Lighting Strike in Westville

The odds of being struck by lightning are pretty low but if you build enough mines over enough years…

In 1893, lightning struck a coal mine in Westville, Pictou County, and caused an explosion. Fortunately, the mine, called the Scott Pit, was not in production at the time so no one was hurt. Here’s the story:

The summer of 1893 was unusually dry and hot and this led to a water shortage in the area.

The Intercolonial Coal Mining Company, which ran the Scott Pit and the nearby Old Slopes as part of the Drummond coal mine, arranged to bring water in from Stellarton, about two kilometres away. However, before the pipes were laid to connect the Westville mines to Stellarton, water became so scarce that Intercolonial shut down the Scott Pit and transferred the Scott Pit’s miners and water to the Old Slopes to keep them operating.

While the Scott Pit was idle, the company took the opportunity install a new fan for ventilation. Ventilation is a key safety measure in underground coal mines. Methane is a gas formed as organic matter decomposes in the absence of oxygen, such as when plants die in wetlands, marshes and swamps – the sorts of places where coal usually forms. The methane is trapped in the coal as it forms and is released as coal is mined. Methane is combustible, so underground coal mines use ventilation systems to vent methane and prevent it from pooling and triggering fires and explosions.

Because the Scott Pit was not operating, the newly-installed ventilation fan was turned off. This allowed methane to accumulate underground, but since the mine was idle, it was not considered a safety risk. The mine would simply be ventilated again before resuming mining operations.

On August 8, 1893, there was a very heavy thunderstorm. Lightning struck the Scott Pit’s headframe (the structure bult over the mine shaft that supports equipment like the cage/elevator).

The lightning travelled down the cage’s steel cables and ignited gas underground. The gas exploded and started a fire.

The annual Department of Mines report called it “a curious accident” and said it was believed to be the first time lightning had caused a mine explosion in Canada. Similar incidents had occurred at some mines in other countries and lightning rods were adopted to try to prevent them. (To put this in perspective, lightning actually strikes many things – New York’s Empire State Building is struck by lightning an average of 25 times per year!)

The Scott Pit was opened as part of the Intercolonial Coal Mining Company’s efforts to generate at least some revenue after a May 13, 1873 explosion killed about 70 miners and temporarily shut down the Drummond mine.

The Old Slopes were an entrance to the Drummond that were referred to as “old” after a new slope (tunnel) was sunk in 1875. The Old Slopes were heavily damaged in the 1873 explosion but reopened in 1875.

The Drummond was mined from 1868-1984 when underground mining ended. A surface mine operated at the site in the 1980s and 1990s to complete extraction of the coal and reclaim the land. It also recovered coal from the historical mine’s waste dumps as part of the environmental clean up.

Today the former mine, pictured below, 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 built on.