MacGregor Mine Explosion

A tragedy in Stellarton’s MacGregor coal mine is an example of 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 in 1997.

On January 14, 1952, the smell of fire was detected in a balance (tunnel) in the Number 7 Level, West Section. A temporary stopping (wall) was built to prevent the fire and gasses from spreading. Such stoppings are often built in difficult and dangerous conditions, such as intense heat and risk of explosion.

With a temporary stopping in place, the company then sent 19 miners in to build a permanent stopping to contain the fire. Sadly, an explosion occurred not long after the men entered the mine.

Draegermen (rescuers) travelled 6,500 feet underground but found only wreckage and the bodies of the 19 men, who had died instantly in the blast. The dense smoke made lamps useless so the draegermen had to feel around in the darkness for bodies before carrying them to surface.

An RCMP car was dispatched from Halifax, carrying blood to help treat the injured. It was not immediately known that there would be no survivors to treat.

Stone dust – pulverized rock - helped contain the blast. It is used in underground coal mines to prevent, and reduce the intensity of, explosions. The dust absorbs heat, which helps prevent coal dust igniting, and reduces the spread of flame.

The stone dust saved lives. Three men - Jimmy Hawboldt, Fraser Lorimer and William Sewell - were about a quarter-mile from the explosion. The three men were injured but crawled through the smoke and heat until they reached clearer air and could walk to the surface. Lorimer and Sewell later described seeing a ball of fire and feeling a blast of air and dust. Hawboldt, who was hit on the hip by a flying rock, remembered nothing afterwards.

A small group of others working further from the blast also survived.

The cause of the explosion was not determined by the subsequent investigation. One theory, put forward by DOSCO general manager H. C. M. Gordon, was that a piece of oily waste might have caught fire spontaneously and ignited methane.

Another theory was also suggested. The Museum of Industry in Stellarton describes it this way: “However, one theory posited was that once the stopping was built, air was cut off to the fire. This fire was in an incline. Methane, being lighter than air, was above, with air pressure holding it up. With the fire using up the oxygen above it, the methane descended over the fire, and exploded. Had the fire been on a level, it would just have burned out after the oxygen was used up, as was customary. After this explosion, a new rule came into effect. Once temporary stoppings were put in, the mine must be vacated for 24 hours. Then air tests must be taken before men were allowed back in” (

Strangely, the Department of Mines’ annual report for 1952 only briefly mentions the explosion. This was unusual since significant accidents – their causes and how to prevent similar accidents in future - were often discussed in detail in the annual reports. Pictou County historian James M. Cameron requested a copy of the investigation report in 1969 but was told that the Department did not have a copy on file, which is also very unusual. As a result, most of what we know about the accident comes from newspaper reports.

Among the 19 dead in the MacGregor (also spelled McGregor) mine were the following:

  • Edward Arthrell, 37, the son of Henry Arthrell, the mine’s underground manager and one of countless of examples of how coal mining often runs in families. Edward had a wife and five children.
  • Winston Sample, the son of Alex Sample, superintendent of Acadia Mines, the MacGregor’s owner. Winston left a wife behind.
  • Brothers Albert and Arthur Moss, both of whom had families. Arthur had driven all the way to the mine from his home in Sylvester only to find that there was no work for him that day. However, management gave him a shift because of the distance he had travelled.
  • Archie Hayman and William McLeod, brothers-in-law, who left wives and children.
  • John Nearing, another tragedy for a family that suffered many in the coal mines (
  • John Bain Nicholson, 33, who left a wife and three children. Like the Nearing family, the Nicholson family bore an unfair amount of grief, although little of it had to do with mining. Nicholson’s father, Archie, was electrocuted at Sinclair’s Corner in 1924 on his way home from his job working at the Allan Shaft. His mother, Margaret, had died in a car accident four years before on the Trenton airport road. A brother, Dave, died as he was about to leave for work and a stepfather, Philip Hickson, died the same year.
  • James David Wright, 35, left a wife and two sons. His father, Robert Wright, had previously died in the Drummond mine.

Jimmy Hawboldt, one of the three who survived the blast while working nearby, was from Westville and was a legend in long distance running in Nova Scotia. In the 1920s, he was a three-time winner of the five-mile event at the Highland Games, won the Maritime Invitational twice and took home the top prize, four times, for the Evening News five-mile-run. He was third in the Olympic trials in 1924, and second in the Canadian Invitational in 1925. He ran 55 races during his career, finishing first in 38 of them.

Hawboldt defeated fabled Johnny Miles of Sydney Mines three times in six races, a record no other runner can claim. At the 1926 Highland Games, Hawboldt beat Miles, who had recently won the Boston Marathon in record time.

Some thought Hawboldt’s win over Miles was a fluke but the two raced again later that year, on September 10. Hawboldt did not want to give up a full day’s pay so he did his shift mining coal that morning, ate lunch and raced Johnny Miles that afternoon, defeating him the second time. Their records suggest that Hawboldt was the better runner at shorter distances and Miles was better at longer distances. Hawboldt was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame in 1980.

Hawboldt passed away in 1998, the last living survivor of the 1952 MacGregor mine explosion.

In 1955, the MacGregor had a serious flood but, fortunately, no one was killed. See the story at

In 1957, a spontaneous fire in the mine could not be contained. 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. The Stellarton surface mine is in its final stages today. See the mine’s story at and a time lapse video of its excellent reclamation work at