The workday began as most others did, with hundreds of miners heading into the lifts, to be taken almost 2,000 feet underground, where the coal seams lay. Only two of the three slopes were operational that day, mandated by a shortage of empty rail cars. The work proceeded apace until noon and resumed following the half-hour dinner break. A few moments later, an enormous explosion marked the beginning of what was to become the first of the major Springhill mining accidents.
The coal mines in Springhill, Nova Scotia, first opened in 1873, were an investment by a group of St. John capitalists. In 1882, the three collieries were purchased by the Cumberland Coal and Railway Co., which proceeded to extend the track to the port of Parrsboro and develop the mines themselves. Under the new owners, the mine’s output doubled to 2,000 tonnes per day, rising as high as 2,300 tonnes per day on some occasions. By the time of the accident, the collieries had produced an estimated 3,500,000 tonnes of high-quality boiler coal.
The mine’s commercial success meant extensive development underground as well. The No. 1 slope, the deepest of the three, extended to a depth of 1,900 feet, with plans to further extend it to 2,500 feet. Around the time of the explosion, the mine employed between 1,300 and 1,400 workers. The explosion, which occurred on the 1,900-foot level of the No. 1 slope, swept along the level to a considerable distance, but also penetrated into the No. 2 slope, through the ventilation shaft connecting the slopes at the 1,300-foot level. Eyewitnesses later described the blast to a Springhill news editor as being “preceded by a sudden gust of wind, which swept like a tornado through the dark passages, hurling timbers and clouds of dust and flying missiles before it. This was followed in a few seconds by balls of fire, large and small, and then came a solid body of fierce flame that filled the passages and literally roasted everything in its path.”
Eleven miners were at the No. 1 pit bottom, a full half-mile away from the explosion when it took place, and were the nearest to the blast who survived. They were the first to enter the level where the blast occurred, finding the air thick with heated smoke and dust, and small fires of wood and clothing. They were also fortunate to find a number of other miners trapped or wounded. By the time these 11 brought the wounded back to the pit bottom, they were met by the first of the rescuers on their way from the surface.
In the first two hours following the blast, 20 more miners were found and brought to the surface. Medical help was summoned from the nearby towns to assist the two colliery doctors, and volunteers seeking to go underground and help arrived in such numbers that some had to be turned away. By this time, most of the town’s residents were at the accident site, looking for word of their loved ones’ fate.
In the tunnels, the rescuers had to brave the chance of continuing fires and further explosions, as well as afterdamp — a lethal mix of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. In fact, as the rescue parties moved deeper, a number of the men were overcome by the gases and had to be brought up to the surface.
In the chaos following the explosion, it was some time before the rescuers thought to investigate the No. 2 slope. When an exploration party descended to the 1,300-foot level, they found the first of the victims, killed by the afterdamp that flooded through the ventilation shaft. One of the rescuers, Jesse Armishaw, accompanied the first party to descend into the No. 2 slope where he found the bodies of his three sons. Within a short distance, 20 bodies were located, all killed by the toxic gas. At this news, and the realization that no more survivors would be found, the rescue operations were halted until the mine could be ventilated further.
By 11 p.m. that night operations resumed, focusing on recovery of the dead. The No. 2 slope was sufficiently ventilated to allow the volunteers to penetrate deeper into the tunnels and retrieve the bodies. By Sunday morning, 47 were found and brought to the surface. Recovery operations continued for several days, and the final death toll stood at 121 dead immediately or shortly after the blast, and four more succumbing to injuries after being brought to the surface.
Funerals continued throughout the following week, sometimes with multiple services being conducted simultaneously at different parts of the cemetery. The funeral of the mine manager, Henry Swift, was followed by a three-quarter mile long procession of mourners, with the streets lined with the townspeople.
The scale of the accident was unprecedented in Canadian mining history. The dead miners left behind 57 widows, 169 fatherless children and eight widowed mothers. In response to the town’s request for support, donations flowed in from cities in both Canada and the United States. Among those who contributed to the relief fund were Queen Victoria and the Governor General of Canada.
Despite the shock of the accident, the mine returned to operations less than two weeks later. It remained the principal employer in Springhill until the second (1956) and third (1958) accidents. Following the third one, the mine was deemed too unsafe and shut down permanently.