River Hebert

The years 1930-1932 were difficult ones for coal mines in River Hebert, Cumberland County. Several serious accidents occurred at three mines, all within about 2.5 kilometres of each other.

Historical accidents 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, making it one of the safer industries in the province today. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.


At 6:00 a.m. on March 7, 1930, Paul Landry, Leon Richard and Woody Morrell had finished their shift at the Victoria No. 2 Mine and were walking toward surface when they discovered smoke.

Several attempts to inspect the fire were unsuccessful because the smoke, coming out of a nearby tunnel, was too thick. Since they could not get close enough to the fire to fight it, Victoria Coal Company officials decided to build two stoppings (walls) that would prevent water, which naturally seeped into the mine from the surrounding rock, from draining out of the area. It was estimated that over about 30-40 days, this would flood the section and put the fire out.

The stoppings were completed on March 9. The exact location and cause of the fire remained unknown at that time.

By early April, company managers believed enough time had gone by to flood the mine’s lower sections and on April 4, they met with government and union officials to discuss whether to reopen that section of the mine.

C. J. Kent, mine manager, reported at the meeting that a Charles Gates had “set fire to a small body of gas at 9:30 the evening before the smoke was discovered,” according to the Department of Mines’ deputy minister and mine inspector, Norman McKenzie. “It appears Gates did not report to company officials or workmen until a few days previous to Mr. Kent telling me.” Triggering small pockets of gas was a common occurrence in historical coal mines, so Gates did not feel a need to report it to his boss.

On April 9, the stoppings were taken down and the fire was found to be extinguished. Its cause could not be proven but Gates’ triggering of the gas was considered most likely. While the incident did not have any serious repercussions immediately, it may have ignited a feeder of gas that kept burning, out of Gates’ sight, eventually lighting surrounding coal on fire.

Deputy minister McKenzie praised the work of draegermen from Springhill who “did such excellent work in reopening this section of the mine.” They had been brought in because their special rescue training and Draeger breathing apparatuses allowed them to “proceed in advance of the bare faced men in an atmosphere which will not support either life or combustion, and thus determine if the fire has been extinguished. If no rescue men are available it would be necessary for the bare faced men to ventilate the place as they advance. Should the fire still be burning it is revived, and the consequence may be a very dark picture. Coal mines generally give off inflammable gas, which accumulates when sealed, or when no ventilation is supplied. In a mine which has been sealed, if the fire is still burning all that is necessary for an explosion is a supply of fresh air.” The Draeger breathing apparatus prevented this by allowing a mine to be inspected without ventilating it.

No one was hurt as a result of the fire.

A second incident occurred at the Victoria No. 2 Mine later that year, this one with tragic consequences. On September 17 at 6:40 p.m., gas exploded, causing the deaths of seven men: William White, Wilfred White, Clarence McGraw, Emile Krawlick, Simon Fowler, Philip Brine and William Burke.

The cause was an accumulation of gas, but as is common with tragedies, the true cause was multiple, relatively small problems that, combined, resulted in terrible consequences.

Openings between an older, gas-filled section of the mine allowed gas to travel from the old workings to the new. The barometer dropped on September 17, an indication of heavier atmospheric pressure which often causes more gas to be pushed out of coal. A booster fan, part of the mine’s ventilation system, was shut down several times that day for repairs, which allowed more gas to accumulate. This gas was eventually triggered by a miner’s lamp, causing the explosion.

If any one of these factors had not occurred, it is quite possible the explosion would not have happened, but combined, they caused the tragedy.

The official cause of death for each miner was “Gas explosion,” according to the Department Mines’ annual report. However, the miners appeared to have died from afterdamp (carbon monoxide) after the explosion, not the explosion itself, as they tried to escape.

Draegermen from Springhill were again called in, this time to help with the recovery of the bodies.

The Maple Leaf No. 4 Mine, operated by the Maritime Coal, Railway & Power Company a short distance west of the Victoria No. 2, had a fire on December 22, 1930.

Vernon McGovern was sent to take down a brattice (wood or canvass sheets used to control air flow in the mine), and his open-flame lamp lit a gas feeder.

McGovern was not to blame. He had done as he was told by his boss, the underground manager: he set his lamp down in the tunnel about four feet from where the brattice was located. He pulled the brattice down and shortly after, “the gas ignited, slightly burning him, and setting fire to the mine,” according to the Department of Mines annual report. Since the brattice was there to improve air flow due to the known existence of the gas feeder, the instructions McGovern was given were inappropriate, and he ought to have been given a safety lamp, which reduces the potential to trigger gas.

Deputy minister McKenzie later wrote, “In mines worked with open lights where feeders of gas occur in this manner, very often feeders are ignited which do not cause any harm or danger, but the men both workmen and officials get so familiar with igniting small portions of gas that it is liable to breed carelessness in every mine where gas occurs in this manner.”

Miners were laying a water pipe to fight the fire, but that effort was abandoned when it became apparent that the fire was triggering a series of small explosions that went on throughout the day. At 11:00 p.m., the decision was made to build stoppings at the mine’s two entrances to seal the mine and deprive the fire of oxygen.

The mine remained closed until January 19 when draegermen from Springhill were again asked for help to inspect the mine and confirm the fire was out.


On May 11, 1931, the Victoria No. 4 Mine, to the east of the Victoria No. 2, had an accident that resulted in the deaths of six men.

Again, the cause of the explosion was a series of factors. For example, there was insufficient air flow in the mine to prevent the accumulation of gas. This was exacerbated by faults – cracks in the surrounding rock that allowed gas from coal seams above and below to leak into the area being worked at that time.

The mine had been idle the day before the explosion, and the ventilation fan had been turned off, “a dangerous practice in a mine giving off inflammable or noxious gases,” according to deputy minister McKenzie.

The men responsible for inspecting the mine for gas were either not doing their jobs properly, or they were at least not recording findings of gas in the book kept at the mine for that purpose. Either way, this misrepresented the risk of fires and explosions in the mine.

The shotfirers who triggered blasts to free coal were in the habit of using regular matches to light fuses instead of using the required detonators and electric batteries. Garfield Stevens, the only survivor who had been working in that section, later said he saw the shotfirer light the match the triggered the explosion.

Mines at which serious accidents occurred were generally required to leave sites untouched so inquiries could determine what caused the accidents. Today, viewers of police dramas would understand the importance of not contaminating the crime scene. So, the inspectors were troubled when they saw that the company had put up brattice after the explosion to increase air flow in the area. While the company tried to argue that there had been sufficient air flow in the section – that it was not responsible for allowing gas to accumulate - the subsequent installation of a brattice suggested company officials knew this was not true.

These lapses in good mining practices, unacceptable even in the historical era, cost Sam Rector, George Quinn, Adolphe LeBlanc, Sanford Legere, Charles Stevens and Tom Jones their lives.


The Maple Leaf No. 4 Mine had another tragedy on December 1, 1932, but while inspectors had their suspicions, they could not prove the cause.

Charles LeBlanc, William Hachey, Dan Boudreau, Henry LeBlanc and Ezra Murray were killed by an explosion of gas, specifically by burns and afterdamp.

Much of the ensuing investigation focussed on a booster fan near where the explosion occurred, which had been turned off at the time and had therefore allowed gas to accumulate.

Inspectors seemed to suspect an electrical problem with the fan may have triggered the explosion, and that power to the fan was turned off only after the explosion, not beforehand, as was suggested by company officials who said the fan had been turned off for a repair.

Inspectors found that two electrical switches were open at the time of their inspection a week after the explosion. Open switches cut power to the fan. Had they been opened prior to the explosion, this would rule out electricity as the cause of the explosion because the wires would not have been carrying electricity at the time.

However, the inspectors suspected the switches were opened after the explosion so the company would not be held responsible: “We examined the belt on the booster fan and could not discover that any repairs had been made to the belt. It is very evident that the belt was not broken, and if the fan was stopped the belt must have come off, and put on after the branch switch or the square D switch at the fan was pulled. It is very difficult to understand why the two switches should be found open.”

In fact, deputy minister McKenzie wrote,” In my examination of the switch the finger prints on the handle were very clear, much more than I would expect if done before the explosion. Had it been done before I would expect that the dust in suspension caused by the explosion would be deposited on the finger marks.”

McKenzie refers here to the impression a hand left on the dusty switch handle, not fingerprints as we think of them today. Given the large quantity of coal dust that would have flown around during an explosion, the well-defined fingerprints appeared to have been left on the switch after the explosion, which suggests that opening it was an attempt to mislead inspectors about the accident’s cause.

Inspectors confirmed that the deceased did not have matches on them and that their lamps worked properly, ruling out these potential causes.

No fire had been discovered in the mine before the accident, and there were no indications of fire before or after.

Since inspectors could not get anyone to testify as to when the two electrical switches had been opened, they could not conclusively determine the cause of the accident.

Miners at the Maple Leaf No. 4 Mine in the 1930s. Thanks to the Nova Scotia Archives for all photos.

The Maple Leaf No. 4 Mine in the 1930s.

The Victoria Mine in the 1930s. The Nova Scotia Archives web site does not indicate which Victoria Mine.

The Victoria Mine in the 1930s. The Nova Scotia Archives web site does not indicate which Victoria Mine.