The Heritage Corner, Springhill Record

February 22, 2006

Feb. 22, 2006 – 1891 Mine Explosion

By 1890 the mines in Springhill were working smoothly. There were around 1400 men and boys working in the mines. The mines were in excellent condition and a new engine house had been built. An inspection of the mines was done every day. Then, Mother Coo, a fortune teller from Pictou, predicted that “something dreadful will happen in the mines in May”. After that, because it brought about some uneasiness, Underground Manager Henry Swift had a special examination done by workmen’s committee of practical experts (including William D. Matthews and Thomas Scott) and after examining the mines on February 19, 1891 , pronounced the mines in splendid condition. The following day Deputy Inspector of Mines Madden made his monthly inspection for the government and found it to be one of the safest mines in the province.

Saturday, February 21, 1891 started off as an ordinary workday. 600 men and boys were working that day in the East and West Slopes. The North Slope was idle because there were not enough coal cars available for the three mines. The miners went down underground at the usual hour of 7 A.M. and worked until twelve noon when they stopped for their lunch break. At 12:30 P.M. the men went back to their post and continued to work.

At seventeen minutes to one an explosion occurred in the 1900 foot level of the west side of the East Slope, continued up into the 1300 level, through the stone tunnel to the West Slope. Flames and gases followed. Those in the Number One slope were killed instantly. Those in the other levels who heard the explosion knew what it meant and ran for their lives. Some never made it to safety as they were overtaken with the after damp (a deadly mixture of gas and air after an explosion).

As word of the explosion got out, people started arriving at the mines to see about their loved ones. There were many volunteers to go in the mines to rescue the men and boys. These men who were not only miners but others from the town went into the mines with no thought of their own safety. Some were overcome by the after damp but revived and continued the search.

Manager William Conway on his way to a meeting in Maccan heard of the explosion and immediately returned to Springhill. He had left Underground Manager Henry Swift in charge of the mine that day. Upon reaching Springhill, he immediately went underground to see what the conditions were like, he was overcome by after damp, but when he revived he continued to search the mines. Finally he decided that anything left in the mines was not living and ordered everyone to leave and return after the fumes from the gases had disappeared. They returned to the mines around eleven that evening and started bringing up the remains. John Bentcliffe was one of the first bodies to be brought out of the mines. Underground Manager Henry Swift was the last man to be brought out of the mines. He was also the last man to be buried. The possession to the cemetery was three quarters of a mile long.

The company carpenter shop was used as a temporary morgue. For the next 5 days the building was never empty.

121 men and boys were killed instantly or within minutes of the explosion. There were 17 injuries with 4 of them being fatal. The loss of 125 men and boys changed the town forever.

An inquest was held on February 23 rd and continued on Feb. 24 th when it was adjourned until March 10 th. At the conclusion of the inquest it was noted that the company was not to blame but it made recommendations that: where safety lamps are to be used, and in dusty places that powder should not be allowed; in gaseous places, before the men returned to their place of work after dinner, it should be examined by an official; and that a Shaw machine for testing gas should be bought.

A relief fund was set up and in three months $86,000 was raised. In total $140,000 was collected. This money provided for the relief of fifty-seven widows, one hundred sixty-nine children and eight widowed mothers for a total of fourteen years.

After the explosion some of the families moved away but a good many of the miners remained and when the mines reopened they went back to work.

On March 4, 1891 the following ad appeared in the Halifax Morning Herald: “Wanted at once, one hundred miners, to work in the Springhill Collieries”

In memory of those who lost their lives in the 1891 Explosion it was decided that a monument would be erected. This monument was completed in 1894.