Springhill No. 1

Historical mining disasters like those that took place in Springhill are a key reason why the modern mining industry is so safety-focussed. Nova Scotia’s 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.

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 lost its 30-year monopoly on most Nova Scotia minerals and independent operators were able to open 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.

The No. 1 Mine opened in 1872 and was, as its name implies, the first real coal mine in Springhill.

While government and company inspections of mines were routine even in that era, an inspection of the No. 1 was done on February 19, 1891, for a remarkable reason.

A fortune teller in Stellarton called Mother Coo had predicted that there would be an explosion at the Springhill mine. The prediction was hard to dismiss because Mother Coo had apparently successfully predicted explosions at the Drummond mine in Westville (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/drummond) and at the Foord Pit in Stellarton (https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/foord-pit).

The inspection was done to ensure the mine was operating safely and to put miners’ minds at ease. (See Mother Coo’s story at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/mother-coo).

On February 19, inspectors appointed by the Pioneer Lodge, a miners’ union that formed in Springhill in 1879, inspected the No. 1. They entered the mine at 6:40 a.m. and were met by William Conway, the underground manager, who guided them through the workings.

The inspectors, Thomas Scott and W. D. Matthews, wrote to the mine’s manager, Henry Swift, later that day, informing Swift that they found everything in good working order. They concluded that “the ventilation, as we found it, is all that could be desired, both in distribution and quantity, and the workings generally, we found in good condition.” They said, “The system of ventilation is such that it is almost impossible for gas to accumulate….”

Ventilation is essential in underground coal mines in order to remove methane gas from the workings and ensure a mine’s safety. 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 a greenhouse gas. It is also combustible, which is why it has always been a safety challenge in underground coal mines. It is essential that it be vented out of a mine, so it cannot pool and trigger fires and explosions.

The inspectors also complimented the mine’s system for distributing water, which was used to dampen areas before shots (blasts) to help reduce the odds of explosions triggered by coal dust. The mine used water that “made” (entered through the surrounding rock) on the 1300 feet level for watering the No. 6 and 7 balances (tunnels) on the 1900 feet level.

The water was piped from the 1300 feet level and valves were put on the pipe in each bord (excavated chambers) so barrels could be filled and the water used to dampen the bords. Water was also allowed to run along the mine’s floor and shot firers were instructed to make sure the area around an upcoming shot was damp.

The inspectors said, “We found the place very dry and dusty, and in a condition, from the quantity of dust floating in their, to make it a possible source of danger, which possibility, however, is rendered nil by a system of waterworks, carrying the water to each bord end, with a hose attached for sprinkling and damping the places. In fact, we found everything as aforesaid, in good order for safety and work.”

A government inspector did his regular monthly inspection the following day, February 20, and also found everything was as it should be.

Mine manager Swift wrote to his boss that day, saying, “All in order So far as I Know.”

The next day, February 21, 1891, Thomas Wilson, who was a “sterling Scotchman,” according to underground manager Conway, was having a routine morning. He was a shot firer, responsible for doing the blasts that freed coal from working faces. Shots were done by drilling a hole into the rock, placing explosive inside and sealing the hole so the force of the blast would go into the surrounding coal and fracture it, bringing it down as rubble that could be collected and hauled out of the mine.

Wilson was an experienced shot firer who took safety seriously. He had once refused to fire a shot because he felt the surrounding area was too dry, so it was watered before Wilson would do the blast.

Wilson was at No. 3 bord around 12:15 p.m. preparing a shot. Dryness and coal dust should not have been a problem since the bord had been watered the day before. According to William McGillivray, he and other men had watered the No. 7 balance the previous day, using three barrels of water in each bord: “We splashed it all around, up in the gob and in the head and had it all wet.” They also left a full barrel in each bord. “After being watered, I don’t think it would require it again for two or three days. I never heard any men on that balance say they were frightened of an explosion. I considered the place safe.”

Shortly before 1:00 p.m. – testimony as to the exact time varied - Wilson finished his preparations and fired the shot. What should have been a small, routine blast instead triggered an explosion that was the deadliest in Nova Scotia’s mining history.

Thomas Wilson was killed in the explosion. His body was found by a rescue party along with those of several men who worked No. 3 bord. Wilson was 40 years age, married and had one child.

Mine manager Henry Swift was also killed, his body found about 500 feet from the site of the explosion. Rescuers believed he had been talking to two miners when the explosion occurred, and that he was knocked down by its force. He got up again but was either overcome by after damp (carbon monoxide) or knocked down again by falling stone. They determined this because there was fallen stone both under him and on top, which suggests that he got back to his feet before falling down a second time on top of fallen stone.

Swift had started work at the age of 12 in a coal mine in England before immigrating to the United States at 19. He worked his way up from child labourer to become mine manager in Springhill in 1890. He was highly-regarded and the streets were lined with people for his funeral procession, the last of the funerals resulting from the disaster. Swift was 42, married and had five children.

The body of 20-year-old James Nairn was found close to Swift’s. He was one of three Nairn family members killed in the tragedy.

Thirteen-year-old Willard Carter was one of four people who died of injuries after the explosion rather than in it or its immediate aftermath. Carter suffered burns and a blow to the head but did not pass away until about 10:00 p.m. that night. His father, Reid Carter, also died in the explosion, leaving a wife and two other children.

Rescuers not only risked their lives by entering a mine, but it was often heart-breaking work in small Nova Scotia towns where friends and families lived and worked side by side. A. A. MacKinnon discovered the body of his brother. Jesse Armishaw found the bodies of his two sons, Jesse (21) and Herbert (18).

In total, 125 people died as a result of the tragedy, including 16 boys under the age of 16. (While child labour is shocking to us today, it was common in many industries in the 1800s and early 1900s: https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/child-labour).

Fifty-six women lost their husbands and 168 children lost fathers.

The No. 1 mine was connected underground to the No. 2, which had opened in 1873. Many of Nova Scotia’s historical underground coal mines were interconnected through tunnels, usually for practical reasons such as facilitating air circulation and reducing costs by sharing shafts and tunnels. Unfortunately, these connections also sometimes allowed disasters to spread from one mine to others. This was the case with the 1891 disaster. Many men died in the No. 2 mine.

An inquest concluded that the explosion was caused by an unusual flame from the shot “igniting coal dust and a certain portion of gas, which might have been present at the time.” (The mine had been idle the day before, which may have allowed pockets of gas to form, even though morning inspections had not found any concerns with gas.)

The inquest also concluded that “the explosion was accidental, that no blame is attached to the management, and that they have taken every precaution for the safety of their workmen.”

Edwin Gilpin, the provincial government’s Inspector of Mines, wrote in the Department of Mines’ annual report that the shot ignited gas and this, combined with floating coal dust, “caused an intense flame sufficient to propagate itself until it reached an intensely explosive state and self supporting, swept the two balances and adjacent levels.” Gilpin said the evidence suggested “the comparatively slow progress of a dust supported explosion,” not “the sudden clap of an ignited flammable body of gas and air.”

Despite the terrible death toll, the mine did not suffer much damage and it reopened within days of the explosion. It operated until 1896 when it was closed due to a fire.

There were two other major disasters in Springhill’s coal mines. Learn about them at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/springhill.