Dominion No. 4

The Dominion No. 4 coal mine (aka the Caledonia), operated from 1866-1961 in Glace Bay. It was the first mine in the world to use a telephone underground and its tunnels extended 5.8 kilometres from shore.

The Dominion No. 4 was in the Caledonia area of Glace Bay. It opened in 1866 on the Phalen coal seam. The mine produced only 10 tons of coal in its first year, and 32 tons in 1867, but in 1868 it produced 12,546 tons as it became fully operational.

A three-kilometre railway was built from the mine to Port Caledonia, following the Glace Bay sand bar. Due to shifting sands, the harbour’s depth became insufficient so after 1884, coal from No. 4 was shipped out of Glace Bay Harbour. The Little Glace Bay Mining Company, which developed that port, charged a tax of 12.5 cents per ton of screened coal and 6.5 cents per ton of slack coal (coal dust).

The coal seam had an average thickness of 6 feet, 7 inches. It was good coking quality (for steelmaking), but it was high in sulphur and ash.

The No. 4 was the first mine in the world to use a telephone underground. According to “First Things in Acadia: The Birthplace of a Continent” by John William Regan, Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law, a Boston lawyer and financier named Gardiner G. Hubbard, was the trustee and business manager for all telephone patent rights. Hubbard also had coal mining and shipping interests in Cape Breton.

In 1877, Hubbard brought several phones with him on a business trip to Cape Breton and installed them in the mine. As a result of this demonstration, two other Nova Scotia coal companies ordered phones that were installed the following year. The General Mining Association, for example, installed five telephones at its Sydney Mines operation, linking the mine with its shipping pier, offices, stores and railway.

It was Hubbard’s familiarity with Cape Breton that led to Alexander Graham Bell and his wife buying a home in Baddeck.

Around 1:00 a.m. on June 16, 1899, Dan Marlin, one of the mine’s overmen took a horse to the stables and smelled smoke. Around 3:00 a.m. the underground manager, Thomas Johnston, and a group of miners grabbed buckets and went in search of the fire. It was around 4:00 a.m. that the first of two explosions took place about an hour apart.

A crew was sent in search of the men, but Johnston and the ten others were dead, killed by after damp (carbon monoxide) caused by the explosion, not the explosion itself. The men’s remains were in two groups about fifty feet apart. Another man, Donald Martin, was about 90 feet further away, in a sitting position leaning against the wall. The men had their coats wrapped around their faces because they had tried to keep from breathing the after damp.

Shortly after the discovery of the bodies, the fire was found in the vicinity of the pump. Attempts to put it out with buckets of water did not work. Then the level below the pump was flooded and the air flow in the mine was reversed, but a few days later the fire was still going strong. Other attempts to put the fire out also failed so finally the decision was made to flood the area where the fire was located.

It was not until September 16 that the fire was fully out. It then took eight months of pumping to get the water out before mining in that section could begin again.

The fire started in the pump room, likely ignited by the pumpman’s open-flame heater, while he was working on a lower pump. The pumpman, Leopold, denied having a fire in the heater that night, but the evidence appeared to contradict him.

The explosions occurred when the fire ignited methane, more prevalent that day because of the low barometer. (When pressure is heavier on the earth it pushes more gas from the coal.)

Coincidentally, the provincial government’s Inspector of Mines inspected the No. 4 the day before the fire, within hours of it starting. Nothing appeared to be amiss at the time. Because they were in the area, both the inspector and the deputy inspector were at the mine as attempts were made to fight the fire.

In its later years, the mine’s make of water (water entering the mine) was 940 gallons per minute, which was pumped out through two boreholes to the surface by two electric-powered centrifugal pumps.

Interestingly, most of the water did not come from the ocean above but from an underground part of the mine that was worked in its early years, about one kilometre inland, where the mine shaft was located. Insufficient support was left for the mine’s roof and the weight of the land above, and cave-ins resulted. Most of the water entered the mine through the cave-ins, not the mine's submarine area.

The No. 4 was closed on May 31, 1961, after almost a century of work.

The average output from the mine prior to closure averaged 2,500 tons of coal per day, with a work force of 689 men. During its life the mine produced 28,627,961 long tons of coal and worked over an area of 6,188.8 acres.

The picture below from 1895 shows some of the boys who worked in the No. 4. While child labour is shocking to us today, it was common in many industries in that era and children were seen as an important part of the work force. One of the No. 4’s child labourers, J.R. Dinn, first worked in the mine in 1900 at the age of 16, loading coal into tubs. Through hard work and night classes, he eventually became the mine’s manager in 1921.

See the stories of several other nearby Glace Bay mines:

Caption: Boy miners at the No. 4 in 1895. Thanks to the Beaton Institute for the picture.