Avon Mine Explosion

An unusual accident took place in Oldham in 1938 – an explosion of gas at the Avon gold mine.

While it was not uncommon to have gas explosions in historical coal mines, they did not happen very often at mines that extracted other minerals such as gold or gypsum. And when they did occur, it was usually related to a problem with explosives, not gas.

Methane is a gas formed as organic matter decomposes in the absence of oxygen, such as when plants die in wetlands, marshes and swamps – the sorts of places where coal usually forms. The methane is trapped in the coal as it forms and is released as coal is mined. Methane is combustible, which is why it has always been a safety challenge in underground coal mines. It is essential that it be vented out of a mine, so it cannot pool and trigger fires and explosions.

Most other minerals and rock-types generally do not have combustible gasses associated with them so the gas explosion at Oldham, Halifax County, was unusual.

Exploration drilling was being done to figure out which underground areas had the most gold in them. Then, as now, this was a key part of the process of defining a deposit and operating a mine profitably.

On the afternoon of October 12, 1938, the drill broke into the bottom of an old, water-filled shaft. According to a Department of Mines memo, “The drill steel was left in the hole to partially throttle the water and it was permitted to drain. On the 13th there was no perceptible odor noticeable.”

On October 14, A. Ballong, the day shift boss, and Arnold Graham, drill runner, went into the tunnel and removed the drill. They returned to the area later in the day and everything seemed well.

However, when Ballong was walking over a muck pile (blasted rock) at the top of the tunnel, his lamp ignited a gas pocket which had been carried into the tunnel with the water from the drill hole. A small explosion gave Ballong and Graham burns on their hands and faces. They were given first aid by the mine manager and then taken to the doctor.

A government inspector visited the mine the next day and concluded that “There was evidently timber in an air pocketed zone in the old workings which had been under water for possibly 40 years. This gas was evidently in solution [dissolved] in the water under pressure, but when the pressure was released after the water issued from the borehole, the gas came out of solution.”

Work in the mine stopped to allow all water to drain out and an air line (hose) was left open to ventilate any remaining gas.

The inspector wrote, “I issued warnings in the past to all operators when unwatering old workings to guard against the possibility of an explosion from possible accumulation of gas and not to enter old workings without allowing sufficient lapse of time for these old workings to ventilate before entering same. The miners were apparently aware of such a danger but did not think of the possibility of gas being dissolved in water.”

The inspector’s advice is still worth heeding. Historical mines can be dangerous and we strongly recommend staying out of them. Hazards such as gasses, rotten timber supports and water-filled shafts and tunnels are significant safety concerns.

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 area worked by Avon Gold Mines Ltd. had been mined more or less continuously since 1862. The land was bought in 1903 by William Arthur Brennan (1851-1916), a journalist and publisher from Summerside, Prince Edward Island.

According to https://memoryns.ca, W.A. Brennan managed the mine via correspondence with hired supervisors, including his younger son, Charles Victor Brennan, who ran it in 1908-1909.

When W. A Brennan died in 1916, the mine was inherited by his wife, Rosara Lefurgey, and two sons, Arthur Roland Brennan, and Charles Victor Brennan.

At the time of his father’s death, Charles Victor was a mining engineer in British Columbia so the mine was managed by Arthur with his brother’s advice.

The mine operated sporadically under the name Acadia Gold Mines Ltd. in the 1920s but had financial difficulties.

To raise operating capital, the Brennans sold shares in the property in 1935 to a Montreal group of investors under the name Avon Gold Mines Ltd.

Arthur Brennan continued as mine manager and corresponded with on-site personnel while operating his Journal Publishing Company in Summerside, PEI.

In 1943, Avon Gold Mines shut down due to lack of funds and wartime labour shortages, the latter being a common problem in Nova Scotia’s mines during the world wars.

In the early 1950s, ownership of the mining properties reverted to Arthur’s son, William R. Brennan, who was unable to find new investors. By 1955 the mine was closed, and assets sold.

Gold was discovered in Oldham, northeast of Halifax airport, in 1861 by Edward Horne and Samuel Isner. The pair had noticed a large quartz boulder in the woods on hunting trips. They saw gold in it and triggered a local gold rush that resulted in Oldham gold mines being some of the most productive in Nova Scotia. The area was mined from 1862-1946 and produced a total of 85,178 ounces of gold.

See more of the Oldham gold district’s story at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/oldham-gold-district