importance of the Draeger equipment: “It has been demonstrated at the recent fire at Sydney Mines, that the apparatus is very valuable in dealing with a mine-fire. Men that have had experience with a fire in a mine, know that it is of great importance to get as near as possible to the fire, to direct the water from the hose, owing to the space being usually very limited, due to falls, timber, and so forth. To get near to the fire, without the apparatus, it is necessary to carry a strong current of air onto the fire to prevent the smoke from coming back to the men. This strong current of air feeds the fire and the fire travels as fast as the men can follow it, with the means usually available in a mine.”

The 1908 Princess mine fire took place during the period when Nova Scotia’s main coal companies were making significant changes to how they responded to emergencies by establishing draegermen crews with special equipment and training. This was a milestone in the building of a safety culture that has become a hallmark of the mining and quarrying industry today. Nova Scotia’s industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997.

See the story of Nova Scotia’s early draegermen crews at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/draegermen

The Princess mine in 1909.

A Draeger unit in 1911 at a US mine.