Joggins 1904 Fire

On January 10, 1904, J. Charman and R. LeBlanc, walked into the Joggins coal mine together at 5:00 p.m. It was the start of a very bad shift for the two men.

Both were responsible for operating pumps to keep water from filling the mine, so they went down the main slope (decline tunnel) to the 2500-foot level and relieved Alder Ripley, a pump man whose shift was over.

Ripley went to the surface, making Charman and LeBlanc the only two people in the mine that Sunday evening.

Charman parted ways with LeBlanc about 5:15 p.m. and headed deeper, to the 3100-foot level, the bottom of the mine. He did some work there for a few minutes and then headed back up the tunnel about 5:30 p.m. He had taken a lantern with him when he went down, but was returning with an “open light,” as the Nova Scotia Department of Mines annual report called it - a candle attached to his hat. He had left the lantern hanging by a pump at the mine’s bottom.

About 75 feet up the slope, he passed through a stopping – a wall built to control air flow. He took the candle off his hat, passed through the opening/door in the stopping and looked back to check that nothing had caught fire from the candle. All looked well.

Charman and LeBlanc joined up again at the pumping station on the 2200-foot level. After five minutes, they both smelled smoke. They walked back to the tunnel and found the smoke was thicker there. Their lights went out and they had a difficult time finding their way to surface. Once there, they raised the alarm.

For the next day, efforts were made to extinguish the fire. Pumps were turned off so water from the upper levels would flow down the main tunnel toward the fire. Miners also tried to cut off oxygen to the fire by sealing the iron door in stopping A, which was made of brick, putting up brattice (wood or canvass sheets to control air flow), and by building two new stoppings (called B and D on the mine sketch below).

At that point, the mine’s owners and employees waited to see if these efforts would extinguish the fire. However, it eventually became apparent that gas was escaping through the stoppings and the decision was made to flood the mine on Friday, March 29. After the water had gotten high enough to douse the flames, the mine was pumped out.

The Department of Mines investigation of the incident found that Charman had accidentally lit the stopping on fire as he passed through it 75 feet from the tunnel’s bottom.

The stopping, which was made of wooden tongue and groove boards that were very dry, had an opening in it that allowed people to walk through and for boxes of coal to be hauled up the tunnel. The opening was covered by canvass to control air flow. With all the people and boxes regularly passing through the opening, the canvass became worn and frayed, and a frayed edge was lit on fire by Charman’s candle as he passed through.

Charman testified that he had looked back to check for signs of fire, but a new piece of canvass had been placed over the old canvass on the opening’s upper side, the side Charman was on as he walked up the tunnel. The new canvass blocked his view of the old canvass which was catching fire.

The investigation concluded that only safety lamps, which helped prevent flame triggering gas in historical coal mines, should be used in the mine. This recommendation was adopted and the Department of Mines report for the following year said safety lamps were being used exclusively.

In total, it took 18 days to flood the mine and about five weeks to pump it out. Flooding a mine was usually a last resort when fighting a coal mine fire because it often took months to pump the water out after, so the Joggins fire had a relatively good result, especially since no one was hurt. (However, nine horses were killed.)

However, another problem occurred as the mine was being cleaned up and new timbering was being installed to support the roof (ceiling) of the mine.

According to the Department’s annual report, “Then the financial condition of the company compelled them to hold the men’s wages in abeyance and a strike resulted. The strike was carried on in so forcible a manner as to stop the operations of the railway, and draw the fires from the boilers at the mine, thereby stopping the pumps, and the lower workings were in a few days under water again, as the abnormal influx of water common during the spring of the year was then accumulating.”

The mine was pumped out again and new damage caused by the second flooding was cleaned up.

However, the mine’s owner, the Canada Coals and Railway Company, was forced to declare bankruptcy and the mine was sold to American interests.

The Joggins coal mine operated between 1871 and 1930 at several sites, shown on the aerial image below. The 1904 fire took place in the #2 slope.

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 Joggins mine included the #7 slope, which started in 1907 and today is the site of the Joggins Fossil Centre – an example of how former mines and quarries can contribute to communities after extraction is done. See the story at

It might sound odd, but coal is essential to renewable energy! In fact, the more renewable energy we produce, the more coal we will need from mines like Cape Breton’s Donkin mine. Metallurgical coal is a key ingredient in steel, and things like electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels contain steel. Learn more at

The Joggins Fossil Centre is at the site of the Joggins #7 slope.

The Joggins mine operated at several locations. The 1904 fire was in the #1 slope.