Cannons in Coal Mines

Cannons were used to put out fires in Stellarton’s early coal mines. Cannons?!

Stellarton was founded by the General Mining Association, which had a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57. The town was originally named Albion Mines but the name was changed to Stellarton in 1870. It was named for a kind of soft, oily coal found in 1798 called Stellar coal, or stellarite, which, when burned, gave off sparks resembling stars (

The GMA arrived in Nova Scotia in June 1827 when a ship called the Margaret Pilkington, carrying 200 tons of mining equipment, skilled engineers and experienced miners, sailed into Pictou harbour.

The GMA’s first mine was the Storr Pits, which extracted its first coal in early September 1827, a mere three months after the GMA’s arrival.

Unfortunately, the Pictou Coalfield was known to be particularly “gassy” and this made it a difficult coalfield to mine safely underground.

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 a greenhouse gas. It is also 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.

The Storr Pits had a series of fires and explosions throughout the 1830s and were closed in 1839. They came to be known as the Burnt Mines.

It was against this backdrop that “Special Rules” were put in place by government for the General Mining Association’s mines in the area, to help ensure safety.

Rule 5 required that “Every panel consisting of six bords [excavated chambers] shall be furnished with a small cannon which shall be kept at some convenient spot in the lowest board. The overman and deputies shall keep the cannon clean and dry and ready for use.”

Rule 19 also required that the overman or deputies inspect the bords after miners have left the mine to check various things, including whether the cannon and other equipment “are all in readiness for any emergency….”

Small cannons and gun powder were kept in the mines so when a fire could not be extinguished with water, a cannon could be brought close to the fire, charged with powder and fired.

According to The Pictou Colliers, a book by James M. Cameron, “The concussion of the shot was calculated to blow out the fire, in the matter of a puff of air extinguishing a candle. This means of fighting fire was in use in the Albion Mines until about the middle of the 19th century, and dangerous as it was, in the gaseous seams worked by the GMA, it did not, so far as is known, add to the fire explosion record.”

In other words, the cannons were not loaded with cannon balls, but simply created such a concussive blast that they could extinguish a fire.

Aubrey Dorrington, a former coal miner who wrote a history of Stellarton, wrote that cannons were usually used when shots (blasts) had not worked properly and had set the coal on fire at the rear of the shot.

Shots were done by drilling a hole into the rock, placing explosive inside and sealing the hole so the force of the blast would go into the surrounding coal and fracture it, bringing it down as rubble that could be collected and hauled out of the mine. However, shots would sometimes fail to bring all of the intended the coal down and could even ignite coal or methane.

The cannon barrels were long and small bore so they could be inserted into the hole drilled for the shot and fired at the flame. Dorrington said, “When in position the cannon was fired and was as a rule, successful.”

We could not find any other written references to cannons being used in this way, but it is likely the practice was imported from Britain since the GMA and its most experienced early miners were British.

Today, it seems bizarre that such a practice existed, and that storing additional gun powder in coal mines was considered a safety measure, yet it was required by government and it reportedly was effective at putting fires out. Still, the practice was discontinued in the mid-1800s which suggests there may have been an accident related it.

According to Dorrington, a former mine cannon “was used as a door-stop in a miner's home in Stellarton in the early 1920's. An attempt to find it was made by the Stellarton Miners' Museum in 1968, without success.”

The only coal mine in Stellarton today is fixing subsidence issues caused by 200 years of pick-and-shovel mining, including many bootleg mines. The mine is stabilizing the land so it can be built on, while also creating jobs for Nova Scotians and providing fuel to Nova Scotia Power. Coal still provides almost half of Nova Scotia’s electricity. (Learn more about the modern Stellarton surface mine and how it is being reclaimed at

Stellarton’s Dorrington Softball Complex was named for Aubrey Dorrington and is on the site of the former Bye Pits, another of the GMA’s earliest mines. See the Bye Pits’ story at