Montague 1937 Accident

On October 5, 1937, Allan D. McDonald was 200 feet underground, working the afternoon shift at the Montague Gold Mine, when he caused a tragic accident.

Calling it the afternoon shift was actually a bit of a misnomer since it was mostly during the evening. The mine was operating three shifts per day. The day shift ran from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The afternoon shift was from 4:00 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. The night shift, called the graveyard shift by the miners, started at 11:30 p.m., giving it an hour of overlap with the afternoon shift, and continued until 7:30 a.m.

Each of the shifts had specific tasks to perform. As the Department of Mines 1937 annual report put it, “Timber work, drilling and ore handling are done on the day shift. Waste from development is taken up on the afternoon shift and drilling on the platforms is also done. The blasting shift is the night shift, or graveyard shift, when two experienced, special blasters and two helpers, are employed. On this shift the holes are charged and exploded.”

At 8:28 p.m., McDonald was drilling holes which would later be filled with dynamite by the blasters and triggered to break ore (rock containing gold) off the mine’s face, so it could be taken to surface for processing to separate the gold from the ore.

An explosion suddenly occurred, which knocked McDonald down and caused him to hit his head on a post. The blow fractured his spine and caused his death.

The shift boss, Arthur Davison, was on the mine’s 500-foot level when the accident took place. He rushed to the 200-foot level and was the first to find McDonald. Davison assisted in taking McDonald’s body to the surface.

During the investigation that followed, “a young lad” named John Hirschfield testified that he had been working “about 10 or 15 feet away from Mr. McDonald when the explosion occurred. He heard the shot and was knocked down by it, and his light was extinguished. His first action was to shut off the air from the drill which was still running, and then he went to get help. He did not hear McDonald cry. He smelt powder. Having obtained help he did not return to the scene of the accident.”

Investigators noted that the front part of the rim of McDonald’s hat had been blown off by the explosion, which suggested that he had been very close to the blast, likely operating his drill. They also found that the drill was still in the hole he was drilling when the explosion took place.

They concluded that McDonald had drilled into an old hole, as miners sometimes did historically, to save time and effort. This was contrary to safety rules, and known to be a dangerous act, even in the historical era. Holes left behind from previous blasts sometimes still contained unexploded powder, which could be triggered by the drill bit if a miner drilled into them. It was standard industry practice to avoid old holes and always start new ones to ensure this could not happen.

Indeed, shift boss Davison testified that he had “on several previous occasions pointed out to him [McDonald] the need of keeping clear of old holes, and had told him not to drill into old bottoms.”

Blaster Melvin McQuarrie, who had over three years of experience in blasting, and who had done blasts on the night shift before the accident, told investigators why it was important not to drill in an old hole: “He explains that two holes might go off together, one breaking the other, closing up the rock and cutting the powder off in the hole. He thinks that the hole in question was a blown-out one, in which a small quantity of powder was left.”

Montague Gold Mine had a second fatality that year. Gus Peterson, a timberman, died on September 22 while placing roof supports in the mine. The Department of Mine’s annual report does not record any details of the accident.

These were the only two deaths in Nova Scotian metals mines in 1937, fatalities in metals mines being relatively infrequent.

Historical accidents are partly why the modern mining and quarrying industry is so committed to safety – Nova Scotia’s industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray report of 1997. Today we believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner.

Aside from the two fatalities, work at the Montague Gold Mine went well in 1937. Almost 2100 feet of tunnelling was done, and considerable new equipment was installed. The mine employed an average of 73 men throughout the year and paid $85,668.21 in wages. The mine produced 4,473 ounces of gold, up from just 1,777 the year before.

The mine’s operator, Montague Gold Mines Ltd., ceased operations in May 1939 after five years of working in Montague. The 1939 annual report does not say why the mine shut down – it produced 909 ounces in the few months it operated that year – but many Nova Scotians mines and quarries shut down during World War Two due to labour, transportation and materials challenges.