March/April 2010

The dark knight

Sir Thomas Tait and the rise and fall of New Brunswick’s famous coalfields

By C. Baldwin

Last December 31, New Brunswick’s storied coal mining industry breathed its last breath. One man towered over its tumultuous early years — the cigar-chomping railway baron Sir Thomas Tait.

Coal has always been mined from the rich deposits around Minto, New Brunswick. Industrial mining started around the turn of the last century, but was pretty small-time until Tait — a golfing fanatic who summered at St. Andrews, New Brunswick’s famous resort town — came on the scene. In 1913, fresh from a stint running Victorian Railways in Australia (for which he was knighted), the former Canadian Pacific Railway manager learned of the underexploited coalfields around Grand Lake. Using his CPR connections, he moved quickly, finagling the best coal assets from hapless locals and securing hefty government grants to finish the crucial 50-kilometre railway link between Minto and Fredericton. The shrewd Tait kept the coal assets for himself and formed the Minto Coal Company. He soon landed two prime contracts: supplying coal to a nearby cotton mill and to his old pals at CPR.

In those days, most miners spent the spring and summer farming and mined the rest of the year. This did not suit Tait at all. The Montreal-born son of a judge was used to getting his own way, so he lured the best workers from rival mines and informed them that the job was year-round and whoever did not like it could clear out. This encounter set the tone for Tait’s approach to labour relations in the coming years.

Things went well at first, at least for Tait. World War I brought lucrative contracts to Minto Coal, but Tait did not see fit to share the profits with his miners. The next years were characterized by union busting, evictions from the awful company housing, arbitrary pay cuts, increasingly unsafe conditions in the mines and strike after terrible strike. Two royal commissions were called to look into matters, but fortunately for Tait, the province had no legislation to enforce their many recommendations.

Then, in 1932, five people died trying to rescue some local boys who were poisoned while playing in an abandoned mine shaft. The same year, 14 miners were disabled and two men killed in accidents at Minto Coal. The government could not ignore the problems in Minto any longer. It passed legislation the following year that forced the mines to reduce work hours, bar women and children from mining, and improve safety in the mines. Tait accepted the last two, but refused to reduce work hours. The miners went on strike again.

The strife was exacerbated by a fall in coal prices in the 1930s, which led to more pay cuts. By 1937, things came to a head and 1,000 miners at 11 collieries, including Minto Coal, walked out. Tait and the others held firm and when winter rolled around, the workers, impoverished and demoralized, returned to work.

Things did gradually improve for both the miners and the mine owners. In the 1940s, new technology led to greater production, safety and profits. In 1944, Minto Coal, once so aloof, donated land and money to build the town’s first hospital. But credit for this bit of philanthropy cannot go to the dark knight of Minto. Thomas Tait died in 1940 in St Andrew’s at Link’s Crest, the luxury summer home he built from his coal riches.

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