MAYBE KEN MELANSON should have recognized the signs. The rats, after all, had disappeared from Mine No. 4 in Springhill, N.S., a few days earlier. Melanson can’t remember what he was thinking that Nov. 1, 46 years ago, trudging the 1.5 km from home to begin the 3 p.m. shift. The 19-year-old, third-generation colliery-man donned his overalls and pit helmet and climbed onto the trolley car for the 45-minute ride down to the mine face. Everything seemed normal. Until 5:07 p.m., when he felt a powerfull gust of wind blowing through the shaft. That was his first hint that a fireball from an explosion was already rocketing towards the surface, incinerating everything in its path and trapping Melanson and 51 others in the poisonous gas-filled mine more than one kilometre below the surface.
Melanson, 65, who recently retired as a guide at the Springhill Miners Museum, liked to show visitors where the bluish bolt of fire blasted to the surface as if from the depths of hell and then rose 60 m into
the air. At precisely that spot, he and the other survivors—presumed dead for days— miraculously emerged from the mine entrance after 80 hours underground. The most infamous mine disaster in Springhill’s heart-breaking history was still two years off. But the explosion of ’56 was horrific enough, leaving 30 miners buried underground and a total of 39 dead. Among them was Paul Allen, 32, who left behind four children and a wife who had kept a sleepless vigil at the site since hearing the siren wail while seated in church that fateful day. “He was late leaving for his shift,” remembers Sadie Allen, now 82. “The last I ever saw of my husband he was running down the road to get to the mine on time.”
The last of Springhill’s mines, which have claimed the lives of more than 400 men, closed in 1970. Today, the town of 4,200 struggles to get by on a tourism
A fireball trapped 52 men in poisonous gas more than one kilometre below the surface
industry built around local girl Anne Murray and its bygone days as a coal centre when the population was nearly twice as large. “We’ve never given up,” boasts Arnold Burden, 80, a retired doctor who treated the survivors from the 1956 explosion, “no matter what’s happened.”
That’s saying something. Springhill’s spirit has been forged by calamity: an explosion in 1891—some six decades after the discovery of coal transformed the tiny hamlet into a small boom town—killed 125. The Oct. 23,1958, Springhill disaster that imprinted the town’s name as a byword for tragedy—and superhuman bravery and endurance—occurred when an underground geologic shift known locally as a “bump” killed 75 men. They were trapped inside Mine No. 2, as much as four kilometres directly below the surface of what was then North America’s deepest coal mine. Radio reporters from around the world broadcast live from the mine site waiting for word from the 174 men trapped below. All but 19 of the survivors reached the surface within a day. Six days after the bump, rescuers found a dozen men alive, and on the ninth day of the ordeal a rescue team broke through the tunnel and found the remaining miners.
Their story enthralled the world: Prince Philip arrived after the rescue to encourage the survivors. A disaster relief fund swelled to $2 million as contributions poured in from around the globe. The drama lived on in a tune penned by American folksinger Peggy Seeger lamenting, “There’s blood on the coal and the miners lie/In roads that never saw sun nor sky.”
But that wasn’t the end of the town’s bad luck: in 1975 fire destroyed most of its main commercial street. Recent history hasn’t been much kinder. In the winter of 2000, the local hockey arena collapsed under the weight of accumulated snow. The locals still talk bravely about revival, although it’s hard to see signs of that among boarded-up colliery buildings and the old company homes where the victims of disaster once lived. Still, Sadie Allen, who each year applies a fresh coat of paint on a set of power poles to mark the spot where her husband died, says, “Springhill is a town of survivors.” In a place where tragedy always seems to lurk around the corner maybe that’s triumph enough,
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.