The Heritage Corner, Springhill Record

Feb. 18, 2009

Feb. 18, 2009 – Mine Disaster of 1891

Here is an article which appeared in the Feb. 23, 1939 addition of the Springhill Record on the Feb. 21, 1891 Explosion in the coal mines.

Recall Explosion that Claimed 125 Lives

G.F. Hannah

Forty-eight years ago this month, the Town of Springhill and the world at large were startled by the tragic announcement that an explosion had occurred in the deep and darksome pit at the west side of the east slope of the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company’s collieries. Being one of the most appalling calamities known in the history of coal mining disaster settled in the Springhill coal mine which is located on the highest inhabited peak of the Cobequid Mountains. In a very short time, the mine filled with poisonous gas and flames and proved to be the funeral pyre of 125 miners.

Bright Day

February 21, 1891 dawned bright and clear in Springhill and while joyous people were enjoying the Gay Ninety period Springhillers went about their daily task with a spirit in keeping with the thankful clear day. Little did the inhabitants realize that soon a great catastrophe would befall them and rob them of loved ones.

There was great concern for the safety of the miners when an old woman, “Mother Coo”, believed to be from Pictou County, prophesied that “something would happen about the mines in May.” As a safety measure a committee was immediately appointed to make a thorough inspection of the mine. A seven o’clock in the morning of Thursday, February 19, the inspection was begun and lasted until one o’clock in the afternoon. No cause for alarm was discovered and the populace rested once more.

On the morning of Saturday, February 21, 600 men and boys descended to their work as usual. At 17 minutes past one o’clock on the afternoon of that day a great blast came, the report of which was heard like sullen thunder, resounding through many portions of the mine.

“Explosion at the mine!” was the cry and the startling news spread throughout the town like wildfire. The inhabitants rushed to the mouth of the pit ready to assist in any way that they could and all hopeful that their loved ones were spared.

Terrible Blast

It was evident that a terrible dust explosion had occurred believed it was thought to be caused by too much powder in a charge. It was also evident that the poisonous after-damp had done its work of death in the mine that was believed to be one of the safest coal mines on the continent. The space where the blast did its greatest damage covered an area of 2,000 ft.

Fifteen minutes after the explosion occurred, a volunteer relief party was organized and made their way into the mine. There they found very horrible sights. Bodies were lying around in all directions. Bodies were horribly mutilated and badly burned. The blast carried away door and stoppings, allowing the fire-damp to escape into the workings. This was followed by flame which swept through to the west slope. Those who were not instantly killed, ran for their lives in the terrible darkness with the din of falling rood and crashing timbers above them.

An eye-witness described it: “Falls of stone and coal, cars all blown to pieces, rails bent like hoops and general destruction – very smoky, and dead men and boys lying in all directions!”

The general belief by the mine management was that another explosion might occur and so the search for the living and dead was delayed for two hours.

Were Fortunate

Great though the loss of life was experts at the time considered that the town was fortunate in that the explosion was not more serious. In one section of the mine, a fire consisting of some wood and clothing was discovered. Had it been allowed to burn a short time longer the consequences would have been more serious.

During the five days the bodies were being taken out of the mine, many of the scenes at the carpenter’s shop, at the mouth of the east slope, which was used as a morgue, were heart-rending and shall never be forgotten by the spectators.

Town Horror Stricken

Days later when the horror stricken town returned to normal pursuits, it was found that the dead numbered 125, and there were 54 widows and 160 orphans. Within three months $36,000 was contributed to the relief fund. Later this fund reached the amount of $140,000 which was carefully administered and provided relief for a number of years.

A monument to the memory of those who lost their lives in the Springhill Explosion was unveiled on Sept. 11, 1894, by Sir John Thompson, premier of Canada.

There may be those who are not closely involved in mining circles and therefore, would not be expected to know what fire-damp and after-damp was. Fire-damp is a destructive gas which escapes from coal.

It is tasteless, colourless and odourless and consists of four parts of hydrogen to one of carbon, and about one-half the weight of air. Being lighter than air it naturally rises to the roof of the mine chamber. When mixed with ten times its volume of atmospheric air or twice its volume of oxygen, it becomes violently explosive on the application of an open flame. After-damp follows fire-damp. This gaseous substance consists chiefly of carbonic acid and nitrogen. It is a mixture of gases resulting from the burning of fire-damp. Being heavier than air it falls to the bottom of the mine chamber.

Today, 48 years after the older generation of Springhill still remember the horror of the mine disaster. The mine has kept pace with the modern age and as a result modern equipment abounds throughout and larger and finer buildings have been erected. The Springhill mines are acclaimed to be one of the best equipped mines on the continent. No. 2 mine the “big producer” is now well over 9,000feet in depth and is the deepest coal mine in Canada. A few years after the explosion occurred a portion of the mine caught fire and still burns. This particular section is walled-off with a thick wall and is no way dangerous to the mine.