Howe in the Storr Pits

Former Nova Scotia premier Joseph Howe played an important part in Nova Scotia’s mining history in his various political roles, particularly since he was provincial secretary during the province’s first gold rush in the 1860s.

Years before that, however, Howe visited the Storr Pits coal mine in Stellarton and wrote about the experience in a July 21, 1830 article in the Novascotian newspaper. His description paints a vivid, if somewhat lighthearted, picture of what life in the mines was like at the time.

Howe wrote about being lowered into the mine shaft: “…away slides the scaffold--and now my gentle Traveller, you are suspended over the mouth of the pit, and should any part of the tackle give way, you will have just about thirty seconds to say your prayers, before you are dashed to the consistence of a jelly, at the distance of 240 yards from where you at present hang...The Imaginative Traveller, as he descends through the circular shaft, which for a considerable distance down is cased with brickwork, may fancy that he is Captain Symmes travelling through the opening at the Poles, to pay a visit to the earth's centre.”

(American John Symmes, who was born in 1780 and died in 1829, advocated Hollow Earth Theory, which said the earth is a shell with walls about 800 miles thick and that there are holes, 1400 miles wide, at the north and south poles through which earth’s interior can be entered.)

While Symmes thought earth’s interior was a "warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men,” Howe found it to be quite different. He said he could not see anything for five minutes until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “And now you discern a lot of Beings, looking more like Demons than men….what adds to the singularity of their appearance, each has a small lamp suspended by a wire to the front of his cap--making them look like the Cyclops, who had but one glaring eye in his forehead.”

He said the miners were covered “From head to heel” with coal dust, “which mixing with the perspiration drawn out by their hardy toils, gives to their features a singular, and rather a melodramatic expression.”

He said their white teeth contrasted “curiously with the sooty faces, as they crack their jokes, or carry on their desultory conversations. These people are variously employed--some are digging away with their pick axes into the coal measures, or boring holes for blasting; while others are loading the sleds, or driving the horses back and forwards from the place of excavation to the bottom of the shaft. These sleds run on a moveable railway extended along the level of the pit...and are presently sent up to the surface by the agency of steam” (a steam engine).

Howe said, “The incessant clatter of the Miners' picks--the rattling of the coal as it is filled into the sleds--the rapid passage of the horses to and fro—and the circulation of two or three dozen lamps, altogether make up as singular a combination of sights and sounds as the greatest lover of medleys might require….”

The Storr Pits (also sometimes spelled “Store”) were worked by the room and pillar method, in which "rooms" of ore are dug out while "pillars" of untouched material are left to support the roof.

Howe described this process, saying “As the coal is dug out, the roof of the pit is supported by logs, which are stood on end and wedged in with plank, whenever the nature of the strata may seem to require them; large bodies of coal are left at certain distances for a similar purpose, and thus there is but little risk of danger from the falling in of the ceiling.”

In fact, many of the pillars in the Storr Pits eventually crushed/collapsed.

Howe made light of the noise from a blast, asking “Are we blown to a thousand atoms?...Nothing of the kind, my gentle Traveller, it Is only a blast which you might have seen two stout fellows preparing, and which has upturned as much coal as could serve to keep an old maid and her cat warm and comfortable, during the approaching winter."

Howe’s tone might have been different if he had known what the future held in store for the Storr Pits. Starting two years after his visit, a series of explosions and fires took place until 1839, when the mine was permanently abandoned. The Storr Pits came to be known as the Burnt Mines.

Learn more about the Storr Pits at