Moose River Disaster

The story of three men trapped in a Nova Scotian gold mine gripped the world in 1936.

Gold was first mined in Moose River, Halifax County, in 1876. The area was known to contain rich gold-bearing quartz veins and saw a great deal of activity in the historical era.

However, in the years prior to 1936, the site had been largely idle and the Moose River mine was filled with water. Water enters most mines through the surrounding rock, but it is usually in amounts small enough that it can be managed with pumping systems. However, when a mine is shut down and the pumps are turned off, it will usually fill with water that needs to be pumped out before work in the mine can restart.

There were no plans of the Moose River mine’s old workings, which was not uncommon in the historical era. Miners sometimes just followed the 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 was the situation Dr. David E. Robertson, Chief of Staff at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Herman Magill, a Toronto lawyer who was living in Moose River in 1936, found themselves in as the Moose River mine’s new owners. The mine was filled with water and little information was available about its layout underground.

Two gold-bearing quartz veins were the mine’s focus, the Meagher and the Archibald. The two ran parallel to each other, with the Archibald about 30 feet deeper underground than the Meagher.

The mine’s main entrance from the surface was through the Meagher (aka Magill) shaft and it was through it that Magill planned to work the Archibald vein in 1936. They started dewatering the shaft in late January that year.

As the water was pumped out, the mine manager, Felix D. Henderson, examined the shaft. He was concerned that the 30-year-old scaffolding (timber supports) in the shaft had not been reinforced with newer timber, and that there was too little of it. This made him reluctant to venture too far into the mine from the shaft’s bottom.

Since previous owners had already taken much of the ore in the Archibald section, Magill mined four pillars of rock that had been left in place by previous miners to support the roof. Manager Henderson later testified that about 100 tons of rock was removed from the pillars, but evidence given by others suggested that 200 tons might have been taken from them.

Miners testified that on Saturday, April 11, 1936, there were signs that the roof’s weight was too much for the mine’s supports: “Some of the timber showed evidence of great weight,” said Frederick McDonnell. He also “noticed a little more movement in the ground” and reported it to Henderson. Miners Neil Hilchey and Smith Higgins said they noticed timber was bending due to the weight of the roof. Higgins said, “it looked pretty bad to me.” Murray Hilchey said he saw one timber “bulged and cracked in the centre.”

Despite their concerns, most of the men thought these were issues in only specific sections of the mine and did not see them as part of a larger problem. Other than McDonnell, no one informed Henderson of what they saw. (This is in stark contrast to the modern industry’s safety culture, in which all employees are encouraged to report any safety concerns, no matter how small.)

On that Saturday evening, Robertson and Magill toured the mine with two employees, mechanic Russel Henderson and timekeeper and bookkeeper Alfred Scadding. They entered as the night shift was leaving the mine and spent several hours in it. They did not notice any roof support problems, but three of the four – Robertson, Magill and Scadding - were not miners and had little experience in mines.

On Sunday night, April 12, Robertson, Magill and Scadding again entered the mine, after it had been idle for the day. They again did not notice any issues with the scaffolding, but Scadding heard a series of rocks fall as they entered the Archibald section and the group decided to return to the surface right away.

At the shaft, Scadding signaled the hoist man to bring them up, but as he did so, the shaft collapsed somewhere above them.

The three ran back into the tunnel, out of the collapsing shaft, but found themselves trapped 141 feet underground with no heat or food. They tried to find their way through the tunnels to another old shaft but were blocked by fallen rock.

At surface, there was little hope that the three had survived the collapse. However, Robertson, Magill and Scadding lit a fire using wood from old dynamite boxes and its smoke drifted up to the surface, giving rescuers reason to believe the men were alive. So began a 10-day effort to rescue them.

The lack of a detailed mine plan hampered attempts to figure out where the men were trapped and how to reach them. According to the New York Times, “The experts who surveyed the passages expressed amazement at the uncharted tunnels and chambers. Only one man is known to have a thorough knowledge of the subterranean passages – Harvey Higgins, of West Concord, Mass., who worked in the mine when it was last in operation thirty years ago.”

Rescuers tunnelled toward where the men were believed to be, but a second cave-in blocked them and forced the start of a new tunnel. There were fears that flooding in the mine might drown the men before rescuers could reach them.

A drill rig was brought in from New Glasgow and two days of drilling produced a drill hole through which the rescuers could communicate with, and get food and water to, the trapped men. The drill rig operator, Billy Bell, followed his instincts, both in choosing where to drill and in refusing to quit when everyone else had given the men up for dead.

On Wednesday, April 22, the rescue workers dug a small “rat hole” – just big enough to squeeze through - into the underground chamber where the men were trapped. Unfortunately, it was too late for Herman Magill, who had come down with pneumonia and died two days earlier.

Nova Scotia had many mining disasters before modern safety rules and practices made it one of the safer industries in the province – we have reduced our injury rate by 90% since the Westray public inquiry report was released in 1997. However, the Moose River disaster attracted world-wide attention in a way that others had not.

Newspaper reporters rushed to Moose River and filed daily stories about the effort to rescue the trapped men.

It took reporter J. Frank Willis eight days to get approval from his boss at the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the forerunner of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, to go to Moose River. For 69 straight hours, Willis used the only phone line in Moose River to deliver live, two-minute updates on the rescue effort, making it North America’s first 24-hour news event. An estimated 100 million people around the world heard his reports, gripped by the drama of the rescue effort.

Willis’ reports showed early radio’s potential as a medium for news, not just entertainment, and they were the seed from which today’s 24-hour, live news model grew.

The Canadian Press eventually voted Willis’ broadcasts the top news story of the first half of the 20th century, despite those 50 years including two world wars and the Great Depression.

Per standard practice, the provincial government’s Department of Mines studied the disaster and produced a report. Norman McKenzie, the government’s Inspector Mines, led the inquiry but passed away during a family vacation shortly before it was completed. This created a problem: under provincial law, the inquiry was to be conducted by the Inspector of Mines, but the Inspector was no longer able to submit the final report to the Minister of Mines. Instead, McKenzie’s two “assessors,” who had conducted the inquiry with him, completed the report and certified that it “would have been the report agreed to by Mr. McKenzie unless something which we cannot imagine would have arisen to change his viewpoint. You in your discretion may or may not accept it but we suggest that a great amount of time and expense will be saved by receiving it as the report of the late Inspector and Assessors.”

The report placed great emphasis on the fact that Magill and his colleagues never informed the Department of Mines that they were working at the mine, as provincial law required. As a result, no government inspector ever visited the site. In fact, the deputy inspector of Mines heard rumours about the operation the week of the disaster, and had planned to visit it the following Tuesday, Friday and Monday being government holidays due to Easter. The collapse took place on Easter Sunday.

Five of the report’s 13 pages discussed the fact that government inspectors were never made aware of the mine’s activity and, by implication, that they were not responsible for the disaster.

While this may have just been a way to avoid blame – indeed, the leader of the opposition attacked the government for letting the mine operate without a license - it is also a reminder that companies could operate that way in the historical era, when much of the province was wilderness (i.e. without getting permits or reporting to the government, without generating detailed mine plans, allowing three men with no mining experience to enter a mine unaccompanied, etc.)

Today, mining/quarrying is one of the most stringently regulated industries in the province, subject to regular inspections and required to produce tremendous amounts of scientific reporting to governments to ensure the environment and workers are protected.

Gold mining returned to Moose River in 2017 when the Touquoy mine opened. It employed 300 Nova Scotians and cleaned up historical tailings by digging them up and placing them in the modern mine’s tailings management facility, which ensures they will no longer interact with the environment. (Learn more about historical tailings at