MacGregor Flood

We tell the stories of accidents in historical coal mines to honour those who were lost and to explain why the modern industry is so different – Nova Scotia’s mining industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray disaster public inquiry. Mining is one of the safer industries in the province today.

Fortunately, not all accidents in historical coal mines had tragic endings. Thanks to the bravery of the miners, there are also many stories of lives being saved.

The 1955 flooding of Stellarton’s MacGregor (sometimes spelled McGregor) mine is an example.

About 130 men were working in the MacGregor when, around 10:00 a.m. on May 20, “a deluge of water erupted without warning form old workings causing a wall of water to go down the main slope [tunnel] and the east side return [another tunnel],” according to the 1955 Department of Mines annual report.

The old workings were among the earliest in the mine’s history, so they were relatively shallow, about 500 feet from the surface. As a result, when the water flooded from them, it rushed down several thousand vertical feet of tunnels to where the mine, which had opened in the 1880s, was then extracting. One estimate later suggested millions of gallons of water had flooded the mine.

As the water gathered momentum, it ripped out tracks and wrecked a rake (a train that carries miners). It carried this debris with it and tore out roof supports and broke an electric cable that powered pumps in the mine’s bottom. The roof fell in dozens of places.

Men in the Number 7 east level (tunnel) ran for their lives. The last out had to wade through water up to their shoulders. They exited the mine through the pipe slope which was undamaged.

Men in the Number 7 west level walked up the air intake passage and into the main slope. Conditions got worse as they headed toward surface, and they had to crawl over piles of debris with little clearance between the top of the debris and tunnel’s roof.

At the Number 4 level, debris blocked their progress entirely. They considered retracing their steps and heading to the pipe slope but they mistakenly believed it was also blocked. They did not know that their colleagues in Number 7 east had used it to escape.

About 75 men were trapped in the main slope, where their air supply had been blocked by rock falls and debris. Saving them would be a race against time.

At surface, miners who had escaped were questioned about conditions in the mine and mine rescue crews were sent in. This is an example of the bravery miners historically had to display all-too-often: walking into a disaster and risking their own lives in the hope of helping others.

Safety inspector George B. Frazer and main slope chainrunner Sam Sample, were among those who entered the flooded mine. At Number 4 level, they found a ventilation door that led to the main slope, but they could not open it because it was blocked by debris on the other side.

They heard the voice of Garf Stewart through the closed door saying there were many men trapped and that there was only about one foot of clearance between the debris and the roof at the door’s location.

Frazer and Sample struggled with the ventilation door but could not get it to budge. They were about to return to surface to get help when a rescue party appeared, carrying axes, saws and crowbars. They quickly chopped away part of the door and the trapped miners crawled, one at a time, through the hole for the next half hour. It was almost 2:00 p.m. when the men were all out of the mine, about four hours after the flood started.

According to James M. Cameron’s “The Pictonian Colliers,” which we have drawn on for parts of this story, one of the men to escape was Arthur Nugent of New Glasgow, who had survived two previous mine disasters. He was one of nine survivors of the 1918 Allan Shaft explosion and he survived another explosion at the Allan in 1924 (

Despite extensive wreckage, there were no deaths caused by the flood. The worst injury was to George MacLean, one of three men on the rake who jumped clear as the flood overtook them. Clarence Hood and Cyril Carpenter were fine, but MacLean was partly buried and lapsed into unconsciousness. As men were crawling through the ventilation door to escape, MacLean was still only half-conscious, so he was relayed to safety on a stretcher by his colleagues. He was then taken to hospital where he recovered from abrasions and shock.

The cause of the flood was never determined.

The water came through a brick wall – a stopping – that collapsed because of a build up of water behind it. The wall, which had been built at least half a century earlier, had a drainage pipe through it which guided the water into the mine’s pumping system. There were also drains in the area to deal with excess water. This system had worked for many decades without incident.

Like all old workings in the mine, the site was inspected at least once a week. All seemed normal when it was inspected on May 16, four days prior to the flood.

At an inquiry hearing on May 31, possible reasons for the collapse of the wall were discussed. According to testimony, “There was very heavy rainfall, 8 inches on Thursday the 19th. It had rained continuously for two weeks.” However, there had been other hard rains over the years but never a problem with the wall. No one who testified had ever noticed a significant change in the drainage pipe’s outflow during past periods of heavy rain.

The possibility of a rock fall impacting the system, or a blockage in a pipe, was also discussed but there was no specific evidence of either being the cause. These were just theories and the inquiry did not determine the cause of the flood.

The hearing’s participants commented several times that the incident could have been much worse: “…we could be meeting this morning in a lot different circumstances, meeting with a lot of men’s lives lost.” No doubt the 1952 explosion at the MacGregor, which killed 19 miners, was on their minds.

In the hope of preventing a future flood, the men agreed that the section should be kept pumped out, a second pipe should be installed and a gauge on the pipe should be examined at least daily to monitor for changes in water flow.

The hearing concluded at noon as any meeting might at that time of day: “Well, gentlemen, somebody getting hungry?”

The transcript of the inquiry also recorded for posterity another accident - a fall in the schoolyard involving the son of Frank Sim, the mine’s manager. Sim had to leave the inquiry hearing at 10:50 a.m. because “his son had a tumble at school.” Sim returned at 11:05 a.m.: “Son examined by Doctor and returned to class.”

The MacGregor mine took months to clean up after the flood. Operations were not back to normal until November.

In 1957, a spontaneous fire in the mine could not be contained, and the mine was sealed at the surface and never worked again from underground.

In 1996, the Stellarton surface mine started working the areas of the MacGregor and several other historical coal mines, providing coal to Nova Scotia Power. See the mine’s story at and a time lapse video of its excellent reclamation work at