Billy Bell

Billy Bell was arguably the hero of the 1936 Moose River disaster because he never gave up hope of rescuing three men trapped underground, even though most people around him did.

On Sunday night, April 12, 1936, David E. Robertson, Herman Magill and Alfred Scadding were trapped in the Moose River gold mine by a cave in, which triggered a frantic 10-day effort to rescue the men (See the full story at

A few days later, on Thursday, about 2:00 a.m., Billy Bell arrived at the mine with a diamond drill and a crew of three men. It had been a difficult trip from New Glasgow, where Bell worked as a Department of Mines drill operator. Wet spring weather and traffic since the cave in had turned roads in the area into mud. The Department of Transportation had had to gravel the roads and reinforce bridges so heavy equipment could be brought in.

Bell was 34 years old and described as being a bit eccentric, according to Blain Henshaw’s “Rescue at Moose River.” He often wore a derby hat and had a strange habit of chewing gum and smoking cigarettes at the same time.

By morning Bell was ready to start drilling a hole to where the men were. However, choosing where to drill was a problem. The mine had been mostly idle in recent years and there were no plans of its old workings, which was not uncommon in the historical era. Miners sometimes just followed the quartz veins underground and did not bother making proper plans of the tunnels and shafts. A new operator of a mine often had to rely on the memories of men who had worked at the site previously to understand the mine’s layout and other details about it.

(This is in stark contrast to today, when mining is one of the most stringently regulated industries in Nova Scotia, and companies are required to produce huge quantities of documentation and scientific reports as part of ensuring the environment and worker safety are protected.)

Even if plans of the mine had been available, the cave in could have significantly changed the mine. What had been a tunnel previously might now be unpassable, filled with collapsed rock.

Also, it was not known where exactly the men were, or even whether they were alive or dead. Not long after the cave in, Robertson, Magill and Scadding had lit a fire using wood from old dynamite boxes and its smoke drifted up to the surface. However, rescuers did not whether the smoke was proof of life or just an underground fire caused by the disaster.

Bell reportedly had at least some knowledge of the mine but the location where he chose to drill was likely based on instinct as much as anything. He picked his spot and started the drill.

At best, he could drill through about seven feet of rock per hour – and often less - so reaching the men at the 141-foot level of the mine, where they were believed to be, would likely take a couple days.

On Saturday, after 48 hours of non-stop drilling and six days since the mine collapsed, the drill finally broke through into the 141-foot level. But was it in the right spot? Were the men still alive?

Attempts were made for hours to contact the trapped men. People yelled down the drill hole. Flares were dropped and a small flashlight was lowered and raised repeatedly. A steam whistle, powered by Bell’s compressed air engine, was lowered and used to make loud noise to attract the men’s attention. (The picture below shows Bell holding a steam whistle.) Steam was sent down the drill hole, but there was no response from below.

This appeared to confirm either that Bell had drilled into the wrong location or the men had not survived.

At surface, many began packing up and leaving, believing the rescue attempt had failed. Flood lights that had been brought in were dismantled. Equipment started to be hauled out. Some of the many reporters covering the rescue attempt left. Even the wives of the trapped men made plans to travel home.

But not Billy.

Despite being told by his boss, Department of Mines deputy inspector J. P. Messervey, to pack up his drill rig and head home, Bell kept at it.

He dropped the steam whistle down the small shaft for 25 minutes, pulled it up and listened for five minutes. Then he did it again. This went on for hours.

It was not until about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday that it happened. He pulled the steam whistle up and put his ear to the steel tube of the drill hole. But this time, instead of silence he heard a faint tapping on the drill hole pipe.

Alfred Scadding told MacLean’s Magazine in 1951, “We saw the first flare and I rushed over and stamped it out. We thought the mine was catching fire. If a flashlight came down we didn’t see it and that’s possible because we were lying around a turn in the crosscut from the shaft. We felt the steam in the blackness, of course, but again thought the mine might be catching fire. We’d been there so long that I suppose the thought of rescuers didn’t occur to us right off. It was the whistles that finally brought that thought through and then in the darkness there was the problem of finding the drill hole. I found it, at last, and tapped on the pipe with a stone.”

Thanks to Bell confirming where the men were located and that they were alive, rescue efforts started again.

For the next several days, the drill hole was used to communicate with the men and to send them soup, coffee, candles and other small items to keep them alive.

As the rescue was going on, Dr. Robertson’s wife told Billy and his crew, “You men are wonderful. That was the thing which gave me back my faith that they would be rescued alive. When the diamond drill went through and I heard my husband’s voice I knew everything would be all right for me. He would never give up and I know you men and the others here would never stop until you get them out.”

The New York Times wrote that “The drillers, men used to hard work and long hours and danger, fidgeted and twisted while Mrs. Robertson spoke. They hadn’t expected any particular thanks.”

On Wednesday, April 22, the rescue workers dug a small “rat hole” – just big enough to squeeze through - into the underground chamber where the men were trapped. Unfortunately, it was too late for Herman Magill, who had come down with pneumonia and died two days earlier. However, Robertson and Scadding were saved.

Why did Bell keep going long after others had given up? Bell had been trapped in a mine in Stellarton at the age of 13 when he worked as a water boy with his father and uncles, so he knew what the men trapped at Moose River were going through. Bell told the Toronto Star that he and his family had believed their situation was hopeless, “But twenty-four or twenty-eight hours after we were trapped, we heard a faint sound and it was the drill. The drill found us and saved us.”

Bell’s father and uncles immediately decided that young Billy should be a drill operator and he started his apprenticeship shortly after being rescued. Billy said, “From that day on, I was dedicated to the drill. Whenever there is a need for a driller in a rescue, I get the job.”

An odd footnote to the story is contained in a New York Times article from July 22, 1936, about a letter Bell wrote to Alfred Scadding. In the letter, Bell claimed that he was out of work and would take “almost anything” to support his family. Given Bell’s role in the Moose River rescue just three months earlier, it would have been scandalous for him to have been let go from his job with the Department of Mines.

However, Michael Dwyer, Minister of Mines, said, “It isn’t the throbbing needle of the diamond drill but the klieg lights of Hollywood that Billy Bell wants now…He is still on the payroll and has never been out of a job since the Moose River mine rescue. Three weeks ago he was ordered out with a diamond drill outfit, but he refused, giving as his reason he had a better job with a Hollywood studio in prospect and did not want to waste time. Bell has been kept on the payroll and is receiving $50 a month from the Nova Scotia government as a retainer. When actually employed, he is paid for full time.”

While Bell’s heroic efforts at Moose River perhaps deserve to be dramatized by Hollywood, they never were and they are not widely known today.

It took many people from the industry, government and community to save the men. Indeed, hundreds played a role, from the miners who dug tunnels, to the people who transported heavy equipment to the remote site, to those who provided the food and lodging that kept everyone going. But without Billy Bell and his persistence, all three of the trapped men would almost certainly have died.

John William “Billy” Bell passed away in 1984 at the age of 82 in his hometown of Springhill, Cumberland County.

Billy Bell holding a steam whistle. Credit: Springhill Miners Museum.