Montague 1893 Disaster

What was called at the time “the worst disaster in the history of gold mining in Nova Scotia” took place in 1893 in Montague. The official cause of four deaths was accidental drowning. However, the real cause was, in a sense, a lack of paperwork.

The Symonds-Kaye Syndicate, based in London, England, took over about 100 acres in the Montague gold district, in Halifax County, in summer 1892. Prior to that, some small mines on the property had been idle for a number of years and little information was available to the Syndicate about old workings, which were now water-filled.

A map had been made by the Syndicate’s local manager, Lucius J. Boyd, but it was only for promotional purposes – to help attract investors. It was not a proper engineer’s drawing of the old workings. In fact, the map was drawn when the workings were filled with water, so “this map evidently could only have been based on hearsay and therefore was quite unsuitable as a guide for future workings,” according to the Canadian Mining Journal’s January 1894 edition.

After the Syndicate took over the property, it began sinking a new shaft 190 feet west of an old one which was called the Cooper shaft. The new shaft reached a depth of over 100 feet. Tunnels were dug from the shaft’s bottom to the east and west.

On December 23, 1893, two men were doing a blast in the east tunnel to advance it and bring down gold-bearing rock. About 8:00 a.m., they lit a fuse and seconds later, the blast blew a hole in the rock that separated the new workings from old Cooper shaft workings.

From Boyd’s map, it appeared that the new and old tunnels were separated by over 60 feet of solid rock, but it turned out there were only about three feet separating them.

Water from the old workings flooded through the hole into the new tunnel. In just three minutes, the water rose to a height of 28 feet in the new shaft.

The flood drowned the two miners in the east tunnel that had done the blast. It also drowned two others who were working in the mine. Four men escaped. The Canadian Mining Journal called the accident “the worst disaster in the history of gold mining in Nova Scotia.”

The coroner’s inquest determined that the cause of the deaths was accidental drowning, but the deaths were really caused by the lack of proper mine plans. Had proper plans, or maps, existed, the miners would have known they were very close to the old workings off the Cooper shaft.

This lack of mine plans was common in the historical era despite government rules generally requiring that they be filed with the Department of Mines. Early gold miners often just followed the gold-bearing quartz veins underground and did not bother making proper plans of the tunnels and shafts. A new operator of a mine often had to rely on the memories of men who had worked at the site previously to understand the mine’s layout and other details about it. This sometimes created safety issues, as it did in this case.

From the evidence given at the inquest, it is clear that the company ignored warning signs. Testimony showed that water had been coming into the mine more heavily than usual for a week before the accident, and that on the morning of the accident it was running in even faster. Also, a blast fired 24 hours earlier had shifted the course of the water, which further suggested a link between the blasting and the water inflow.

The increase in water in the days before the accident ought to have made the Symonds-Kaye Syndicate more cautious. According to testimony, it did have that effect on some of the miners. Some quit that week out of fear for their safety.

Water enters most mines through the surrounding rock, but it is usually in amounts small enough that it can be managed safely with pumping systems.

Historical accidents like this one are partly why Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying industry is so safety-focussed today. The 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 lack of organization and sophistication highlighted by the absence of mine plans helps explain why Nova Scotia’s early gold miners did not take proper care of the environment. In the modern era all mines and quarries are stringently-regulated by governments and huge quantities of documentation and scientific reports are generated through the permitting process and ongoing operations.

After the 1893 tragedy, the Symonds-Kaye Syndicate continued to work in Montague until the Loon Brook Gold Mining Company took over the property in 1913.

A lack of mine plans was also a problem during rescue efforts after the Moose River disaster in 1936. See the story at