1913 Drummond Fires

Our history has many stories of tragedies in mines, but there are also many examples of potential tragedies that were prevented thanks to the bravery of miners. Here is an example from the Drummond mine in Westville, Pictou County, the site of which is a beautiful park and greenspace today.

In February 1913, a peculiar smell was noticed in the Drummond mine. However, it was not until some days later, on Sunday, February 23, that a fire was discovered in an old ventilation tunnel that had been driven a quarter-century earlier.

On receiving news of the fire at about 11:00 a.m., mine manager Thomas Hale and Department of Mines deputy inspector Thomas Blackwood examined the fire and concluded that “it was not considered to be of much consequence,” as Blackwood later wrote.

A 2.5-inch water hose, part of the mine’s drainage system, was turned onto the fire, which produced “a very heavy volume of steam,” according to Blackwood. Efforts to put the fire out continued night and day and by Tuesday, February 25, the fire was considered extinguished.

With the fire apparently out, mining in other parts of the mine resumed.

On the morning of March 1, there was a new report of a bad smell in the mine, and another fire was discovered the next day about 100 feet from the first fire.

The water hose was lengthened and carried to the new fire. Steam and fumes from the fire made firefighting difficult, and the tunnel was narrow and low, but Blackwood said the “men worked bravely against great obstacles.”

In the meantime, the first fire started again and another hose was brought in to fight it. Not much fire could be seen, but “the place was very hot and fire-stink very strong,” wrote Blackwood.

By March 12, both fires were under control, and it was expected that they would be extinguished within a day or two. By 7:00 p.m. that day, an inspection concluded that “no dangerous condition existed.”

Unfortunately, a short time after the inspection, a large body of fire was discovered 80-90 feet from the second fire. This was immediately considered the most serious of the fires.

There was no apparent connection between the three fires even though they were in the same area.

A hose was brought to bear on the third fire and hot steam and fumes were the immediate result, making very difficult conditions for the firefighters.

With water failing to extinguish the fires, it was decided to build stoppings (walls) to help prevent air circulating through the tunnels in the area and feeding the fires. This was accomplished in about a week, and it helped keep the fires down. Mining resumed in some areas of the mine that had been idled during the firefight.

After about two weeks, the fire smell did not seem to diminish, so it was decided to build additional stoppings to further restrict air flow to the fires. The mine managers, the Intercolonial Coal Mining Company, were particularly concerned that the fires were near the main return airway tunnel in the mine’s ventilation system. They worried that the mine’s ventilation fan could draw the fire into the main airway and cause it to spread.

Work went on night and day for almost three months. A total of 51 stoppings were built, some of them very large. The longest was 70 feet in length with an average height of eight feet. A number were 18 to 20 feet in length and about 16 to 18 feet tall.

Most of the stoppings were built with 5-feet blocks of wood, heavily bedded in cement, mortar, and sand, while others were built of concrete and closed up with brick and mortar.

The stoppings accomplished the goal of controlling the fires and there were no further flare ups.

Coal can catch fire when exposed to oxygen and the 1913 Drummond fires were believed to have started because of spontaneous combustion “of a very slow nature,” according to Blackwood.

When that area of the mine had been worked 25 years earlier, about two feet of coal had been left in the roof (ceiling). This coal fell to the mine’s floor some years later, and three or four feet of rock fell on top of it, creating cracks in the bottom of the coal seam (the floor of the tunnel).

In 1913, the bottom of the coal seam was being extracted from a tunnel underneath, and this activity allowed air to enter the fallen coal lying above. This led to spontaneous combustion and the three fires.

Blackwood praised the miners who fought the fire: “The men who worked at this fire did noble work under very trying conditions, as the fumes from the fire were very strong, still they fought it manfully.”

Historical accidents are a key reason why the modern mining industry is so safety-focussed. Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

The Drummond was mined from 1868-1984 when underground mining ended. A surface mine operated at the site in the 1980s and 1990s to complete extraction of the coal and reclaim the land. It also recovered coal from the historical mine’s waste dumps as part of the environmental clean up.

Today the former mine, pictured below, is acres of greenspace and parkland which includes a playground, pond, gazebo, baseball field and heritage signage. The reclamation also fixed subsidence issues so land left unusable by historical mining could be built on.

See how spontaneous combustion of coal may have caused a fire in Springhill that has been burning for decades: https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/tale-of-2-mines