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Springhill mining disaster

The Springhill mining disaster is the term often used to refer to three separate Canadian mining disasters which occurred in 1891, 1956, and 1958 in different mines within the Springhill coal field, in close proximity to the town of Springhill in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia.

The mines in the Springhill Coal Field 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 were later bought out by 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 Fire

Springhill's first mining disaster, the 1891 Fire, occurred at approximately 12:30pm AST on Saturday, February 21, 1891 in the Number 1 and Number 2 collieries which were joined by a connecting tunnel at the 1300 foot level (below the surface) when a fire caused by accumulated coal dust swept through both shafts killing 125 miners and injuring dozens more.

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

A subsequent board of inquiry determined that sufficient gas detectors in working order had been present in the 2 collieries, however the ignition source of the explosion was never determined, despite investigators having pinpointed its general location.

1956 Explosion

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 fans on the surface. The flow of air disturbed the dust on the ascending train cars so that it spread throughout the air of the shafts of No. 4. Before the train reached the surface, several of the 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 5500 foot level (below the surface).

The resulting explosion blew up the slope to the surface where the additional oxygen created a massive blast which leveled 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). The majority of devastation occurred to the surface buildings but many miners were trapped in the shaft with the derailed train cars and fallen support timbers and other items damaged by the explosion.

In a show of heroics, Draegermen (rescue miners) and barefaced miners (no breathing equipment) entered the 6100 foot deep shaft of No. 4 to aid their co-workers. In total 88 miners were rescued, but 39 were killed in the explosion. Media coverage of the 1956 explosion was largely overshadowed by the Soviet invasion of Hungary on October 24, 1956. However, Canadian and local media did offer extensive coverage of the second Springhill mining 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 returned to operation.

1958 Bump

The 1958 Bump which occurred on October 23, 1958 was the most severe "bump", or underground earthquake, in North American mining history and devastated the people of Springhill with the casualties it took, and devastated the town: the mines had been the town's economic lifeblood, and were never reopened following the disaster.

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 stratum and the resulting geological stresses upon surrounding bedrock (shale, sandstone, etc. in most coal-bearing strata) can cause the surrounding pillars of 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 long ended more than 4,000 feet below the surface in a massive labyrinth of galleries off the main shafts. In the case of the No. 2 colliery, the mining techniques were 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 7:00pm ADT during the evening shift, but was ignored as this was a somewhat common occurrence. However just over an hour later at 8:06pm ADT 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.

The bump spread as three distinct shock waves, resembling a small earthquake throughout the region, alerting residents on the surface for a wide area to the disaster. Draeger 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 level walking or limping toward the surface. Gas released by the bump was encountered in increasing concentrations at the 13,800 foot level where the ceiling had collapsed and rescuers were forced to work down shafts that were in partial state of collapse or were blocked completely by debris.

Any miners who weren't covered either in side galleries or some other shelter were immediately crushed during the bump, the coal faces having been completely destroyed. By 4:00am October 24, 1958 75 of the survivors were on the surface. 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. 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 on Cape Breton Island and 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 rockfall. A rescue tunnel was dug and broke through to the trapped miners at 2:25am AST on Thursday, October 30, 1958.

On Friday, October 30, 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 Sunday, November 1, 1958 an additional group of survivors were 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 below ground.

Of the 174 miners in No. 2 colliery at the time of the bump, 74 were killed and 100 trapped but eventually rescued.

The rescuers were awarded the Royal Humane Association Gold Medal for bravery in lifesaving, the first time the medal had been awarded to a group.

Aftermath and representations in popular culture

The aftermath of the 1958 Bump had a profound effect on the town but 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 2 groups of miners who had been trapped until Thursday and Sunday respectively. In asking survivor Douglas Jewkes what he wanted most, he replied "A 7-Up." Following this high-profile media event and unexpected "plug" the 7-Up company hired the miner as a spokesman.
  • Another miner, Maurice Ruddick, was chosen as Canada's "Citizen of the Year".
  • Several miners and their rescuers were invited onto the Ed Sullivan Show.
  • The Governor of Georgia Marvin Griffin took advantage of the intense media coverage to promote tourism to his state by offering a group of survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island. However to the segregationist governor's chagrin, one of the rescued miners -- Ruddick -- was black, resulting in a public relations nightmare.
  • In 2003, U.S. author Melissa Fay Greene retold the story of the disaster and its aftermath in a book Last Man Out (Harcourt, ISBN 0-15-602957-X)
  • The Town of Springhill was awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal recognizing the community involvement needed to save the surviving miners in 1958. To this day, Springhill is the only community to receive the award reserved for individual acts of heroism.

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger composed "The Ballad of Springhill" based on the 1958 disaster. The song, originally performed by MacColl and Seeger as an a cappella duet, was subsequently sung by popular folk revival group Peter, Paul, & Mary. Irish rock stars U2 drew international attention to the memory of the Springhill mining disaster when they included the song in the playlist for their Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 and performed it at fifteen concerts, although Bono did misrepresent the year in the song by saying 88 and not 58 during certain live performances of the song. In an interview after the 1987 performance on a 25th Anniversary TV Show tribute to the Irish band The Dubliners, Bono stated that he learned of the song from hearing a recording of it by Irish folk singer Luke Kelly a member of the Dubliners

Richard Brautigan wrote a poem entitled "The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster."

Footnotes

References

  • 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

External links

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