Springhill Disasters

Several of the worst disasters in Nova Scotia's mining history took place at the Springhill coal mines.

Nova Scotia’s mining and quarrying industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997, making mining one of the safer industries in the province. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

Today, our goal is to have zero injuries in our workplaces. Nothing is more important than ensuring our friends and colleagues get home safely to their families each night.

Coal mining started in Springhill, Cumberland County, as early as 1834 when a local man sold coal to blacksmiths.

Some small-scale mining took place starting in the late 1850s after the General Mining Association (GMA) lost its 30-year monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals and independent operators were able to open new mines. Mining in Springhill did not flourish, however, until after 1872, with the arrival of the Intercolonial and Springhill-to-Parrsboro railways, which facilitated the transport of coal to markets by both land and sea.

When the GMA lost its monopoly in 1857, it still kept some mining rights in Springhill. In 1879, the GMA’s rights were taken over by the Springhill and Parrsboro Railway Company, which in turn was succeeded by the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company in 1884 and the Dominion Coal Company in 1911.

The Dominion Coal Company worked the Springhill mines through the 1900s with the last operating mine closing in 1970.

The first Springhill Mine Disaster occurred on February 21, 1891, when accumulated coal dust caused a horrific explosion which swept through Nos. 1 and 2 Collieries, leaving 125 dead and dozens more injured. Contributions to the Miners' Relief Fund came from across Canada and the British Empire, including from Queen Victoria. The number of dead was unprecedented for the nineteenth century in Nova Scotian and Canadian mining history. (See the full story of the disaster at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/springhill-no1).

The second Springhill Explosion occurred on November 1, 1956. A mine train hauling a load of fine coal dust to the surface encountered fresh, ventilated air being forced down the No. 4 shaft. The dust was blown into the air and dispersed widely in a particulate mist. At the same time, several railcars broke loose from the train and began rolling backwards down into the mine, derailed, and then hit a power line; this caused an arc which ignited the suspended coal dust. The resulting explosion, fueled by the additional oxygen, created a massive blast which levelled the bankhead on the surface. Heroic draegermen (rescue miners) and barefaced miners (no breathing equipment) entered the mine immediately and were able to rescue 88 miners; another 39, however, were beyond rescue and died in the explosion.

It's a terrible irony that ventilation played a role in the 1956 explosion since ventilation is ordinarily a key safety measure in underground coal mines. Methane is a gas formed as organic matter decomposes in the absence of oxygen, such as when plants die in wetlands, marshes and swamps – the sorts of places where coal usually forms. The methane is trapped in the coal as it forms and is released as coal is mined. Methane is combustible, so underground coal mines use ventilation systems to vent methane and prevent it from pooling and triggering fires and explosions.

The third Springhill mine disaster occurred two years later, on October 23, 1958, the result of a “bump” — an underground seismic event caused when coal is dislodged from a seam or coalface, usually as a result of erratic natural forces or during extraction. The resulting stress can cause the immediate collapse of surrounding bedrock, bringing down wooden support pillars and part of the roof of a mine. The tremendous internal pressures thus created and released can also reverberate along and throughout the coal seam. The 1958 'Springhill Bump' was the most severe in North American mining history.

The bump at Springhill spread as three distinct shock waves, each resembling a small earthquake. People on the surface were quickly aware that the disaster covered a wide area underground. Draegermen and barefaced miners descended immediately, working under extremely dangerous conditions. They assisted early survivors found walking or limping to the surface, they encountered increasing concentrations of deadly gas released by the bump, and they worked in shafts that were partially collapsed and unstable, or completely blocked by debris. Of the 174 miners working in No. 4 Colliery at the time of the bump, 100 were trapped and later rescued; 74 were killed.

Mine disasters then and now attract immediate, world-wide public attention. Canadian and international news media travelled to Springhill in the aftermath of the bump. The disaster made an unusually deep impact on the general public, because it was the first major international story in Canada to be covered by live television broadcasts — a new service then being developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Media interest was also heightened on October 30 by an unexpected visit to the disaster site by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, accompanied by the premier of Nova Scotia, Robert L. Stanfield.

Thanks to the Nova Scotia Archives for much of this information: https://archives.novascotia.ca/meninmines/disasters