Albion Mines 1913 Fire

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 – what was described as “one of the most plucky and gallant fire-fights in the history of mining.”

About noon on June 20, 1913, the smell of smoke was noticed in Stellarton’s Albion Mines. The person who first smelled it was a brake tender who operated the pulley system that raised and lowered the cage (elevator) in the mine’s Staple shaft.

When the brake tender smelled smoke, he did not consider it unusual. Friction from the rope often caused the pulley system to catch fire and three barrels of water were kept alongside the drum-barrel, where the brake was located, for this reason. The drum-barrel was also examined daily to ensure it was in good condition and had already been examined that day.

The brake-tender reported the smoky smell to one of the deputies and continued working as usual.

Afterwards, he was watching from the top of the shaft as the cage descended when he saw smoke. He stopped the cage about half-way down and climbed up toward the drum-barrel with the deputy, but was stopped by the smoke coming out of the tunnel. They then tried to access the smoky area through another route, but the smoke was too thick, and they turned back.

The alarm was raised and men tried, unsuccessfully, to extinguish the fire using buckets of water.

Mr. Gillis, the mine manager, Mr. Higson, the superintendent, and other officials arrived about 2:20 p.m. They quickly saw that it would be impossible to extinguish the fire with buckets, so they decided to convert the compressed-air line, part of the ventilation system, into a water hose.

This used up precious time because they had to close the air line’s valves in various areas of the mine before it could be used as a water hose. The water line was not ready until 4:45 p.m. Buckets continued to be used in the meantime.

The fire brigade, some with “oxygen helmets,” as the Department of Mines’ 1913 annual report called them, put the water hose to work. A second hose was also brought in, and the fire was fought from both the shaft and from a tunnel that led to the far side of the fire.

By 7:30 p.m., the men working from the shaft had advanced about 11 feet toward the drum-barrel. However, little progress was made from the tunnel side due to the dense smoke being carried in that direction by the ventilation system.

By 10:00 p.m., the shaft group had advanced about 19 feet, but the smoke and flame then forced both groups to retreat. Timbers that helped support the mine’s roof (ceiling) burned and rock falls occurred.

The men were called out of the mine for their safety. They fastened the hoses in position so they would continue to pour water into the fire, and they were all back at surface by midnight.

The electric fan that ventilated the mine was then shut down so circulating air would not continue to feed the fire.

Company management and the provincial Department of Mines deputy inspector, Thomas Blackwood, agreed at 4:25 a.m. that the fire was out of control and the mine should be flooded to douse it. Preparations for flooding began.

About 7:00 a.m., men entered the mine wearing oxygen helmets to see if 13 pit ponies could be safely retrieved since the fan had by then been off for about seven hours. They concluded that ten horses in the Third seam working area, relatively far from the fire, could be led out and men went to get them.

The remaining three horses were in the area of the fire, but it was decided to try to reach them. The men examined the area while on this rescue mission. They did not see any flame, but heat and smoke made clear that the fire was not extinguished.

They believed the fire could be extinguished without flooding by closing the Staple shaft to further cut off oxygen to the fire. Flooding a mine was generally a last resort because it often took many months of pumping to empty a mine of water afterwards.

The men retrieved the horses, just in time, since gasses from the fire were accumulating and the horses would not have survived much longer.

Within 45 minutes of returning to surface, men and supplies were gathered and they re-entered the mine at 6:30 p.m. No. 1 balance (tunnel) was filled with gas, so they took an old tunnel which required the men to crawl while hauling heavy equipment.

They were able to place a cap on the shaft before the gas forced them to exit the mine. According to Deputy inspector Blackwood, “It was a hard struggle for any of us to get out, but it seemed as if the hand of Providence was with us, so all arrived safely on the surface, but some of us more dead than alive.”

A ventilation fan was then turned back on to draw gas out of the mine.

While they waited for the fan to do its work, firefighting crews were organized into four shifts of 18 to 20 men each. Each shift would be six hours. Four men on each shift would use the oxygen helmets. Blackwood later wrote, “Only one man was used at a time in close range to the fire. He would be relieved every 15 to 20 minutes.”

The firefighting resumed about 8:30 p.m. on June 21.

Additional water lines had been brought in so a total of eight were used to fight the fire from three different directions. Progress was made each day until June 25 when flame reversed and shot over the men, forcing them back a little. “However, nothing daunted the men, they nobly stuck to it, and soon overcame the lost ground again,” wrote Blackwood.

On the night of June 27/28, the men were again driven back about 50 feet.

Concerned that the fire could get out of control again, a decision was made to cover the top of the Staple shaft, and ten feet of ground on both sides of the shaft, with a slab of concrete eight inches thick. A wall would also be built to further control air flow, with a 3X3-feet archway to allow men and water lines to access the fire.

As the slab was built, the firefight continued but it did not go well. For example, a small seam of cannel coal, about five inches thick, had fallen from the roof when support timbers burned. Cannel coal was also known as candle coal because it lights easily and burns with a bright, smoky flame. The cannel coal caught fire amongst other coal and extinguishing it with water did not work due to the cannel coal’s high oil and gas content.

Several times, flames shot out over the men and the smoke was dark and dense.

By July 3, the concrete slab and the wall around the shaft were finished. The firefighters were gaining the upper hand, and the fire was largely under control on July 4. The firefighters said they could feel a decrease in the heat.

On Sunday, July 6, after 16 days of fighting the fire, cries of “Fire all out!” were heard throughout the mine.

Deputy inspector Blackwood wrote, “I do consider it was one of the most plucky and gallant fire-fights in the history of mining. The thanks of the whole community is due to the men who put up so good a fight for victory, and which they so effectually accomplished. It is also very gratifying to know that such a hazardous undertaking was so successfully accomplished without the slightest accident of any kind.”

Blackwood also wrote, “There is no doubt that the fire originated from the drum becoming overheated and setting the drum-lagging on fire, it and the wooden frame-work being saturated with oil.”

The photo below shows firefighters posing at the entrance of the Albion Mines a short time after the fire. The mine owners, the Acadia Coal Company, presented these photos to workers in appreciation for their "loyal efforts" during the fire.

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.