Dominion #7, Glace Bay

The Hub coal seam in Glace Bay was first mined to provide coal for Fortress Louisbourg. The area around the mine became known as Burnt Head due to a fire, just the first major fire that would occur in the mines in the Hub seam.

The British operated the mine when they held Louisbourg from 1745-1749. In the spring of 1748, a blockhouse named Fort William was built for the protection of the mining operation. Despite this precaution, several homes were destroyed in a Mi’kmaq attack in July that year. The French assumed control of the fort and the mine in 1749 and the colliery remained active until 1752, when the mine was set ablaze by mutineers, which resulted in the destruction of both the mine and the fort.

The fire in the mine continued to burn until 1764 and the area came to be known as Burnt Head as a result. Today it is known as Hub Head.

The Hub seam is mostly under the ocean so mining on land gave way to mining under the sea floor in 1861. This operation, run by E. P. Archbold’s Glace Bay Mining Company, shut down in 1872 due to a fire in the mine.

In 1873 a slope (decline tunnel) was sunk to get around the area with the fire and allow mining to continue, but it did not work as we all as hoped and the area was flooded in 1875 to extinguish the fire.

The mine produced 59,157 long tons of coal between 1873 and 1875. It is not known what its production was prior to that period due to a lack of records.

The Glace Bay Mining Company also re-opened the old British/French workings in 1863, but soon abandoned them.

After 1875, the mine remained idle until the formation of the Dominion Coal Company in 1893.

Dominion reopened the mine in 1895 but closed it again in 1899. The reason for discontinuing the operation is not clear but it is likely that the amount of rock between the sea floor and the coal seam was insufficient to allow the mine to operate safely in the area. Undersea mines need enough rock between the mine ceiling and the ocean floor above to prevent significant leaks of water into the mine.

In 1903, the Dominion Coal Company opened up a shaft 120 feet deep called Dominion No. 7. Dominion also mined on land nearby, where the Marconi museum is today.

Three years later, on December 14, 1906, a serious fire broke out in the mine. This started a complicated two-month effort to save it.

The fire started in the pump house at the bottom of the mine, part of the system for removing water from the workings. The cause was never determined but according to the 1906 annual Department of Mines report, the general opinion was that it was caused by careless handling of a lamp with an open flame and oily waste or some other flammable material.

The men who ran the pumps later said they did not see any signs of fire around 4 p.m. as shifts changed. The underground manager also passed by the pump house at that time and saw nothing of concern. However, at 4:40 p.m. while still near the bottom of the mine, he received notice that smoke was coming from the direction of the pump house.

The pump house was in flames when he arrived. Fire hoses were brought to the site and the firefighting started.

The smoke was so thick that the men could not enter the pump house, so the mine’s ventilation fan was put in reverse to draw the smoke out of the mine. The fan at surface was partly frozen so it took some time to get it going.

The fire was burning, and being fought, in several locations. As one area was brought under control, the fire would continue in another. Coal has been an important fuel for centuries because it is combustible, but this quality makes it a huge challenge in an underground coal mine fire. Fires can spread quickly and can sometimes burn for years if not extinguished.

The Glace Bay Fire Brigade arrived to assist the miners but heavy smoke forced the men to retreat from several areas.

The fan house on the surface caught fire. The loss of the fan would be a major problem since it would limit the miners’ ability to manage air flow in the mine, so all hands were called to the surface to fight the fire at the fan house.

With the fire in the mine out of control, the decision was made to seal the hoisting and fan shafts and flood the mine to extinguish the flames. This was a significant decision. 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 (i.e. months) of pumping to remove the water before mining could start again.

Work started on sealing the shafts but more smoke and sparks suddenly came up the hoisting shaft and forced a retreat. The hoses were turned on the shaft but within moments the shaft was “like a roaring furnace,” according to the annual report, “the flames rushing up and ultimately reaching far above the pully wheels, carrying destruction in every direction.”

The fire from the hoisting shaft spread at surface to the bank head buildings, screening and picking plant, banking station, screens and trestle compressor house, engine and boiler house, fan house, blacksmith, machine and carpenter shops. The fire came up the shaft at 11:30 p.m. and by 1 a.m. the entire surface plant was destroyed.

The mine’s fire brigade and the Glace Bay Fire Brigade were praised in the Department of Mines report: “Few, if any, of these men were ever called upon before to fight a fire in a mine, and some members of the town brigade had seldom, if ever, previously entered a mine. Yet they faced the situation without the slightest hesitation and worked faithfully, never ceasing until they were ordered out of the mine, when it was considered by those in charge unsafe for them to remain longer.”

Men from other coal mines in the area also supported the firefighting effort.

The next day, Saturday, December 15, attention turned to flooding the mine to extinguish the fire. Since the mine was under the sea floor, sea water was the water available.

A dam of dirt and gravel that sealed an old tunnel near the shore was removed, but this only allowed water to enter the mine at high tide or in heavy seas, not enough to douse the flames.

On December 19, another tunnel was started that would, it was believed, connect with the old workings below water level and allow more water to flow into the mine. However, the men’s understanding of the layout proved to be incorrect so this did not work.

On December 28, another tunnel was started to the right of the December 19 tunnel. After a few hours of work, it was decided that the digging could destabilize the overhanging cliff, creating safety concerns, so digging stopped.

From December 29 to January 9, a new shaft was sunk down the face of the cliff, with men working four six-hour shifts per day. A horizontal tunnel was then dug into the mine’s old workings.

On January 24, dynamite was used to remove the rock that remained between this new horizontal tunnel and the sea. This allowed large quantities of water to enter the mine at high tide.

Men entered the mine three days later to assess the situation but snow deposited by the sea water, and foul air, prevented them doing a full inspection. They tried again on January 28 and 29 but it was not until January 31 that they reached further into the mine and found that the snow extended a distance of 1200 feet, filling the tunnel almost to the roof.

On February 2, a fan was used to put fresh air into the mine around the burned areas, and it was confirmed that the fires were extinguished.

Work immediately starting on clearing the snow and getting pumps and other equipment into the mine to start the clean up. The first water reached surface on February 13 and pumping continued to empty the mine.

The mine started production again in 1907 and continued until 1918 when it was permanently closed and allowed to fill with water.

During the life of the mine, the main slopes were driven a distance of 9,000 feet under the sea and a total of 2,174,839 long tons of coal are known to have been produced.

At the end of Hill Street, on the beach, you can still see burned stones from the 1906 fire and the two previous fires. The rock pictured below is a mix of sandstone and shale, melted, re-hardened and beach-weathered.

The Hub seam was named because it was a semicircular outcropping surrounded by concentric wheel-like outcroppings, so it resembled the hub of a wheel.