The Heritage Corner, Springhill Record

February 15, 2006

Feb. 15, 2006 – Boy Miners

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s young boys who didn’t want to go to school had to get a job. This being a mining community, the logical place to work was in the mines. In those early days some of the boys were as young as 8 but a lot were from the ages of 13 to 16. In 1890, the number of boys working in the mines, in Nova Scotia , was over eleven hundred.

The boys were used for a lot of different jobs done in the mines like loading the newly cut coal into boxes which were used to move the coal out of the mines. Others would unload these boxes when they came down from the miner’s workplace and then send the empty one back to be filled again. They were called “brakemen” and “landing tenders”. The older boys drove the horses that pulled the boxes to the slope.

The youngest boys had the job of sitting by the trap doors all day, mostly in the dark, and opening and closing the door for the drivers hauling the boxes. These boys were called “Trappers”.

Those young miners who worked on the surface would distribute picks, run errands, tend the horses, filled powder cans and cleaned the miners’ lamps. They also sorted and cleaned the coal.

The boys at that time earned a lesser amount of money than the other miners with the lowly trapper taking home 25 cents a day and some of the older boys getting as much as 65 cents a day. The money they earned, if they lived at home, was generally given to their parents and they would get a small allowance.

The young boys were more likely to strike then the men and the strikes only lasted one or two days but in 1906 they were on strike for 10 days. This put a lot of hardship on the men who had families.

If a boy was ambitious he could work his way up and at the age of 18 could take his place as a miner. Most of these boys, if they survived the many mine accidents that occurred, would work in the mines until their retirement.

School attendance was compulsory in 1883 but only for those between the ages of 7 and 12 and for only eighty days a year. There was no real enforcement of this law until 1923 when legislation was brought in that boys under the age of 16 could no longer work in the mines.

These young boys were very inexperienced and therefore, more prone to accidents. In 1882 a boy was crushed by a roof fall, a boy’s nose was split when he was kicked by his horse in 1883 and in the same year a boy was killed when he was run over by a coal box..

In 1891 there was an explosion in the Springhill Mines and a total of 17 young boys 16 and under lost their lives. The youngest was Joseph Dupre, aged 12. The following is a list of the other boys: Alexander Bunt, 15; George Bond, 13; Ernest Chandler. 16; Willard Carter, 13; John Dunn, 13; Thomas Davis; 15; Roger Ernest, 15; James Johnson, 16; George Martin, 14; David McVey, 16; James McVey, 14; James Peguinot, 15; Bruce Ryan, 14; Philip Ross, 14; Murdock Ross, 16; and Peter Reid, 13.

During the explosion of 1891 these young boys displayed many acts of heroism and although it has been told over and over through the years, I think it is worthy of being retold here.

John Beaton, 17, who was traveling with a rescue party, ran on ahead when he neared the place where his 13 year old brother was working. Found his brother badly injured but still alive, carried him on his back unassisted.

Danny Robertson, 14, who was driving a load of empty boxes, was badly burned about the hands and arms from the flames. His horse Jenny was killed instantly. On trying to find his way out, he heard the cries of a smaller boy, Justin Terris, and went to his aid. He couldn’t lift him because of the burns so he carried him piggy back to safety. He then tried to re-enter the level to search for his brother. The rescuers wouldn’t let him and Dannie was taken home on a sled but walked into the house so he wouldn’t alarm his mother.

The young boys continued to work in the mines until the legislation was brought in, in 1923, forbidding boys under the age of 16 to work in the mine.