Drummond 1873 Disaster

Canada’s first large-scale mining disaster took place on May 13, 1873, at the Drummond mine in Westville, Pictou County. Sadly, it might have been avoided if a conversation that took place two months earlier had gone differently.

Robert McLeod mined an area of the Drummond mine that was known to be particularly gassy, and fires often resulted from the blasts he and other miners used to extract coal. They drilled holes in the coal, filled them with blasting powder and triggered it. The fracturing of the coal would often allow methane gas to escape and flame from the blasts could ignite the gas. The miners used water, which was kept close by, sacks and even their own shirts to put the fires out and keep on mining.

Joseph (Joe) Richardson was an overman (foreman) at the mine. About two months before the disaster, he told McLeod that he had to stop using blasting powder because of the fires and concerns that they could trigger an explosion. However, McLeod told Richardson, “That I would not work there then.”

McLeod’s concern was that he was paid based on the quantity of coal he extracted, and blasting was more efficient than using a pickaxe and wedges to extract coal manually. If he stopped using powder, he would earn less.

According to McLeod, Richardson “then told me to go on using it as he had no authority to say that I should be paid extra for wedging.” Robert McLeod had worked in the mine for several years and was an experienced miner. Richardson did not want to lose him.

John Lorimer also worked at the Drummond mine in that period. He had been a deputy overman but he “differed with Richardson and took the picks about two years ago. To speak candidly, I was fond of a glass.” This comment, taken from Lorimer’s testimony to the inquiry after the disaster, suggests he might have had a drunken argument with his boss and was demoted.

Like McLeod, Lorimer was also told to stop using blasting powder. So, he quit and went to work at the Vale mine in Thorburn, a decision that may have saved his life.

Lorimer later said, “For the last month before I left I did not use power, but before that I did. I was prohibited from using it because it set the place on fire every time a shot was fired…I made less wages after I had ceased to use powder, being paid by the shift instead of by the yard. I left because they would not give me the rate per yard that I asked. I considered McLeod’s place was as dangerous a place to use powder in as my place was.”

Perhaps Richardson was not sad to see Lorimer go since he did not accommodate him as he had McLeod.

About 6:30 on the morning of May 13, 1873, McLeod arrived at work and was told that “there were about 15 inches of gas in my place.” McLeod said later, “I found only six inches, and that on the high side.” This was a routine start to the day.

McLeod fired two shots that morning, neither of which caused any problems. About 11:45 a.m., he fired his third shot and the gas caught fire. A surprisingly large quantity of gas escaped from the coal and the way the coal had fractured prevented him from reaching the source and extinguishing it. Soon, the gas fire lit the coal itself on fire.

He and his brother, Andrew, who Robert McLeod employed as a loader, fought the fire for about 15 minutes until the smoke forced them to retreat.

By that point, the alarm had been raised and miners from other parts of the mine arrived to help, but it was not long before Joe Richardson told most they could head to the surface. Richardson and about a dozen men remained to fight the fire, but it was spreading quickly.

Robert McLeod went to the surface to get some fresh air. He then tried to re-enter the mine, but the smoke prevented him. Joe Richardson, who had also briefly returned to surface, said he was going back in via another route and McLeod went with him. When they reached the scene of the fire, they found that the area’s brattice, canvass sheets used to control air flow in the mine, had caught fire. This added to the heat and smoke and made it more difficult to reduce the amount of oxygen feeding the fire.

Shortly after, Richardson decided that fighting the fire was a “lost cause” and an evacuation order was soon given. McLeod and other miners headed for the surface, many helping others who were overcome by smoke and carbon monoxide.

McLeod later told investigators that he was within 200 feet of the mine’s entrance when “I felt her suck” – a sudden change in the air – and he threw himself to the ground and grabbed hold of a rail to resist the force of the blast that immediately followed. “Some of the men ahead of me were blown away by the blast. One of the men, I know, was my brother, who was lost.” This is a reference to Oliver McLeod, not Robert’s brother Andrew. Andrew was knocked down by the explosion but survived because he, like Robert, was close to the mine’s entrance.

The 1873 annual report described the explosion as “unexampled on this continent for violence…dealing on all sides death and destruction.”

Large, heavy, wooden rope rollers, part of the mine’s rail system, flew up and out of the mine’s tunnel, “as from the mouth of a cannon,” landing two hundred yards away from the mine entrance. Timbers 14 feet long and nine inches thick were blown so high that they fractured when they landed. The rush of air created by the explosion tore the roof off the bankhead (the building at the mine’s entrance) “as would a hurricane.”

Most men in the mine were killed or injured by the explosion, which took place about 12:15 p.m., just half an hour after the fire started.

Robert McLeod survived and was helped out of the mine by George McPherson. McPherson worked a considerable distance from McLeod’s area and was unaware of the fire until the explosion: “We heard no alarm, and the first intimation we had that anything was wrong was the first blast, which threw us down and put out our lights.” They relit their lamps and walked to the top of No. 1 slope (tunnel). “We found the timber torn away in the slope, the truck smashed up, and the air very bad. Much smoke and heat made it hard to get along. We passed one man, whom I did not know, lying dead.” As the smoke cleared, McPherson found McLeod “lying down and unable to rise. I helped him up the remainder of the way, my comrade being unable to give him any assistance.”

When the explosion took place, James Dunstan “threw myself down in a gutter and crawled…as I found I could not stand in the baffling air.” No. 2 slope was filled with debris and he found that the “door leading into No. 1 slope I could not open; hearing some one speak on the other side I called out, but received no answer.” He made his way to the pumping pit and a tub was lowered that hoisted him to the surface.

Dunstan later said, “If men had immediately obeyed the order, that all who could give no assistance should leave, they would have had plenty of time to escape, as, I believe, the alarm was given to all hands.” He also told investigators, “As far as I am aware, the pit was well ventilated, and, to the best of my knowledge, Joe Richardson always exercised great care in the management of the pit.”

Adam Lorimer was working with his brother - not John Lorimer who had quit a few weeks earlier, but perhaps a third brother - when the explosion occurred. Both men were knocked down but unhurt. They felt their way through the darkness to No. 1 slope but found it blocked by “tubs and rubbish. Crawling over the rubbish we came upon a number of men lying about, unable to walk, crying and groaning. We stumbled over some of them, but said nothing to them, as we with difficulty made our way in the bad air.” Lorimer believed this was a group of men he had spoken to just a few minutes before the explosion.

Adam was overcome by exhaustion and told his brother, “Go, save yourself if you can, and send me help.” Someone did help Adam and he later said he was the last man to leave the tunnel alive.

A second explosion took place about two hours after the first. It killed four men, including Edward Burns whose body was blown out of the pumping pit shaft and high into the air, who were trying to rescue miners stranded at the bottom of the pumping pit

The second explosion dashed any remaining hopes of rescuing others. The decision was made to flood the mine, which was the last resort for putting a fire out because it could require many months of pumping to reopen a mine after it was flooded.

Fires at surface burned for 36 hours, flames reportedly reaching several hundred feet into the air, and there were a number of additional explosions. However, the mine was eventually sealed to cut off oxygen to the flames.

The mine remained sealed until the end of October when one of the tunnels was opened to see if the fire had been extinguished. After two weeks, it became clear that the oxygen now entering the mine was feeding ongoing fires. The mine was closed again until the end of the year.

Mining resumed in 1874.

The 1873 annual report lists 60 people who died in the disaster. Overman Joe Richardson was among them.

While the disaster was initially caused by the use of blasting powder in Robert McLeod’s area, the blame cannot be placed entirely on McLeod’s shoulders, or on those of Joe Richardson, who allowed McLeod to continue using powder. The 1873 annual report pointed out that powder was used in almost every coal mine in the province in that era. It decreased the cost of production for the companies, helping them compete in the international market. The powder was considered essential by many miners to making a living wage. It was also allowed by government regulation.

Historical accidents are a key reason why the modern mining industry is so safety-focussed. Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying 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 Drummond was mined from 1868-1984 when underground mining ended. A surface mine operated in the 1980s and 1990s to complete extraction of the coal and reclaim the site. It also recovered coal from the historical mine’s waste dumps as part of the environmental clean up.

Today the former mine is acres of greenspace and parkland which includes a playground, pond, gazebo, baseball field and heritage signage. The reclamation also fixed subsidence issues so land left unusable by historical mining could be developed.

Acadia Park, part of the Drummond mine reclamation.

The Drummond mine reclamation, before and after.

Canadian Illustrated News, May 31,1873.