Dominion #12

The Dominion #12 coal mine in New Waterford employed many men and fed many families, but its story was, in many ways, one of tragedy. It is a reminder of why the modern mining industry is so committed to safety – Nova Scotia’s industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since 1997.

Cape Breton’s worst coal mine disaster took place on July 25, 1917. About 270 men were in the #12 mine at 7:30 a.m. when there was a tremendous explosion between the number 5 and 7 levels (tunnels), 2000 feet down the slope (the decline tunnel that was the entrance to the mine).

Sixty-five men and boys were killed, 62 as a direct result of the explosion and after damp (carbon monoxide). Three more died as a result of entering the mine to aid their colleagues. John McKenzie and Phillip Nicholson, two 17-year-old surface workers, rescued a total of five miners before passing away themselves from gas poisoning. William Cook made nine trips into the mine to rescue fellow-miners, before being overcome by exhaustion and gas. He was taken to the hospital and in his delirium, he raved about the men he had not been able to save.

Con Hogan survived the blast but spent a year in hospital recovering from his injuries. He described the explosion this way: “We went down and started working the same as we always did. All of a sudden everything got right quiet and right hot. I was on 7 west. The explosion was on 6 west and 7 west. We heard the bang, just like a big bump. And she let go with a bang. Well, she fired everything as far as she could fire… I was drove through a big wooden door about two boards thick--drove right through that.”

According to Hogan, his name was actually put on the memorial monument in New Waterford as one of the dead. He said his name was later removed when the monument was refinished.

Joseph Liechmann survived the blast but his father, with whom he always worked, did not. Joseph was found alive thirty-six hours after the explosion, clinging to an air line. The instinct of most miners would be to head for the exit as quickly as possible but Joseph’s instinct told him to stay put. Had he attempted to climb out, he would probably have been killed or overcome with gas.

Twenty-two of the dead were Newfoundlanders, seven of them from one small fishing village. The bodies of 18 Newfoundlanders, in coffins, were carried on a special train from New Waterford to Sydney within a day or two of the explosion. In Sydney, they were loaded on a steamer, the Kyle, to be returned to Newfoundland.

Many European immigrants were employed in Cape Breton’s coal mines. A number killed in the explosion were buried in one grave with no family present to mourn them.

Henry McKay was ten years old when he started working at the #12. At the time of the explosion, he was working underground, taking care of the pit ponies. He survived the blast and found his way out of the mine by holding onto a horse’s tail because it was so dark after the explosion that he could not see anything. He never went underground again because “mother wouldn't allow me to go back. I got a job on the surface after that. And I worked there 52 years.”

Henry’s father, John McKay, was among the dead. The company suspected that John McKay had caused the explosion by miscalculating the amount of firing powder required for the blast. His son, Henry, argued this was not possible: “…the men who found him said it was impossible for him to fire a shot because he had his battery cable on his shoulder. But when you fire a shot you hook the two wires together--and that cable is 150 feet long or 200 feet long, to bring out. Well, after you fired the shot you coiled that cable up again to carry it to the next place. Well, he was found with his cable all wound, he had it on his shoulder. If he had fired that shot - wouldn't have had time to gather up his cable.”

Henry also pointed that his father and others in his area only had burns on them, but miners closer to the where the explosion was later proved to have taken place suffered much more severe injuries. The memorial, in Davis Square on Plummer Avenue, features a statue of John McKay as a reminder of the miners’ rejection of the company’s version of events.

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.

Methane in the #12 mine was ignited by a blast intended to free coal from the mine’s working face, part of an effort to drive a tunnel between two areas of the mine. The blast appeared to have been done properly – a hole was drilled, explosives placed inside and the hole was sealed 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.

Unfortunately, there were cracks in the coal behind the drill hole so when triggered, the blast took the path of least resistance. Instead of bringing the coal down, flame from the explosion escaped through the cracks and triggered the methane explosion. A combination of methane and coal dust likely gave the explosion its tremendous force.

The Dominion Coal Company claimed that the mine had sufficient ventilation but the miners and their union, the Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia, disagreed. Some believed the company wanted to produce as much coal as it could, as inexpensively as it could, because of the higher demand during WWI.

Investigations followed and eventually charges were laid against the company for "causing grievous bodily harm," and three company officials were charged with manslaughter.

When the case went to trial in October 1918 in Sydney, the presiding judge was Humphrey Mellish, who had recently been appointed to the bench. Prior to that, he had worked on the case on behalf of Dominion as a practicing lawyer. In fact, it was Mellish who prepared Dominion’s defence shortly before presiding over the trial at which it would be presented.

The Crown attorney brought in no evidence against Dominion. It turned out he, too, had previously represented the coal company.

Before the jury began what would ordinarily be its deliberations, Judge Mellish said there was insufficient evidence to convict the company and he instructed the jury to find Dominion “not guilty.” The jury did so without even leaving the jury box. The manslaughter charges were dealt with the same way.

Despite the terrible loss of life, the 1917 explosion did not cause extensive damage to the mine and it restarted operations not long after.

On May 26, 1943, an extensive fire shut the #12 down for months and resulted in the death of two workmen in the #14 mine because the two mines were connected by tunnel. Several attempts to put the fire out failed but it was eventually doused by filling the area with water through air lines from the surface.

On September 26, 1960, another fire was discovered. There were no fatalities, but the mine was idle for over a week to clean the damage.

The last disaster in the #12, and the reason the mine was closed, took place on March 3, 1973. An underground fire started when a trip (rail cars that carry miners) jumped the tracks and collapsed a section of the roof. This freed large quantities of coal dust which ignited.

Some miners were more than four miles offshore, under the ocean’s floor, when the fire began. They had to walk toward the area with the fire to get back to surface (see the image below, which overlays a mine map on an aerial image). This was a very different situation than in 1917 when the explosion was just offshore and Henry McKay and others had to travel a much shorter distance to escape.

The smoke was so thick that the men had to stoop down and shine their lights on the road rails to find their way out, coughing and gasping for air as they made their way toward the mine’s entrance.

Earl Leadbeater got separated from the group in the darkness and smoke.

Joe Burke, a former miner, said the miners were all “getting kind of weak and overcome from the noxious gasses and stuff from the fire. They were coming up the Third Deep…they figured Earl had went out through the trench to get his coat. That would be the worst place ever to go, because the smoke would be coming in. I guess he got overcome by smoke, and God love him, he’s still there.”

Leadbeater was 28 years old, a husband and father of four. His body was never recovered. All other miners survived.

The #12 mine was sealed to deprive the fire of oxygen and it never reopened.