Dominion No. 5

Many places in Nova Scotia were named for their connections to mining!

Reserve Mines, Cape Breton, got its name because its coal was held in “reserve” by the provincial government to use as incentive for a company to build a railway from Sydney to Louisburg that would bring rail access to mines in the Glace Bay area.

This was done by the Glasgow and Cape Breton Coal and Railway Company, later called the Sydney and Louisburg Coal and Railway Company. The company built the village of Reserve Mines and connected it with Sydney Harbour by a narrow-gauge railway, extended to Schooner Pond in 1872 and to Louisburg in 1877.

Several mines were operated in Reserve Mines, including the Reserve mine, which would later be called the Dominion No. 5 Colliery after the Dominion Coal Company took over the area in 1893.

(A "colliery" is a coal mine and its associated buildings. Colliery only refers to coal mines, not other types of mines, because it's an alternate spelling of "coalery," which is no longer used. The word colliery first appeared in the 1500s.)

Dominion No. 5 was opened in 1872 on the land area of the Phalen coal seam from two slopes (decline tunnels), known as the French and Main (West). In 1872, each slope was ten feet wide and 810 feet deep, with levels (horizontal tunnels) dug on either side.

According to the 1872 Department of Mines annual report, the mine was “fully equipped” with a steam engine, five boilers, steam pump at the bottom of the mine and various other facilities and equipment.

The report commented that “A more than usual amount of attention has been given to the dwellings of the workmen; each is supplied with an out-house, a necessary adjunct for the comfort of the people, but one, unfortunately, not always so considered by the builders of mining villages. Neat picket fences surround the plots of ground set aside as gardens for each household.”

Despite being so well equipped, consistent production from the mine did not begin until 1879.

In 1885, a tunnel was completed to the Emery coal seam, but operations on that seam did not begin until 1905.

In 1894, the workings were connected with those of the Bridgeport Colliery to the north.

A third slope, the East, was dug in 1899 at the eastern end of what is now called Haulage Road, “Haulage” being a reference to hauling coal along that route. The East slope operated until 1908.

The No. 5’s original bankhead (the building at the entrance to a mine into which the coal boxes are drawn and dumped into the mine screens, and from there to railway) was destroyed by fire on October 21, 1906. A new bankhead was built which was used by both the No. 5 and the No. 10. (The No. 10 opened in 1905 with a tunnel dug from the No. 5’s workings and its main shaft was dug immediately south of the No. 5 in 1907.) The bankhead was a wooden structure with a floor space of 17,000 square feet and a capacity of 150 tons of coal per hour.

The No. 5 and No. 10 mines were in what is known today as Reserve Mines Park, behind the fire hall on Main Street. The park features a walking trail, a community green space and a pond for skating in the winter.

Mining between the No. 5 and the Old Bridgeport colliery, along Atlantic Drive/Mitchell Avenue, ceased in the 1930s because there was too little rock cover between the mine’s roof and the surface, and the pillars left in place to support the mine’s roof were too small, making mining in this area too risky.

Prior to closure in 1938, the No. 5 produced 350 tons of coal per day. In total, it produced 12,898,468 long tons from 1312 acres. The seam in this area was 7' 8" thick, low in sulphur and ash and suited for metallurgical use (steel making).

For several decades the No. 5 did not have significant problems with methane, 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 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.

However, on April 23, 1903, a small methane explosion occurred that burned one of the men, according to Rennie MacKenzie’s book “Blast!” about Cape Breton coal mine disasters. Miners had hit a feeder, a pocket of methane within the rock, that was now leaking since the coal that previously contained it was being extracted.

Perhaps because the No. 5 had always been relatively safe, the feeder was not treated as seriously as it ought to have been. An inspection was done by the mine’s assistant manager that night. He did not find any more gas, but then the feeder was left unattended overnight.

The area was inspected again around 6:00 the next morning, April 24, and methane was present. Donald John MacDonald, the deputy who did the morning inspection, did what he was supposed to do. He attempted to brush out the gas from the working area, reported it to his superiors and he warned Michael McNeil, a miner working in the area, that there was gas present.

None of the men involved felt the quantity of methane required anything more than ordinary caution and mining proceeded.

Shortly after 7:00 a.m., horse driver William King came into the room with a naked light (open flame) that set off the explosion.

Michael McNeil, William King, Joseph King and Henry Jackson, died immediately in the blast.

William Whiteway was further behind those four, standing behind a coal box which offered some protection. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled to some fresh air where he was found by rescuers. He was taken to hospital where he was believed to be doing well, but he developed pneumonia and died. Doctors said the pneumonia was caused by afterdamp (carbon monoxide) and the very hot and gaseous air he breathed from the explosion.

A 13-year-old trapper boy named Curry survived the blast by dropping to the floor as soon as he heard the explosion. He stuffed his jacket in his mouth and around his nose and stayed like that until the afterdamp had passed over him. He then ran out of the mine unharmed.

It is perhaps understandable that the danger of the situation was underestimated given the mine’s generally good safety record.

However, Rennie MacKenzie, a former coal miner himself, offered another possible explanation for why too little was done to address the methane: “it is entirely possible that Michael was not going to get paid for removing any gas in his workplace. Miners were paid according to the amount of coal that came out of their section of the mine. Clearing gas took time, and did not mine more coal. Consequently, Michael could have approached the gas as a bother, a waste of unpaid time, paying little attention to it.”

In other words, taking time to fan the gas out – putting safety first – may have taken a backseat to extracting coal and making money. This was a factor in many historical mining accidents and both company management and miners were often guilty of making this mistake.

The modern mining and quarrying industry views safely completely differently. It is committed to putting safety first for the obvious and most important reason: it is the right thing to do. As a result, 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.

However, safety is also smart business. Accidents shut operations down while investigations are done, and they often necessitate expensive repairs. In other words, they cost money. It makes more financial sense to invest in safety and prevent accidents. The modern industry’s thinking about this is the opposite of what it often was historically.