Articles

A COAL TOWN FIGHTS FOR ITS LIFE

Bloody strikes and stark depression failed to conquer the proud miners of Glace Bay, N.S., but now they’re facing new trials because of cheaper coal from the U.S. and the onslaught of oil, gas and hydro power

David MacDonald March 15 1954
Articles

A COAL TOWN FIGHTS FOR ITS LIFE

Bloody strikes and stark depression failed to conquer the proud miners of Glace Bay, N.S., but now they’re facing new trials because of cheaper coal from the U.S. and the onslaught of oil, gas and hydro power

David MacDonald March 15 1954

A COAL TOWN FIGHTS FOR ITS LIFE

Bloody strikes and stark depression failed to conquer the proud miners of Glace Bay, N.S., but now they’re facing new trials because of cheaper coal from the U.S. and the onslaught of oil, gas and hydro power

David MacDonald

LIFE IN Glace Bay, an inelegant old town that sprawls across the south eastern edge of Cape Breton Island, revolves around the strident screecled of a colliery whistle. The whistle may signal the beginning of a day or the end of a shift. It may also signal disaster in the mines and bring the women and the children flocking to the black hole of the pithead to stand silently waiting. It is a hard, tough life and the way the world is turning ii 1954 it may be a life that is coming to an end for many of the miners.

For today, after triumphing over a hundred years of blood and tears an strikes and depression, Glace Bay is facing new t rials. It’s up against stiffe competition from United States coal, and has three new enemies, oil, gas an( hydro-electric power. Close to five thousand of the town’s working force o seven thousand men earn their living in the mines. From the Dominion Coa Company, one arm of the gigantic Dominion Steel and Coal Corporatior (Dosco) which owns all of Glace Bay’s mines and most, of Cape Breton’s they draw a quarter of a million dollars weekly. But Dosco is rapidly mechanic ing the mines to reduce production costs, in an efFort to retain its markets With fewer men getting out, more coal the number of jobs is shrinking.

Mechanization, even the miners’ own union admits, is needed to save thf industry. Dosco has developed a twenty-ton machine built like a low-slung tank which can literally chew coal from the seam, without the use of explosives, and automatically move it to conveyors for the trip to the surface. In on« minute one machine can rip out eight tons of coal, but. each machine displace* hundreds of miners.

This is the problem faced today in one of the most historically colorful and physically colorless towns in Canada. Here is a place right out, of Wales, reeking of choking coal dust and insecurity, and yet inspired by the fellowship of people who have come through adversity together, whose pride is traceable to the fact, that their mere existence has been desperately hard-won.

Coal is written all over the face of Glace Bay. From head to toe it blackens five thousand workers five days a week and it does the same thing to the town seven days a week. Coal dust chokes its air, stains its buildings and smudge« its Monday wash. Every ton of coal that leaves Glace Bay something over two and a half million tons a year leaves its mark on the town, in one way or another.

But coal is a two-faced ruler that plays queer tricks on the men who live by it. Coal pays the miners anywhere from nine to thirty dollars a day (the average is fifty-six dollars a week), buys their homes and sometimes maims them or kills them. It huilds their schools and hospitals and then, perversely, it sends their sons away to college so they may escape its grasp. “I wouldn’t quit the pit for anything,” a miner will tell you, “but if I can help it, my boy will never work there.”

A Glace Bay miner’s'day begins at 5 a.m. He gets up, has his breakfast, then walks or rides to the mine entrance, changes into his working clothes and enters the mine before people in other towns are up. Mine trains take him to the coal face, a long ride. In some cases his work is ninety minutes away. In some places where the coal seam isn’t very thick he has to work on his belly, slithering along in the dark to get at his work. He works in a hunched-over position all day. He eats his lunch at the coal face. Miners willingly share their food. “Anyt hing in your can, bye?” is a traditional question.

The miner finishes work about 3 p.m., then begins the long ride back to daylight. He goes to the washhouse, strips down, gets rid of most of the hlack, and he goes home to wash again.

The most singular fact about Glace Bay, perhaps, is that f he mines run far out under the Atlantic. When the French owned Cape Breton early in the eighteenth century they dug coal to heat their mighty stone fortress at nearby Louisbourg. Coal then was relatively easy to get at, for the black seams cropped up close to the surface. But each foot of coal that was taken out pushed the coal face that much farther back. The seams retreated down and out under the sea. Succeeding generations of miners have followed them until, today, with four mines branching seaward from the town and several more hard by, Glace Bay is the centre of the largest undersea mining operation in the world.

The biggest mine, Dominion No. IB, is a mess of crazily slanting streets that stretches five miles under the ocean. It covers ten square miles and is getting bigger. The men who inhabit it are ghostly figures with Cyclops-eye lanterns on their heads. Its noises are the roar of mining machinery, the clatter of underground trains and t he clop-clop of sturdy work horses that see daylight only two weeks of the year.

“It doesn’t matter what you do here,” says Leo McIntyre, a young Glace Bay lawyer, “it doesn’t matter whether you’re a doctor with a big practice or a shoeshine boy with holes in your pants --you live by coal. In The Bay, coal is king.”

Although the days ahead seem dark and uncertain for scores of miners, it’s unlikely they’ll be as bad as they were in 1925 when Glace Bay was a feudal company town. Virtually all housing was owned by the British Empire Steel and Coal Corporation, since reorganized as Dosco. Its houses were poor, even squalid. The miners were “encouraged” to buy their groceries, clothing and furniture—on credit—at the company’s “Pluek-rrtte” stores. Most of them did, and they were constantly in debt. Many believed, rightly or wrongly, that the company had contrived to keep them broke. Moreover, the company was directed in Montreal by what the miners regarded as unbending men to whom mine deaths and injuries were statistics for the annual report.

Early in 1925 the miners demanded a ten percent increase in pay. The company replied that a ten percent cut was planned. Both sides used the same argument: times were tough. On March 2, after conciliation efforts failed, the company suddenly announced it was cutting off all credit in its stores. The miners were furious and a union official warned that they might take matters into their own hands. Four days later twelve thousand miners in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick laid down their picks and one of the worst strikes in Canadian history began, with Glace Bay its centre.

After three months they were still idle and by June hundreds of families were hungry, and women and children fell ill. Suddenly all the pent-up bitterness of the past burst forth violently. Riots broke out. Miners with sticks and stones clashed with armed company guards and provincial police. In one skirmish forty men were injured and one striker, William Davis, was shot and killed. Riots spread to New Aberdeen, an outlying section of The Bay. Police were dragged from their horses and beaten. In and around Glace Bay the company stores were looted in midnight raids by mobs of up to a thousand men. Then they were burned to the ground.

William Davis, the obscure miner who was killed, was buried with the largest funeral in Cape Breton’s history, attended by five thousand silent men. A statue was erected in Davis’ honor and he became regarded as the “martyr of the miners.” The anniversary of his death is still kept as a contract holiday in honor of all dead miners.

Soldiers arrived in Cape Breton from Toronto, and Glace Bay passed from mob rule to martial law. Ringed with barbed wire, the mines stayed idle until early August when the strike ended with both sides agreeing to hold the wage level where it was. It had cost 1,478,700 man-days of work—eightyfour percent of the total time lost by Canadian industry in 1925.

Out of such terrible times has come the pride of Glace Bay which rankles under the gibes cast by the rest of Canada at its shabby exterior. In the late Thirties merchants on Main and Commercial Streets were miffed to discover that most of the traveling salesmen weren’t stopping overnight in The Bay but in Sydney, twelve miles away. So they got together, raised one hundred thousand dollars and built the community-owned twenty-five-room Glace Bay Hotel. After that, a traveler who didn’t patronize it couldn’t sell a diamond for a dollar.

In the same period, Sydney built

Cape Breton’s first artificial ice rink. Glace Bay promptly took up a collection—ten dollars a share—and built the Miners’ Forum, “the biggest and best in Cape Breton.” The rink has never paid back the loans and no one has ever complained.

Hockey in The Bay is both an industry and a madness. Keeping the Miners in the four-team Maritime Major Hockey League costs Glace Bay anywhere from a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars (three seasons ago) to eighty thousand, which it paid last year. With a rink that seats only three thousand people it can’t hope to meet expenses from gate receipts. Off-season pools and lotteries make up the deficits. Some players draw as much as two hundred dollars a week, twice what they might command in less passionate leagues. Glace Bay fans don’t care. They’ll do anything to win.

Glace Bay’s pride reflects itself in other ways. Most towns are as anxious to be designated as cities as an elevenyear-old boy is to get his first pair of long pants. Not The Bay. It was for years, until the 1951 census, the biggest town in Canada. Once in the Thirties and once in the Forties the people voted to remain a town, just because they enjoyed the distinction. The 1951 census showed The Bay’s population to be slightly in excess of twenty-five thousand, five hundred, a trifle under the population of Timmins, another overgrown mining town. Nevertheless, Glace Bay’s slogan is still “The Biggest Town in Canada.”

Nostalgia At Senator’s Corner

The Bay is actually a collection of small communities—Bridgeport, New Aberdeen, Caledonia, Passchendaele, McKay’s Corner and The Hub—that grew up around mine entrances. The town’s area covers sixty-four hundred acres, half as big again as Halifax, which has four times The Bay’s population and many times its wealth. Most of the streets are unpaved, alternately rutty or muddy because the town is so sprawling that it cannot afford the luxury of asphalt streets and concrete sidewalks.

The heart of its six communities is Senator’s Corner, the T-shaped intersection of Main and Commercial Streets. Years ago Senator’s Corner was noted less as a business hub than as a place for fighting. It accommodated some of the most monumental brawls in Cape Breton’s history. In Each Man’s Son, a novel about Glace Bay, native son Hugh MacLennan describes how shouting miners would pour out onto the Corner from adjacent saloons and begin clouting one another while a Salvation Army band tried to make itself heard. Elsewhere MacLennan cited the tale of a miner who called on a colliery doctor at three o’clock one Sunday morning. “It iss a shame to be waking you out of your bed,” he said softly, “but I must ask your help for the chentleman I wass fighting hass just bitten off the end of my nose.”

The Corner is still a favorite meeting place and no one in The Bay is ever too busy to stop there and talk awhile with Big Cy MacDonald, a big man in his sixties with a red cheery face, a cigar and a bagful of stories. Aside from odd jobs, his chief occupation is hanging around Senator’s Corner spreading the folklore of Cape Breton. His favorite topic is Glace Bay. “Byes,” he declares, flicking the ash from his cigar, “I’ve been everywhere. And let me tell you, byes, as one of God’s chosen people—a MacDonald—they’s not a place in this world can touch The Bay.”

Big Cy is one of twenty-two hundred chosen people in Glace Bay. “Being a MacDonald here,” a MacDonald once said, “is the next thing to being anonymous.” The number of common Christian names further complicates matters. For instance, in the Glace Bay telephone book, which lists four thousand names, there are twentyseven John MacDonalds, seven of them John J. There are thirteen Dan MacDonalds, four of them Dan A. Nicknames solve the problem. Everyone knows the mayor as Danny the Baker and a namesake on his council as Danny Scathan (Gaelic for herring). Heavy duplication among the other clans—the hundreds of McIntyres, MacNeils, Camerons and Maclsaacs —results in such sobriquets as Donald the Boo, Randy the Bear, Potato Dan, and his son Jack Spud; Little Rory the Fisherman and Father Danny Kink MacDonald. Years ago a Glace Bay miner found in his pay envelope after the checkoff, two cents; his descendants are still known as the Bigpays. Other names from the past are Money Mick, Malcie Ironsides, Hector the Itch and Stinking Annie.

Almost all of Glace Bay’s workingmen hold cards in District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America which is ruled firmly by Freeman Jenkins, a forty-one-year-old ex-miner who gets thirteen thousand dollars a year for running the district. There are seven UMW locals in the Glace Bay area, all hotbeds of parliamentary debate where you can get an argument on the time of day.

This rugged school of debate prepared Clarie Gillis, a stocky lanternjawed miner, for the House of Commons to which he was elected in 1940. He is there yet, as the CCF member for Cape Breton South. When Gillis, a pit boy at thirteen and a striker at fourteen, was first elected, his friends gave him a shovel, the last he used as a miner. “Hang that up in the office,” one man told him. “Any time your job seems discouraging remember it can never be as bad as No. 2 colliery.” In 1938 District 26 was the first labor union in Canada to align with the CCF. Four years later it started Canada’s first labor daily newspaper. The Glace Bay Gazette championed the miners’ cause for six years, lost a hundred and thirty-one thousand dollars and was sold. For awhile it was

continued as a weekly, then it folded.

As in most union towns, Glace Bay’s miners have the checkoff, the system whereby such items as union dues, hospital and doctor bills, unemployment insurance and income taxes are lopped off their pay before they get it. Church collections and even town taxes come from the checkoff.

In 1720 French soldiers gave Glace Bay its name, in tribute to the ice that covered it in winter. After the French were driven from Louisbourg and the island passed into British hands, it remained almost vacant until the early 1780s when a tide of Scottish Highlanders swept across the sea to New Scotland. They became farmers, fishermen and, later, miners.

A Great Future Loomed

Cape Breton’s coal industry was too competitive to be profitable until it came under the hand of Henry Whitney, a bewhiskered Boston financier. In 1893 Whitney bought out many of the small independent mining outfits and shaped them into the Dominion Coal Company. He boasted that his mines could yield three million tons of coal a year for a thousand years. The lure of such long-term employment brought hundreds of Cape Bretoners flocking to Glace Bay. The town wasn’t ready for the rush. Every day scores of men trooped into town from all over the island, from Newfoundland and even Europe. Eighteen vast boarding houses were hammered up to shelter fourteen hundred men, two to a bed. They weren’t enough. Hundreds more lived in crude squatters’ shacks, flung together with wood, cardboard and tin. Nine men kept house in an abandoned railway baggage car. The mines, working full tilt twenty-four hours a day, cast a pall of grime over The Bay that it has never been able to erase. But dirty as it was, The Bay became a roisterous exciting mining town, alive with ambitions of becoming a great industrial city.

Glace Bay’s growing pains were compounded by labor troubles. As early as 1870 the miners of Cape Breton were organized by the Provincial Workmen’s Association, one of Canada’s first labor unions. In 1906 the United Mine Workers of America, then spreading through United States coal fields, moved in and tried to seize power from the PWA, which had become, in effect, a “company union.” Determined to crush the UMW, the coal companies imported labor detectives to join the new union and spy on it. One was a man named Beale.

Working in the pits, attending secret meetings, Beale found out and reported the names of UMW organizers. Promptly fired, driven from their homes and blacklisted from all mines on the island, they had to move away. Clarie Gillis, Glace Bay’s coal miner MP, was a boy of ten when his family was evicted because his father was a union organizer. They lived in church basements and a tent for the winter.

At a UMW strike meeting in Glace Bay in 1909 Beale himself was unmasked. When a group of men moved toward him, hatred in their eyes, Beale yanked out a revolver.

“Keep away!” he screamed. “She’s loaded!” The miners kept coming. The informer opened fire, shouting, “I told you she was loaded!” He killed two men and wounded two more. A judge acquitted him on grounds of self-defense. After his trial Beale moved to western Canada, changed his name and sent taunting letters back to acquaintances in Glace Bay.

Until 1925 relations between the miners and the company grew steadily worse and were climaxed by the terrible strike that year. But however tragic that strike was, it marked a turning point in Glace Bay’s history. From it developed a pattern of better pay and better labor relations. For one thing, the coal company broke from its tradition of absentee management and began choosing officials who had worked in the mines themselves and understood the peculiar problems of miners. Today Harold Gordon, a one-time pit boy from Glace Bay, is its general manager.

The miners, too, did a lot to improve things. Under the guidance of the Extension Department of St. Francis Xavier University, at Antigonish, N.S., many of them formed co-operative stores and credit unions—co-op banks —which gave them some sense of independence and more value for their money. A few even built their houses co-operatively. From People’s Schools, also conducted by priests from St. FX, emerged a new kind of labor leaders who used reason, not emotion, in their locals and around the bargaining table. Small beefs, which previously had flared into big issues, were settled quickly, reducing strikes and walkouts by seventy percent.

A good example of the new order that developed in the miners’ union is its president, Freeman Jenkins, the short stocky son of a Glace Bay coal miner. In 1947 he kept his men on strike for a hundred days to win, without any violence and a minimum of name-calling, a seven-dollar-a-week raise. A few years later when fifteen hundred miners in New Waterford staged a wildcat walkout he threatened to expel them unless they went back to work. They went back.

But by 1951 ominous warnings were issuing from the Dominion Coal Company’s offices in Sydney: unless more

coal was produced in Cape Breton some of the mines would have to be closed. This is why: During World War II,

when coal was as vital to the war effort as gold, Ottawa subsidized the Maritime mines heavily, saying, in effect, “Give us coal—at any cost.” The coal was produced but the cost was economic efficiency. Production a manshift in 1939 had been 2.7 tons. By 1945 it was down to 1.6 tons.

When the war ended, so did the honeymoon. The mines once more had to compete for markets and the markets were shrinking with the expanding popularity of cheap hydro-electric power, oil and gas. Production costs had gone up. Making the outlook even darker was the fact that where coal could be sold in large quantities in Ontario and Quebec — cheap American coal was underselling the Canadian product. American coal was—and still is—used to heat even the parliament buildings in Ottawa. The Cape Breton mines, then, had to produce more coal than ever before, and at less cost, or become part of the island’s folklore.

Early last year Glace Bay began to feel again the pinch of unemployment. One of its mines, Dominion No. 24, petered out of coal and was shut down. Half of its miners were rehired to work in the town’s largest mine, No. IB. The others were out of luck. Then, on June 13, No. IB was closed temporarily while modern coal-digging machinery was installed. More than twelve hundred men were thrown out of work. Glace Bay responded characteristically by passing the hat. Soon miners who had jobs began chipping in to help those who hadn’t. Merchants carried old customers on credit. Out of these spontaneous efforts grew the Miners’ Assistance Committee which collected six thousand dollars and doled it out weekly to the neediest cases.

The Ledgers Grew Red

By December, The Bay still had eleven hundred idle men. The loss of checkoff money had reduced one hospital’s revenue by eleven hundred dollars a week, putting it in the red. The same was true of churches. The town hall was twenty-two thousand dollars behind in tax collections, six thousand on light bills and three thousand for water. Its budget of forty-two thousand six hundred dollars for welfare work had long been exhausted. Moreover, the merchants who carried idle miners on credit had been forced to put up “Cash Only” signs, or lay off some of their own employees.

But the miners hung on, helped greatly by donations to the Miners’ Assistance Committee and today things are slowly beginning to look up for The Bay. Half of the eleven hundred men who were thrown out of work when No. IB closed have since returned to the big pit, to work with the twentyton mechanical monsters.

When a miner complained recently that mechanization of the mines is going to mean fewer underground jobs, Freeman Jenkins replied, “All right, supposing we throw away our pan shovels and all use spoons. Then there’ll be work for ten times as many men. But nobody will make any money and the industry will die. It’s far better to have a stable industry employing nine thousand than a sick one employing twelve.”

There are signs that the company and the union are tackling their problem together. Last fall one of Glace Baÿ’s locals drew up a list of suggestions for Dominion Coal Company on how to boost production. And a few months ago miners all over the Maritimes agreed not to make any more money demands on their companies for two years.

Thus, in Glace Bay today, the miners who worked and fought together in the past are facing their greatest test. They are trying to save their livelihood and the town they’d all hate to leave.

Mayor MacDonald, among others, is sure they’ll succeed. “These men who can work miles under the ground, ’way out under the ocean,” he says, “—they’ve got something besides coal on their faces. They’ll pull The Bay through.” if