Dominion No. 26

The Dominion No. 26 colliery in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, opened in 1943 and operated for four decades until a fire led to its closure.

The mine, which worked the Harbour coal seam under the ocean’s floor, was part of a series of ten interconnected mines that mined different areas and/or different coal seams. Many of Nova Scotia’s underground coal mines were interconnected this way, usually for practical reasons such as facilitating air circulation and reducing costs by sharing shafts and tunnels. In this case, the Dominion No. 26 used the Dominion No. 1-B mine’s hoisting shaft and various other facilities.

Louis Frost, a mining engineer who worked for the Dominion Coal Company, wrote in the 1960s that No. 26’s main tunnel was 2,000 feet long and located 14,100 feet from No. 1-B mine’s hoisting shaft. The tunnel entered the Harbour Seam at a point 408 feet below the sea bottom.

No. 26 was 85% mechanized, according to Frost, with DOSCO Continuous Miners doing longwall mining, meaning the mining machine sheared coal off the coal face in a single, continuous operation and carried it on a conveyor belt back to the mine tunnels (see the picture below).

The mine was considered “gassy” and was ventilated by a fan located on the surface, which also ventilated the Phalen seam workings in No. 1-B. 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.

No. 26 “made” a relatively light 15 gallons of water per minute – meaning that was how much water seeped into the mine from the surrounding rock. The water was pumped to the surface by the main pumps located near No. 1-B’s shaft bottom.

Airways in the No. 1-B provided intakes and return tunnels to circulate air in No. 26 Colliery. At the time of Frost’s writing, there were 26.3 miles of airways in No. 26’s ventilation system. Compressed air was also supplied through lines connected to the main air supply for No. 1-B. The total length of these main air lines, including the main air supply in No. 1-B, was 44.7 miles.

We mention these various measurements to give a sense of the huge scale of many of Cape Breton’s coal mines.

No. 26’s average production, according to Frost, was 3,590 tons of coal per day, but the mine was being developed to increase production to 5,000 tons per day.

The mine’s final decade was largely defined by fires and explosions.

Six miners were injured in a fire on September 18, 1973.

In early June 1975, there were several small ignitions caused by picks on the continuous miner striking stone in the coal seam. Sandstone intrusions in the seam resulted in the machine occasionally hitting sandstone, triggering ignitions, or what some miners referred to as flashes.

Despite the safety concern this created, no harm was caused by these ignitions until June 19 when a strike ignited methane and started a fire at 6:40 p.m. Water, fire extinguishers and stone dust were used to fight the fire. (Stone dust – pulverized rock - is often used in underground coal mines to prevent, and reduce the intensity of, explosions. The dust absorbs heat which helps prevent coal dust igniting and reduces the spread of flame.)

Unfortunately, as the fire was fought in one area, it would flare up in others. As a result, the section of the mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen. This was accomplished around 6:40 a.m. on June 20.

Joseph D. Phalen, Assistant to the Director of Mines Planning, described the sealing as “a very difficult operation. The smoke was very dense. You couldn’t see what you were doing. It was very hot. Everybody pitched in. All the men worked all night at that stopping…I never saw a man not moving there all night. I never saw men work so hard in all my life as they did that night.”

Four years later, on February 24, 1979, the continuous miner struck sandstone about 4:10 a.m. Sparks flew, methane was ignited and an explosion occurred. Ten miners immediately perished from the explosion and its after damp (carbon monoxide). Two more died in hospital from their injuries.

Yet another fire took place in 1984, which ultimately led to the mine closing.

The first indication of a problem was at approximately 7:00 a.m. on April 5 when smoke was noticed by men as they were leaving the mine.

Most miners had left their workplaces as usual at 5:30 a.m. in order to arrive on surface at 7:00 a.m., their usual quitting time. (The working areas were almost six miles from the shaft by then, so the commute took 1.5 hours each way.) The smoke was spotted by some men who had worked overtime.

The mine was evacuated, the miners riding out on the rakes (small trains that transported the miners).

The miners wore self-rescuers, small, lightweight belt- or harness-worn devices that provide breathable air. They experienced extreme heat on the rakes as they passed through an area adjacent to the fire.

Throughout the day, efforts were made to fight the fire with fire extinguishers, water and foam generators. However, the fire got out of control and the decision was made around 5:00 p.m. to seal that section of the mine. It took until 6:00 a.m. on April 7 to construct seals in five locations.

The sole fatality was Ronald MacDonald, a 42-year-old father of four who chose to remain in the mine to operate a fan that was important for air circulation. He would be trapped behind the fire and could not escape or be rescued. There is a small memorial at the mine site that honours his sacrifice.

Mine rescue teams from the Drummond coal mine in Westville, Evans coal mine in St. Rose and the Pugwash salt mine travelled to Glace Bay to assist. Justice K. Peter Richard, who conducted the inquiry into the Westray mine disaster in the 1990s, wrote: “The industry is very close-knit with an interdependence, camaraderie, and fellowship that may be unique in modern-day business.” That interdependence has been expressed throughout Nova Scotia’s mining history by miners helping when disaster struck at other Nova Scotia mines.

Today, we believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this. Injury rates in Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying industry have been reduced 90% since the Westray inquiry.

As stated above, the No. 26 was part of a series of ten interconnected mines and it shared a great deal of infrastructure with the 1-B mine in particular. While the practice of connecting mines underground had benefits like this, it also sometimes created problems because these connections sometimes allowed flooding and fires to spread from one mine to others. This problem was demonstrated in an unusual way at Dominion No. 26.

Because of underground connections, a pumping station in 1-B was kept operational for many years after 1-B closed in 1955 in order to keep several other mines from filling with water.

Water inflow through the surrounding rock is a constant in most mines and pumps are used to keep them dry. When a mine shuts down, the pumps are ordinarily removed, allowing the mine to fill with water. In the case of 1-B, the pumps continued to operate because allowing 1-B to fill would have flooded the interconnected mines.

The pumping station in 1-B kept dry the 1-A, 1-B, No. 2, No. 5 and No. 26 collieries. Mine water was pumped to the surface from 1-B for more than 50 years at a rate of 1750 gallons per minute (gpm).

The No. 26 mine did not return to production after the 1984 fire and a decision was made in 1985 to shut off the 1-B pumps. This led to the flooding of these inactive mines.

The problem is there were two other mines that were still operating - the Lingan and Phalen collieries – and there were floods in them as well. One such incident occurred in 1992 and resulted in a sustained, major inrush (up to 7000 gpm) through the now-compromised barrier pillar that had been designed to separate the workings of the Lingan and No. 26 collieries. Pumping was immediately re-established in 1-B in the hope that the Lingan Colliery could be saved.

However, it did not work and Lingan shut down in 1993 after it was determined that it was no longer safe to work the mine with the high risk of catastrophic mine water inrushes.

The "before and after" aerial pictures below show the site of the No. 26 in 1977 and now that it is reclaimed.