The Foster Pit Fire and the Poop Solution

There’s no gentle way to put it – this is the story of how poop was used to put out a fire in a coal mine!

Stellarton has an amazing two-century history of coal mining from when it was founded by a mining company, the General Mining Association, through to the reclamation work currently being done at the Stellarton surface mine (

The Foster Pit was sunk on the Foord coal seam in 1866 by the General Mining Association, which had a monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals from 1827-57. The Foster Pit was west of, and connected by tunnel to, the Dalhousie Pit.

In May 1869, the Foster Pit (called “Forster” in some historical records) was found to be on fire. Some records say the cause was not known. Another says the Foster Pit caught fire from burning hay that ignited as it was being brought down the shaft to feed horses that worked in the mine.

The fire was contained in part of the mine that was not being worked but not far from active workings.

There were two main ways to fight a serious fire in a coal mine. Sealing off the mine, or the part of it with fire, so oxygen would not feed the flames, was the preferred method because it was relatively easy to reopen a mine and continue operations after the fire was out. The miners just had to dig out whatever they used to seal the mine (i.e. rock, dirt, brick, etc.).

The other method was to flood a mine with water. This was only done when absolutely necessary since reopening the mine usually required long periods of pumping to get the water back out. For example, this was done in the Storr Pits, the General Mining Association’s first mine in Stellarton, when a fire broke out in 1832. It took nine months of pumping to dewater the Storr Pits (

Attempts to extinguish the Foster Pit fire were hampered by the smoke, which nearly suffocated the workmen engaged in firefighting and forced them to evacuate.

The mine’s entrance shafts were sealed to cut off oxygen to the fire, but the fire spread and a few weeks later the decision was made to abandon the Foster Pit and the connected Dalhousie Pit.

Connecting underground links to the Cage Pit and other workings were also sealed but a fire a few months later in the Cage Pit was believed to have been related to the Foster Pit fire. All the early coal mines operated by the General Mining Association in Stellarton were connected to each other underground, which had operational advantages (i.e. additional entrances/exits, air circulation, etc.) but also meant that problems with gas, fires and explosions in one mine could impact others.

Workings in the area of the abandoned Foster and Dalhousie pits occasionally crushed (caved in) in the years following. This sometimes allowed air to find its way into the workings and likely caused spontaneous combustion in the former mines, which can happen when coal is exposed to oxygen.

There was reportedly another fire and explosion in the Cage Pit in 1872. After damp (carbon monoxide), a sign of fire, was also finding its way into the Cage Pit in this period, the source of which was unknown since the Foster and Dalhousie pits were sealed off. After damp was also finding its way upwards to the surface in the neighbourhood of the Foster Pit.

All of this suggested that there was an unknown fire burning underground in the Foster Pit.

In January 1883, numerous holes appeared in the land bordering Foster Pit Road. Flames shot out the holes so they were filled in with dirt and rock to prevent air entering and feeding the fires.

In the 1930s, air samples from pipes leading into a walled-off section of the Albion mine consistently found after damp, meaning air was somehow getting into the sealed section and feeding a fire. All seals were found to be tight but it turned out that bootleg miners were taking coal from old workings near the surface in the Foster Pit area. This appeared to be how air was entering the interconnected underground mines.

The bootleg holes were filled in with dirt and stone and the smell of fire disappeared. Several months later the same section showed signs of fire again, and after inspecting the area, it was discovered that the old workings had again been reopened by bootleggers.

According to “The Pictonian Colliers” by James Cameron, the company’s Resident Superintendent, D. H. MacLean, came up with a clever but disgusting solution. It was the time of year when the mines’ outhouses were being cleaned out so MacLean had huge amounts of excrement dumped into the bootleg holes to seal them. He then had earth placed over top. To get back into the old workings, the bootleggers would have had to dig through tons of excrement.

The holes remained sealed and there were no more signs of fire!

Stellarton had a large number of historical mines in a relatively small area and the modern Stellarton surface coal mine covers at least a half dozen historical operations, including the Foster and Dalhousie Pits, the Cage Pit , the Bye Pits (, Foord Pit (, Albion Mines (Thom Pit) and the MacGregor Mine.