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Springhill Mining Disasters - 1891, 1956 and 1958

Coal mining in Springhill, Nova Scotia began shortly after the community was settled in the early 19th century. A small mine was opened in 1834 and larger-scale mining started in 1872. Explosive coal dust -- a fine powder produced during the mining process -- and methane gas trapped inside coal deposits made for a dangerous combination, and three major explosions at the Springhill mine, in 1891, 1956 and 1958, claimed the lives of local men and boys. In addition, the town lost 182 men in over 125 accidents between the 1891 and 1956 explosions.

In the February 21, 1891 explosion at the Springhill mine, 125 men and boys were killed. The second major explosion at the mine occurred on November 1, 1956 in number 4 pit. Fire and a methane gas explosion hindered rescue efforts so that while 88 miners were rescued, 39 died.

The third major explosion at the Springhill mine happened on October 23, 1958 in number 2 pit, shortly after 8 p.m. as the afternoon shift was at work. The pit, opened in 1873, was the only remaining colliery in Springhill and was also the deepest coal mine in North America. It extended over 14,000 feet (4,200 metres) to the bottom of the mine. A "bump", the miners' term for an underground earthquake, shook the mine and the town above. The result was that 174 miners were trapped in the mine. In parts of the mine the ceiling was compressed into the floor and contact with miners below 7,800 feet (2,340 metres) level was cut off.

Photograph of a row of three buildings equipped with large smokestacks, number 1 slope, Springhill mine, Nova Scotia, 1897


Surface buildings, no. 1 slope, Springhill mine, Nova Scotia, 1897

Large pockets of methane gas meant that draegermen, men specially trained for mine rescues, had to be used for the rescue efforts. They had special breathing equipment that promised the greatest chance of success. The draegermen were mostly miners themselves, and many had assisted with the 1956 rescue efforts. Still, the gas was so heavy it smothered the safety lamps used by the draegermen. Further, the damage from the explosion meant that tunnels had been reduced to crawl spaces and barefaced rescuers had to lie down to clear a passageway.

By morning, 81 miners had been freed. As October 25th dawned, officials believed that any men still below the surface were dead. Rescue efforts continued, however, and on October 29th, rescuers heard a voice from one of a group of 12 miners who had been trapped in a dungeon for six days. Three of these miners were survivors of the 1956 explosion. Saving these men meant tunneling through 25 metres of coal as small bumps continued. Seven more miners, the last survivors, were out by 9:15 a.m. on November 1st.

It was a magnificent rescue. Although 74 miners died, 100 were saved. The rescuers' efforts were recognized when they were awarded the Royal Humane Association Gold Medal for bravery in lifesaving, the first time the medal had been awarded to a group.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission presented a gold medal and bronze plaque to the rescuers and five of them were awarded Scout Silver Crosses.

Deemed too dangerous for operations to continue, the Springhill mine closed in 1959. Today, the abandoned coal mines of Springhill provide geothermal energy for various industries in the area.

Newspaper article: 50 BODIES FOUND; 24 MISSING