Springhill mining disaster

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Mine shed at Springhill, NS

The term Springhill mining disaster can refer to any of three Canadian mining disasters which occurred in 1891, 1956, and 1958 in different mines within the Springhill coalfield, near the town of Springhill in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia.

The mines in the Springhill coalfield were established in the 19th century and by the early 1880s were being worked by the Cumberland Coal & Railway Company Ltd. and the Springhill & Parrsboro Coal & Railway Company Ltd. These entities merged in 1884 to form the Cumberland Railway & Coal Company Ltd., whose investors later sold it to the industrial conglomerate Dominion Coal Company Ltd. (DOMCO) in 1910. Following the third disaster in 1958, the operator Dominion Steel & Coal Corporation Ltd. (DOSCO), then a subsidiary of the A.V. Roe Canada Company Ltd., shut its mining operations in Springhill, and they were never reopened. Today the mine properties, among the deepest works in the world and filled with water, are owned by the government of Nova Scotia and provide Springhill's industrial park with a source of geothermal heat.

1891 explosion[edit]

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History of Nova Scotia
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First airplane in the British Commonwealth 1909
Halifax Explosion 1917
Nova Scotia [Women’s] Franchise Act 1918
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Pugwash Conferences established 1957
Springhill mining disaster 1958
NS Human Rights Commission established 1967
Acadian Federation of Nova Scotia established 1968
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Westray Mine explosion 1992
First Black MLA elected 1993
Mi'kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Tripartite Forum 1997
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Springhill's first mining disaster, the 1891 explosion, occurred at approximately 12:30 pm on Saturday, February 21, 1891 in the Number 1 and Number 2 collieries, which were joined by a connecting tunnel at the 1,300-foot (400 m) level (below the surface) when a fire caused by accumulated coal dust swept through both shafts, killing 125 miners and injuring dozens more. Some of the victims were 10 to 13 years old.

Rescue efforts throughout that afternoon and evening were made easier by the lack of fire in No. 1 and No. 2, but the scale of the disaster was unprecedented in Nova Scotian or Canadian mining history, and the subsequent relief funds saw contributions come in from across the country and the British Empire, including Queen Victoria.

A subsequent inquiry determined that sufficient gas detectors in working order had been present in the two collieries; however, the ignition source of the explosion was never determined, despite investigators having pinpointed its general location.

The song "La Mine" by the French Canadian folk group Le Vent du Nord is based on this event.

1956 explosion[edit]

Inside a Springhill, NS mine shaft

The 1956 explosion occurred on November 1, 1956, when a mine train hauling a load of fine coal dust up to the surface of the 25-year-old Number 4 colliery to remove it from the pithead encountered a heavy flow of ventilation air being forced down the shaft by surface fans. The flow of air disturbed the dust on the ascending train cars and spread throughout the air of the shafts of No. 4. Before the train reached the surface, several cars broke loose and ran back down the slope of No. 4, derailing along the way and hitting a power line, causing it to arc and ignite the coal dust at the 5,500-foot (1,700 m) level (below surface).

The resulting explosion blew the slope up to the surface where the additional oxygen created a huge blast which levelled the bankhead on the surface - where the coal is hauled out from the mine in an angled shaft into a vertical building (the coal is then dropped into railway cars). Most of the devastation was sustained by the surface buildings, but many miners were trapped in the shaft along with the derailed train cars and fallen support timbers and other items damaged by the explosion.

In a show of heroics, Drägermen (rescue miners; named from a German brand of safety equipment) and barefaced miners (without breathing equipment) entered the 6,100-foot-deep (1,900 m) shaft of No. 4 to aid their co-workers. In total, 88 miners were rescued and 39 were killed. Media coverage of the 1956 explosion was largely overshadowed by the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez Crisis, both occurring at the same time. However, Canadian and local media did offer extensive coverage of the disaster.

Following the rescue effort, No. 4 and the connecting No. 2 collieries were sealed for several months to deprive the fires of oxygen. Upon reopening in January 1957, the bodies of miners who remained below the surface were recovered, and the mine was closed forever.

1958 bump[edit]

Mine entrance in Springhill, NS.

The 1958 bump, which occurred on October 23, 1958, was the most severe "bump" (underground earthquake) in North American mining history. The 1958 bump devastated the people of Springhill for the casualties they suffered; it also devastated the town, as the coal industry had been its economic lifeblood.

It is not exactly known what causes a "bump", however it is believed that it could be caused when coal is totally removed from a bedrock unit or "stratum", and the resulting geological stresses upon surrounding strata (sandstone, shale, etc., in most coal-bearing units) cause the pillars (coal left in place) supporting the galleries to suddenly and catastrophically disintegrate, causing the shaft to collapse.

The No. 2 colliery was one of the deepest coal mines in the world. Sloping shafts 14,200 feet (4,300 m) long ended more than 4,000 feet (1,200 m) below the surface in a vast labyrinth of galleries off the main shafts. In the case of the No. 2 colliery, the mining techniques had been changed 20 years before this disaster, from "room and pillar" to "long wall retreating" after reports documenting the increased danger of "bump" phenomena in the use of the former technique.

On October 23 a small bump occurred at 7:00 pm during the evening shift, but was ignored as this was a somewhat common occurrence. However just over an hour later at 8:06 pm an enormous bump "severely impacted the middle of the three walls that were being mined and the ends of the four levels nearest the walls."[1]

The bump spread as three distinct shock waves, resembling a small earthquake throughout the region, alerting residents on the surface over a wide area to the disaster. Dräger teams and teams of barefaced miners entered the No. 2 colliery to begin the rescue effort. The rescue teams encountered survivors at the 13,400-foot (4,100 m) level walking or limping toward the surface. Gas released by the bump was encountered in increasing concentrations at the 13,800-foot (4,200 m) level where the ceiling had collapsed, and rescuers were forced to work down shafts that were in a partial state of collapse or were blocked completely by debris.

Any miners who were not covered either in side galleries or some other shelter were immediately crushed during the bump, the coal faces having been completely destroyed. 75 survivors were on the surface by 4:00 am on October 24, 1958. Rescue teams continued working, but the number of rockfalls and amount of debris slowed progress.

Meanwhile, the Canadian and international news media had made their way to Springhill. Arnie Patterson[2]was the public relations spokesman for the Company and relayed news of the progress of rescue (and later recovery) to the families of the miners and to reporters. The disaster actually became famous for being the first major international event to appear in live television broadcasts (on the CBC). As the world waited and those on the surface kept their vigil, rescuers continued to toil below the surface trying to reach trapped survivors. Teams began to arrive from other coal mines in Cumberland County, on Cape Breton Island and in Pictou County.

After five and a half days (placing it around the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 1958) contact was established with a group of 12 survivors on the other side of a 160-foot (49 m) rockfall. A rescue tunnel was dug and broke through to the trapped miners at 2:25 am on Thursday, October 30, 1958.

On Friday, October 31, 1958 the rescue site was visited by various dignitaries, including the Premier of Nova Scotia, Robert Stanfield, and His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh who had been at meetings in Ottawa.

On Saturday, November 1, 1958 an additional group of survivors was found; however, there would be no more in the following days. Instead, bodies of the dead were hauled out in airtight aluminum coffins, on account of the advanced stage of decomposition, accelerated by the Earth's heat in the depths of the No. 2 mine at 13,000–14,000 feet (4,000–4,300 m) from the mine entrance.

Of the 174 miners in No. 2 colliery at the time of the bump, 75 were killed and 99 trapped but eventually rescued.

Aftermath and representations in popular culture[edit]

The aftermath of the 1958 bump had a profound effect on the town and the public imagination, and there were some interesting footnotes involving political and economic exploitation of survivors.

In the media crush at the pithead (the shaft entrance at the surface), reporters would rush to speak with survivors, particularly the two groups of miners who had been trapped until Thursday and Sunday respectively. When asked what he wanted most, survivor Douglas Jewkes replied, "A 7 Up." Following this high-profile media event and unexpected "plug", the 7-Up company hired the miner as a spokesman.

Several miners and their rescuers were invited onto The Ed Sullivan Show. One miner, Maurice Ruddick, was chosen as Canada's "Citizen of the Year". Maurice Ruddick and the other "miracle miners" enjoyed public attention for a brief time after their rescue. For Ruddick, the only black in the group, racism dimmed his moment in the spotlight. An aide to the Governor of the U.S. state of Georgia Marvin Griffin took advantage of the intense media coverage to promote tourism to that state by offering a group of survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island. However to the segregationist governor's chagrin (he had been vacationing on a hunting trip in Manitoba at the time of the disaster), he learned of Ruddick's race, which resulted in a public relations nightmare. Upon learning that Ruddick was black, the governor said that Ruddick would have to be segregated. Ruddick agreed to the governor's terms so the other miners' vacation would not be ruined, but he and his family stayed in a trailer apart from his colleagues. Ruddick died in 1988.[3] In 2003, U.S. author Melissa Fay Greene retold this aspect of the aftermath in her book Last Man Out (Harcourt, ISBN 0-15-602957-X).

The rescuers were awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Canadian Humane Association for bravery in lifesaving, the first time the medal had been awarded to a group.[4] The Town of Springhill was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism recognizing the community involvement needed to save the surviving miners in 1958. To this day, Springhill is the only community to receive the award which is reserved for individual acts of heroism.

American folksinger Peggy Seeger and English singer Ewan MacColl composed The Ballad of Springhill based on the 1958 disaster.[5] It was originally performed by MacColl and Seeger as an a cappella duet. "The Ballad of Springhill" was subsequently sung by popular folk revival group Peter, Paul and Mary and in 1987 the Irish rock stars U2 drew international attention to the memory of the disaster when they included The Ballad of Springhill in the playlist for their Joshua Tree Tour. U2 performed the song at fifteen concerts,[6] and were televised live in 1988. [7]Very commonly, the lyrics are misunderstood and thought that Bono sung "late in the year of 88", when in fact Bono is singing about the number of dead. "Laid in the earth are 88." On July 30, 2011, U2 performed the first verse of the song during the final show on the 360° Tour in Moncton, New Brunswick.[8]

In an interview after the 1987 performance on a 25th anniversary television tribute to the Irish band The Dubliners, Bono stated that the first recording of The Ballad of Springhill he heard was that sung by Irish folk singer Luke Kelly a member of The Dubliners. Peggy Seeger came to Springhill in 2008 where she sang the song on the 50th anniversary of the Bump.[9] Other recordings of the song include the Irish musician Pauline Scanlon version on her début album, Red Colour Sun, featuring Damien Dempsey, renaming the song The Springhill Mining Disaster; and the version by Canadian rapper/producer Socalled on his 2011 album Sleepover.

Several books have been written about the disasters including Leonard Lerner's 1960 book Miracle at Springhill.[10] And long after the last Bump in 1958, the story has continued to inspire writers, poets and songwriters. Richard Brautigan wrote a poem entitled "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster," published in 1968.

In 2008, Brian Vardigans wrote a song entitled Springhill that was sung at the 50th anniversary ceremonies for the victims of the 1958 Bump on 23 October 2008. Canadian folk group Tanglefoot refer to the Springhill mining disaster in their song "Hard Work" from the album Dance like flames.

On the CBC Radio show The Vinyl Cafe, host Stuart McLean tells one of his popular 'Dave and Morley' fictitious stories from the perspective of Dave's mother and the tale of how Dave's uncle died in the 1958 disaster.

In 2014, two books were released by author, Cheryl McKay, pertaining to the Springhill Mine Disasters. Spirit of Springhill: Miners, Wives, Widows, Rescuers & Their Children Tell True Stories of Springhill's Coal Mining Disasters and a fictionalized novel, Song of Springhill: a love story. The character of Isaak Revere in the novel is based on Maurice Ruddick. [11] [12]

The disaster is also indirectly referenced in the Disney animated field, 101 Dalmatians. After the puppies are stolen there is an image of a newspaper front page. Under the headline "15 puppies are dognapped from home" there is an account of the Bump. [13]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Neil V. Rosenberg, "The Springhill Mine Disaster Songs: Class, Memory, and Persistence in Canadian Folksong," Northeast Folklore (2001), Vol. 35, pp 153-187.


  • SOS! Canadian Disasters, a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada
  • Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Fay Greene
  • "La Mine", by folk group Le Vent du Nord

External links[edit]