Dominion No. 2

The Dominion No. 2 coal mine in Glace Bay had a remarkable history. Here is its story.

In 1899, the Dominion Coal Company started digging two shafts in the New Aberdeen area of Glace Bay to tap the Harbour and Phalen coal seams with what would be called the Dominion No. 2 Colliery.

Production started on the shallow Harbour seam in late 1900 and on the deeper Phalen seam in 1902.

In 1903 a third shaft, that would ultimately be for ventilation and transporting materials in and out of the mine, was started. It was completed in 1904.

In 1907, Nova Scotia Department of Mines annual reports began to refer to the Harbour Seam workings as Dominion No. 9 Colliery and the Phalen Seam workings as the No. 2. The No. 9 became a second mine, on paper at least, that continued to share shafts and surface facilities with the No. 2.

On December 21, 1907, two men were killed at the No. 2 when a boiler exploded. Steam was the main source of power at the mine, with coal from the mine being burned in steam-generating boilers.

The power plant at the No. 2 was the biggest in Cape Breton, according to Rennie MacKenzie’s book, “Blast! Cape Breton Coal Mine Disasters.” It had 21 boilers, three times more than any other colliery’s power plant.

Boiler No. 4 exploded at 3:20 a.m., badly scalding Benjamin Adey, Nicholas Philpot and Angus McNeil, all of whom died within hours at the hospital. McNeil left a wife and two-month-old child.

There were many historical accidents involving boilers, often caused by corrosion weakening them to the point that they could not withstand the pressure generated by the steam. (The expression “blowing off steam” comes from the practice of venting steam to reduce pressure and prevent explosions of steam boilers and engines.)

The accident left over 100 men trapped underground because the hoist was steam-powered and it shut down as a result of the explosion. The mine’s ventilation fans would also have shut down so there was no fresh air in the mine.

The miners gathered at the shaft bottom and waited as the mechanical staff did some patchwork repairs to generate enough steam to get the hoist working. All the miners were safely at surface by about 9:00 a.m., according to MacKenzie. Both the No. 2 and No. 9 were shut down for about a week before work restarted.

In 1906-07, the Dominion Coal Company set up a rescue station at the No. 2 mine in response to coal mine disasters. It was the first such facility in North America and its success led to similar rescue crews and facilities being established at other Nova Scotian mines. This was a milestone in the building of a safety culture that has become a hallmark of the mining and quarrying industry today. Nova Scotia’s 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 No. 2, which was underneath the No. 9, used “room and pillar” mining, in which rooms of coal are extracted while pillars of rock and coal are left in place to support the mine’s roof (ceiling). Pillars are often later removed to get as much of the coal as possible, and the roof, no longer supported by pillars, is allowed to collapse – hopefully after extraction is complete and no one is around to be affected.

Extraction of pillars in the No. 2 was likely the cause of rock falls in the No. 9 that made mining in the No. 9 too dangerous. The No. 9 stopped mining in 1922 and was permanently closed in 1924.

Another boiler explosion took place on November 20, 1929, at about 5:00 a.m., seriously injuring three men. Two “made a rapid recovery and were only off work for a short time,” according to the Department of Mines’ annual report for that year, but the third died from his injuries. The casualties could have been much worse, according to the report: “There were only eleven men employed in boiler room at the time of the explosion, as it occurred on the back shift. If it had occurred two hours later when the full load was being carried by the plant there would have been thirty-two men employed, and in all probably the loss of life would have been greater.”

Mark W. Booth, an engineer at the Sydney Steel Plant, determined that the cause of the accident was “costic embrittlement of boiler plate, which is a particular form of cracking that is difficult to detect by ordinary methods of inspection.”

In addition to the No. 9, a third mine also shared the No. 2’s shafts and facilities – the Dominion No. 20. Work on the No. 20 began in 1937 when tunnels were driven from the No. 2 to the Harbour seam. The No. 20 mine’s eastern boundary forms the western boundary of reserves now tapped by the Donkin coal mine.

Another accident took place at the No. 2 in 1943. On October 2, a Saturday, the mine was shut down for maintenance work. The main shaft was being inspected so everyone getting in and out of the mine had to use the cage (elevator) in the coal shaft, which ordinarily hoisted coal out of the mine.

Since the cage in the coal shaft was designed to carry coal, not people, a wooden platform was placed on it on days like this one to protect the miners from anything that might fall down the shaft, such as loose coal, tools or even ice in winter.

It is believed that as nine men rode the cage, this platform caught on something on the way up the shaft, causing it to shift and sweep four men off the cage.

What exactly happened is not known, and was not even known at the time, because miners turned off their lights when riding the cage so as not to shine them in each others’ eyes. They were in complete darkness as they ascended. Phone O’Brien, one of the survivors, told Rennie MacKenzie that when he got to the surface, he was surprised to notice that four of the men - Thomas Foley, James Stevenson, Carl Adamson and Albert Chipman - were no longer on the cage. Their bodies were found at the bottom of the shaft.

Foley, Stevenson and Chipman had 18 children among them. Carl Adamson, on a six-month leave from the army, was engaged to a Miss Woodrusse of New Market, Ontario, and the wedding had been scheduled for November 6.

The hoist operator, who had done nothing wrong, felt personally responsible for the tragedy. He became depressed and took his own life shortly after, according to MacKenzie.

As the No. 2 got deeper, it became more prone to bumps – basically underground earthquakes that can slam mine floors into roofs.

Bumps in most Cape Breton coal mines were generally small. The strata (layers of rock) were usually soft enough that they would give slightly and absorb the pressure of the rock above pushing down on them. Just as a tree sometimes need to bend in a heavy wind or it will break, rock sometimes need to have some flexibility to accommodate the pressure on it. Bumps are generally larger when strata are so hard that they do not bend to accommodate the pressure. This can cause pressure to build until a bump occurs to release it.

A little past noon on Saturday, June 15, 1946, a severe bump occurred on the north side of the No. 2 as Dan J. O’Neil, Wallace Griffiths, George Briggs and Norman MacKenzie were involved in extracting a pillar. While this was always a risky operation, and the men were presumably alert for signs of a problem, the mine gave no warning of what was about to happen. Witnesses later said there were none of the noises and small bits of falling stone that often precede a bump. Instead, there was just a deep rumble and seconds later the mine’s pavement (floor) heaved and crashed into its roof in the area where the men were working. The four were killed instantly.

The force of the bump threw open ventilation doors half a mile away, so many miners were immediately aware that something bad had happened. A rescue effort was quickly organized and men spent hours digging under dangerous conditions, no doubt worried that a second bump might occur.

By about 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, all four bodies had been recovered.

The No. 2 mine shut down in 1949 but its shafts continued to be used by the No. 20 until it closed in 1971.

The No. 2’s average daily output was 3,659 tons of coal per day. In total, the mine produced 26,571,920 long tons of coal from 1900 to 1949.