Nova Scotia’s legacy of coal

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In his prologue to Coal Black Heart, author and journalist John DeMont takes readers back to May 9, 1992, when an underground explosion ripped apart the Westray mine in Pictou County, killing 26 miners. In the days and weeks that he covered the story, DeMont came to realize that coal — a mineral forged from plants that had decayed over millions of years — played a leading role in Nova Scotia’s political, social and business history.

ONE MORNING four days after the Westray explosion, I drove through Stellarton, past what’s left of Mount Rundell — the mansion where the mine manager and his chatelaine once entertained British tycoons, Canadian prime ministers and visiting royalty. Past the long- closed mine entrances and what remained of the coal company shacks. With time, the inexorable forces of “progress” and global economics had intervened in Pictou County and the other coalfields of Nova Scotia. Capital fled elsewhere. Oil began to replace coal as the choice to power the world’s electrical grid. By then, many of Pictou County’s coalfields were simply exhausted: the collieries too old, deep and expensive to operate; the coal deposit more heavily mined than any comparably sized area anywhere on the continent. A few mines managed to live a hand-to-mouth existence. Eventually, the last miners punched out there too. People drifted away. Businesses closed. As the rest of the world hurtled toward the new millennium, anyone could tell that the towns of Pictou County were redolent of the past, not the future. Even if stories of great drama and heartbreak lingered just below the dust.

It’s an unseasonably warm spring day, as if the land barely remembers what happened just days ago. By the time I arrive, mourners have already filled the white clapboard United Church in the settlement of Eureka, at the forks of the East River. So I stand outside amidst the bulky men with the ill-fitting suits, the women in their Sunday dresses, the haunted-eyed seniors and confused kids. “Amazing Grace” sounds through two loudspeakers mounted outside the church. Birds chirp in the nearby trees. Heads bowed, we listen to the voice of the Reverend Marion Patterson eulogizing Lawrence Bell, twenty-five, whose body was one of the first to be pulled from the Westray mine. Patterson speaks of Bell’s love of hockey and the guitar, his zest for life. “Let us not say goodbye to Larry,” she concludes, “just good night.” Then the five hundred or so mourners walk to their cars and begin snaking their way to the cemetery.

Throughout the day, in the churches and graveyards of Pictou County, the heartbreaking scene will be repeated. By then the bodies of fifteen men have been recovered. For a couple of days the families of the remaining trapped miners will cling to the slim hope that the rescue crews working night and day in the pitch-black, rubble-strewn shaft will find more alive. Six days after the explosion, Curragh Resources, the owner, will call off the search, leaving the last eleven bodies underground.

Best estimates are that 500 million tons of coal have been harvested in the history of Nova Scotia. About 2,500 men — more than the province lost in the Great War — have died in the process. That works out to about five lives lost per million tons of coal — about triple the death rate in modern-day China, where the number of coal-mining deaths is viewed as a global scandal. The Nova Scotia total doesn’t even include the victims of silicosis, emphysema and a host of cancers and heart ailments related to a lifetime in the pit.

The Pictou collieries have claimed their share of the dead. The weird faulting and dramatic variations in seam thickness have caused frequent roof collapses and made the timber, coal and rock roar down with a terrible sound. There are other ways to die, too. In 1866 someone named McCarney perished because he “fell 15 ft. and struck a timber.” Four years later the paradoxically named John Luckman was “crushed by cage.” In 1873 Malcolm McIsaac died by virtue of being “crushed by back balance.” A year later W.C. Jackson and John Potts both died due to “rope breaking in shaft.” Four years after that, Francis Colin was “run over by a pit tub,” while in 1883 D. Baillie was “killed by run away rake.” Men went to meet their maker because of “suffocation,” because of being “crushed by machinery,” being “run over by train of hoppers,” due to a “premature explosion of shot from use of iron tamping bars,” being “caught by box on balance while putting his clothes on for home” or after being “whirled around a shaft.”

Official numbers are sketchy, but best estimates are that since 1827, some six hundred men have died in the Pictou mines. The “damps”— the term English miners used to collectively refer to all foul, noxious, poisonous gases found in collieries — have taken many away. By itself, methane, found in huge quantities throughout the field, is merely flammable; when mixed in the right concentrations with oxygen — 9.5 percent methane being the mixture’s most volatile point — the gas becomes explosive. A spark is all it takes: a pick hitting a piece of scrap iron, a shovel striking coal contaminated with pyrites. Historian James Cameron figures that the Pictou field has suffered forty-eight major fires over the years. At one time or another, virtually every mine in the Stellarton area has been shut down because of fire or explosion.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know precisely what happened; other times the stories read with grim clarity. On May 13, 1873, a miner named Robert McLeod set a routine gunpowder charge in the uppermost coal face of the Drummond Colliery, in Westville, a few kilometres from Plymouth. According to accounts, an unusual amount of gas was ignited, filling the mine with smoke. Making matters worse, the ventilation system stopped working. The manager ordered an evacuation. As the miners were leaving and a squad of firefighters were entering the mine, an explosion ripped through the tunnels. Miners from nearby collieries arrived and tried to rescue the trapped men and boys, whose moans echoed upward through the airshaft. A second explosion hit, killing one of the rescuers. In desperation, the mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen. On the surface, “men and women wander about in groups,” the newspapers reported in the days following the catastrophe, “their saddened countenances betokening the great grief that has fallen upon them.”

Five years later, an explosion occurred in the Foord Pit in nearby Albion Mines, killing Jason Nering, James Mitchell, Lewis Thomas and Edward Savage. The rolls of the dead included Donald McKinnon, Charles Boram, the MacDonald boys Alexander, Angus, Murdoch and Ronald Angus McGilvary and Hugh McElvie. Also no more were Laughlin Morrison, Thomas Sullivan, Dan Cummings, Merles Benoit, Rory McKinnon (father and son) and twenty-three others.

On January 18, 1918, the Allan Shaft — the most dangerous in a risky lot of seams — exploded. This time the Pictou County church bells rang out for Thomas Adderly Jr. and Clement Barcey, for Robert Winton and Peter Zomoskie, for Isaac Luther and Victor Humblet. Some families suffered more than most: the Bartholomews (Louis and Joseph), the Hanuses (Alfred and Cammile), the Kayenses (Felican and Joseph). Joseph and John McAulay were also among the dead, alongside William and John McLellan, Flori and, Louis and August Vaast, and Desire and Sylvia Laderie. All told, eighty-eight men died that day. Most every family felt the pain including the Johnsons, who lost a clan member named James.

I noticed, examining the rolls of the dead, that another Johnson, Peter, was a solo fatality during an accident in the McBean Mine in 1957. I have no idea if he and James were related. But I’m still willing to bet that there was some sort of connection between the two of them and Eugene Johnson, who was laid to rest in a lovely treed cemetery in a nearby hamlet on the same day that I attended Lawrence Bell’s funeral.

Excerpted from Coal Black Heart. Copyright 2009 John DeMont. Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada.

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