In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia Down in the dark of the Cumberland mine There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie In the roads that never saw the sun nor sky.
In the roads that never saw the sun nor sky.
—The Ballad of Springhill by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger
Thirty years ago this week, on Oct. 23, 1958, the regular night shift at the No. 2 Colliery in Springhill, N.S., op-
erated by Dominion Coal and Steel Co., went down to the roads that never saw the sun nor sky at 3 p.m. The miners travelled by trolley through the gloom toward the coal face 2½
miles from the pithead. The mine had already been exhibiting signs of upheaval; five hours later, at 8:05 p.m., as the 174 men labored in the subterranean heat, a violent spasm shook the tunnel. It buckled wildly, coal and rubble crashed onto the workers, and debris blocked the tunnel. When the earth stopped moving, more than 75 men lay dead or dying. Another 61 were trapped. Within 24 hours,
42 of those 61 miners reached safety, filthy and rattled but unscathed. Then, for another eight days, res-
cuers clawed their way toward those men the newspapers would later call “The Miracle Miners,” the remaining survivors of the worst mining disaster in Canada since the First World War. Across the country, Canadians listening in to round-the-clock radio coverage of the rescue operation on many stations shared the joy of Springhill families as 19 men eventually reached the surface alive.
Three decades later, Springhill has long abandoned its search for coal. Its once-rich seams had been depleted by the time of the disaster. Springhill miners worked only small seams, intermittently, after 1958; the No. 2 Colliery was Dominion’s last operating col-
liery in Springhill and after the disaster, it closed. In 1971, water flooded the last working seam—known as the Syndicate Mine—and mining ended. Now, the town is perhaps better known as the birthplace of singer Anne Murray, and new enterprises have moved in. Many of the 4,700 residents work at the Springhill Medium Security Institution or the Surrette Battery Co. Ltd., both established in the 1960s.
But Springhill has not forgotten the days of coal mining—or the disaster. A mu-
seum stands on the site of the abandoned Syndicate Mine. The White Miner, a sevenfoot-high statue of white marble on a 25-foot pedestal, looms over Main Street in Miners’ Memorial Park. Three smaller memorials around its base commemorate the victims of previous major disasters in 1891 and 1956 as well as the one in 1958. Local 4514 of the United Mine Workers, now consisting entirely of workers on pension, still holds monthly meetings at Miners’ Hall on the grounds of the memorial park. Last June 11, on the annual Miners’ Memorial Day, Springhill solemnly marked the 30th anniversary of the
1958 disaster—and unveiled five new monuments to honor the victims of other mishaps from 1876 to 1969. As local historian Mary Willa Littler, 37, told Maclean’s: “Coal cannot be forgotten around here. If it has not affected your household, it has affected the household next to you.”
Almost since Springhill’s beginning, its residents have lived with the dangers of coal mining. United Empire Loyalists founded the town, 35 km from the New Brunswick border, in 1820, and the first surface mine opened in 1834. In 1872, the Springhill and Parrsboro Coal and Railway Co. Ltd. dug
shafts, opened a rail line and began largescale coal extraction. The earth quickly began to exact its toll: between 1876 and 1969, 441 miners lost their lives in the town’s seven mines. In the worst single disaster, 125 miners died in an explosion in 1891. In November, 1956, a gas explosion killed 39 men in No. 4 Colliery, but 88 trapped miners escaped in dramatic rescues.
Shortly after the 1956 explosion, No. 2 Colliery showed disturbing signs of underground turmoil, which the miners blamed on pressures that built up as the coal was removed. In the succeeding months, six major upheavals—known to miners as “bumps,” but similar to earthquakes—rumbled through the shaft, but work continued. Then, on the morning of Oct. 23, 1958, a small bump sent coal and stone crashing down on alarmed miners working the day shift, inflicting minor injuries on several of them. Later, the eighth bump brought disaster.
Cecil Colwell, now in his late 70s, was among the injured when the smaller bump rocked the mine that morning. Colwell, who suffered an arm injury, went home to dress the wound. He was still there when he felt the earth move. He and other miners who were not on shift immediately returned to the pit to find that the tunnels had collapsed. Later, rescuers found the bodies of 74 miners, crushed amid the dust and debris. Another died in hospital later, and 38 had escaped from the mine. But 61 miners were still trapped deep below the surface of the earth.
Throughout the night, Colwell and the other rescuers clawed through the fallen rubble, passing buckets of stone and coal through a 30-inch-high passage. Colwell recalls that, at the time, the rescuers never doubted that they would find their friends alive. By morning, they had cleared 43 feet of the tunnel— and brought 42 men to the surface.
The effort, involving hundreds of volunteers, went on to find the other 19. After three days of entombment in the eerie darkness, a group of 12 men received fresh air pumped into the tunnel by rescuers who forced hoses down old ventilation shafts. After six days, they could hear their friends’ frantic efforts to reach them. While the rescuers tunnelled the final 73 feet to them, the men were fed liquids through a hose. On the seventh day, all 12 were carried out on coal trolleys, amid the cheers from the crowd assembled at the pithead.
Another trapped miner, Barney Martin, now 72, had just finished supper when the bump rumbled through the workings. “I knew it right along that the mine wasn’t safe,” Martin says now. “Some miners were jolly, but I was always telling them that one of these days it was going to give us a good one.” Two of Martin’s co-workers died that night. Martin escaped death by inches: a sandstone supporting wall prevented the coal and debris from burying him alive. But he was severely injured by stones and coal, which “just burst right off the wall.”
Alone in the blackness, without food or
water, Martin never lost hope. Nine days later, on Nov. 1, when his rescuers finally dragged him into daylight, wounded and dazed, he had the presence of mind to refuse when a news photographer asked him to remove the bandages from his eyes. “I lost my taste and 1 lost my smell,” Martin said, “and if I had looked into that man’s flash after all those days in pitch dark, I believe that I would be a blind man today.”
But at the time of Martin’s rescue, six miners remained trapped in a pocket in the rubble—and hope was running out. Rescue worker Colwell recalled that company officials warned them to leave the mine because lethal coal gas was rising—and there was danger of an explosion. The rescuers ignored the warnings. Said Colwell: “I always listened to the old-oldtime men who told us that in a bump, you have to trust in God. We did that. But anybody who says we weren’t scared should not be believed.”
Soon afterward, Colwell’s trust was rewarded: he and the other rescue workers suddenly made contact with the she men. The rescued miners were exhausted and ravenous. But, they insisted, they had never lost hope. One of the six men, Maurice Ruddick, a devout Baptist who had eight daughters and five sons, had kept their spirits high, leading them in hymns, while they waited in the darkness for their rescuers.
The rescued men were promptly dubbed “The Miracle Miners”—and they were showered with worldwide attention. Famed folksingers Peggy Seeger from New York City and Ewan MacColl from Scotland immortalized them with The Ballad of Springhill Maurice Ruddick, who died last June at 75, appeared on TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1959, the town of Springhill won the coveted Carnegie medal for heroism.
But most men received little more than fleeting fame. The miners considered the compensation offered them and their families to be woefully inadequate. Hugh Guthro, who was among the group of 12, said that he received no compensation at all. Others, like Martin, received a fraction of their weekly wages. Many left town in search of jobs— Guthro went to Labrador to work on the railway. But soon he—like many others— returned to mining, despite having lived through the disaster. “It didn’t bother me,” said Guthro, who came back to work at the Syndicate Mine. “It was just a way of life.” That way of life is no more. But the town’s mining past continues to live in the memory of many residents. Rescuer Colwell, for one, knows the dangers of the Springhill terrain, the deadly pressure that builds on the walls and the floor and the ceilings as coal is removed from the shaft. “But if I were 10 years younger,” he confided, “ I would try to get someone interested in going down 100 feet further in that mine.” Clearly, the deaths and the disasters that befell Springhill have not erased the allure of the mines.
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