Today’s pit stop on The Great Canadian Road Trip takes us to the small town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. Springhill was formed over two hundred years ago. It sits adjacent to the New Brunswick border in the northwest quadrant of the Nova Scotia mainland. It boasts a population of approximately 2500 people today, but at one time well over 5000 people called Springhill home, including its most famous citizen, singer Anne Murray. However, today’s post is not about Anne Murray. Today’s post is about the one thing that put Springhill on the map, and that was coal. At one time, Springhill had multiple working coal mines, employing hundreds of workers from Springhill and the surrounding towns and villages of Cumberland County. The coal mining industry was the town’s biggest employer and was the engine that drove the local economy for well over a century. But, as with many things in life, there is balance. What the coal seams gave to the people of Springhill in the form of a resource-based economy, they took away in terms of loss of life. Springhill is the site of three of the world’s biggest mining disasters with well over two hundred husbands, fathers, uncles, sons, brothers and grandfathers killed in a flash of fire and/or under a wall of stone. The writing of today’s post (Feb. 21st) marks the 132nd anniversary of the very first Springhill mining disaster in 1891. There were two others: one in 1956, and then two years later in 1958. The song we will be discussing is aptly titled “Springhill Mining Disaster” and is specifically about the third and final Springhill disaster. Today’s post is about the history of these mining tragedies and why the third one in 1958 caught the attention of the world, including several famous Irish folk singers who have ended up making this song as much a part of Irish musical culture as it is about the coal miners and citizens of Springhill, Nova Scotia. So, pour yourself a cup of “hot”, settle in and get ready for a musical history lesson that is steeped in heroism and loss. Welcome, everyone, to Springhill, Nova Scotia.
Like Springhill, my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, was built upon rich seams of coal. Even though Glace Bay is almost a four hour drive east from Springhill, we share the same geological foundation. For those who may not be aware, coal is a stone that can burn and give off heat. All through my childhood, many homes in my hometown were heated by coal. These homes would have coal chutes built into the sides of their foundations. These coal chutes resembled cellar doors or, in some cases, mailbox flaps. Homeowners would order a delivery of coal and then would heat their homes accordingly. However, because coal is a non-renewable resource and, more to the point, because it is considered a “dirty” fuel in terms of pollution, coal production in Nova Scotia has become almost non-existent. But at one time, coal was every bit as important an industry in Nova Scotia as the fisheries were.
It was also one of the most dangerous industries. Most coal mines are underground mines. These mines often extend for miles beneath the surface of the land (or in the case of my hometown, out under the Atlantic Ocean). Needless to say, hollowing out the earth is an exercise that requires a lot of engineering expertise in order to manage the incredible stresses caused by the weight of the bedrock that remains above the excavated tunnels. Not only are there thousands of tons of weight above the heads of the miners as they work, but another danger lies in the form of the coal itself. Coal gives off methane gas. In such a confined space, methane gas can build up. One spark from an electrical wire or an excavating machine, drill, shovel, etc. can cause the methane gas to ignite which can cause a huge explosion. As well, the air in a coal mine is filled with coal dust, which fills the voids below like a fog. The same sparks that can ignite methane gas can also ignite the airborne coal dust and cause a calamitous explosion, too. So, proper ventilation is critical to the safe operation of any mine anywhere in the world.
The first Springhill Mining Disaster in 1891 was caused when coal dust ignited. 125 miners (including child laborers) perished in the blast. This was one of the worst disasters of its kind in the world at the time. The subsequent commission that looked into the cause of the 1891 explosion was one of the first to recommend improved gas monitoring devices within the mine, as well as the importance of proper ventilation and the safe removal of coal dust to the surface where it could dissipate and/or be disposed of properly.
The second mining disaster in 1956 occurred when a train load of coal dust was being taken out of the mine to the surface. En route, two of the coal dust cars came loose and derailed. The derailment caused an electrical line to arc. The sparks from the line ignited the coal dust causing a massive, forceful explosion that damaged many buildings at the entrance to the mine. Because the derailment happened closer to the surface than it did to the working face of the mine below, the death toll was minimized somewhat with only 39 miners losing their lives. The bulk of that day’s shift were working further from the surface and survived. They were eventually rescued by specialized rescue teams called dragermen.
The final explosion happened in 1958 and was the result of something that sounds rather innocuous called a “bump”. In coal mining parlance, a bump is “an underground seismic event” which essentially causes the floor to heave upwards and the walls and ceiling to lose their structural integrity. A bump basically destroys the tunnels in a mine and buries those working there under tonnes of stone, or else traps them on the other side of collapsed, clogged tunnels. The 1958 bump killed 75 miners instantly and trapped many others. However, there was a new, external factor at play in 1958 which caused this final Springhill mining disaster to receive worldwide attention, and that was the advent of live television broadcasting. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) covered the mine disaster and subsequent rescue attempts live. It was the first time the network had covered a news event in real time before. Their reporting was shared internationally with television networks in the United States as well as the BBC in England. And what drama there was to cover! As it turned out, two separate groups of miners who had been working far underground at the face of the coal seams had survived and were huddled in air pockets behind tonnes of fallen rock that had collapsed and blocked their escape routes. While a nation watched with bated breath, dragermen (rescue crews) descended into the wrecked mine and, after five days of searching, made contact with the trapped men. The discovery of these men so many days after the initial bump sent a wave of relief but also confusion into the community. In a small town like Springhill, all of the trapped and missing miners were known to everyone. They were all someone’s father or son or brother or husband. But, with so many men trapped or unaccounted for, no one could be sure who these trapped miners actually were. Emotions ran high on the surface as everyone waited for news regarding their loved ones below. After a week of being trapped, the miners who had survived the bump ran out of water and food. They were also running out of breathable air. As the world watched, rescue crews bore thin holes through the rock that was blocking the tunnels and managed to slide pipes from one side of the cave-in to the other and were able to pump in fresh air. Soon thereafter, enough of the rock was cleared away that the two groups of trapped miners were able to be rescued. Nineteen men were rescued in all. Nineteen families had a happy reunion with those they loved. The nineteen rescued miners became the first instant celebrities in the world of modern broadcasting. Their names and faces were beamed across North America and Europe. The men were given awards for heroism and offered jobs as pitchmen for various companies such as the makers of 7Up pop (which was how one rescued miner answered the question posed to him by CBC reporters as to what was the first thing he wanted to do now that he was back on the surface). The tale of what happened before, during and after the bump was chronicled extremely well in a book called Last Man Out by New York Times reporter Melissa Fay Greene. For a more indepth account of this mining disaster and the impact it had on those involved and the community of Springhill, as a whole, I highly recommend Greene’s book. Check it out here.
As mentioned, the CBC broadcast this event live to the world. While living in Ireland, a singer/songwriter named Peggy Seeger was watching, too. Seeger was greatly moved by the story. To her, it conjured images of men literally digging their own graves. Because she possessed a lyrical mind, Seeger took pen to paper and wrote the lyrics for a song that was simply and aptly named “Springhill Mining Disaster”. At the time that she did this, Seeger was part of the emerging Folk music scene that was enveloping the world. Her brother was famous American folk singer Pete Seeger. Her husband was famous Irish singer and activist, Ewan McColl. The story of what happened in Springhill to the families and to the community, itself, resonated with the Irish who had known their own share of disasters (mainly due to political violence) so they took to Peggy Seeger’s song right away. “Springhill Mining Disaster” became a popular song in Irish Folk circles and was soon covered by anyone and everyone who was part of that scene. One of the most popular versions of the song was the cover sung by Irish singer Luke Kelly. Kelly was one of the original members of the popular Irish group called The Dubliners (named after the James Joyce book). In any case, Luke Kelly possessed the singing voice of a balladeer and was able to best capture the anger and anguish experienced by all those involved in Springhill. It is his version that I will present to you on this day. But just to show you how important a song “Springhill Mining Disaster” became in Ireland, in the mid-1980s, when Irish supergroup U2 was touring in support of their award-winning album, The Joshua Tree, they included Peggy Seeger’s song on their set list at fifteen of their concerts.
When you live in a mining town, you have to be prepared for that inevitable time when something goes wrong underground. To those of us who lived on the surface, the only way we ever knew that the worst had taken place was by way of a siren that would wail at the entrance to the mine in the event of an emergency. One day when I was just a teenager, the shrill whistle of the mine siren sang in my town. There had been an explosion at a mine known as No. 26 colliery. It is hard to explain how the mere sounding of such an alarm can send a chill through an entire town, but it did that day for all of us who lived there. To this day I can still remember the shocking sight of a mass funeral at our hockey arena and how deathly silent it was all throughout the town for days and days afterward. Glace Bay is a chatty town most days, but after the mine whistle sounded, there was no more somber place in the world. I didn’t lose any family members that day, but many around me did. Sometimes it takes tragedies such as the explosion in Glace Bay or the various disasters in Springhill or the one in Westray (sung so eloquently by singer Sarah Harmer when she was just starting her career in a band called Weeping Tile. That song is here.) to make you realize what the word community actually means. We all felt the loss of our miners. However, such events often bring people together. Acts of charity and kindness abounded. We all stood up and reached out to our neighbours in the wake of the No. 26 explosion, just as those families in Springhill did in the 1950s and 1890s. (The Glace Bay choral group The Men of the Deeps sang about the disaster in my hometown. You can listen to it here). I suppose the Irish know a thing or two about community, too. Thus we have the definitive account of a Nova Scotian mine tragedy from a woman in Ireland watching the CBC news.
Although it often goes unsaid, there is nothing more important in the world than family. So hug and kiss and hold close those who make your heart beat. Nothing else truly matters.
The link to the video for the song “Springhill Mining Disaster” by Luke Kelly can be found here.
The link to the official website for Springhill, Nova Scotia can be found here.
The link to the Springhill Miners Museum can be found here.
The link to the Glace Bay Miners Museum (where my wife and I were married, btw) can be found here.
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