Dec '12/Jan '13

Coal mining disaster

The 1958 Springhill Bump

By Correy Baldwin

The seventh and last man being removed from Springhill’s No. 2 colliery to waiting ambulance | Image courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives


The coal mining town of Springhill, Nova Scotia, has the unfortunate distinction of suffering three major mining disasters at its underground Cumberland mine. The first, an explosion in 1891, killed 125 miners. Another explosion ripped through the mine in 1956, killing 39. Two and a half years later, on October 23, 1958, a third disaster devastated the mine. Seventy-four men were killed and 100 were rescued, in what became known as the 1958 Bump – the largest bump in North American history.

A “bump” occurs when geological stresses in a mine – often triggered by the removal of coal from the bedrock – cause the mine to collapse in on itself, resulting in effects similar to those of a small earthquake. The three shockwaves that shook the mine also shook the town above.

There were 174 men working at the time, and many of them were trapped 3,900 metres from the entrance. The affected shaft was one of the deepest in the world, extending nearly 1,200 metres below the surface. When rescuers descended into the mine, they were hampered by fresh pockets of methane, partially collapsed shafts and tunnels blocked by fallen rock. By early morning, they brought 75 survivors to the surface.

Additional rescue teams from other coal mines across Nova Scotia came to help. On the morning of October 29, rescuers made contact with a group of 12 miners trapped behind a 49-metre rockfall. The next morning, they tunnelled through and reached the men. A final group of seven survivors was found and rescued on November 1, after having spent nine days underground.

Both Canadian and international news organizations rushed in to cover the story. The ongoing rescue effort became a major media event, and the first major international story in Canada to be covered by a live television broadcast – a medium pioneered at Springhill by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, even visited the site, accompanied by Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield. Reporters crowded the mine entrance, interviewing every survivor and rescuer who surfaced, bringing some miners momentary fame. One survivor, Douglas Jewkes, became a spokesman for 7Up after asking for the drink upon emerging from the mine. Others later appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

One of the final seven rescued miners was Maurice Ruddick, who had done much to keep up the spirits of others trapped underground, despite having broken his leg in the bump. Ruddick even organized a birthday party for a 29-year-old miner on their fourth day underground and sang to the men throughout their nine-day ordeal. A renowned baritone, Ruddick often led his fellow miners in song while working or resting underground, and sang in a quartet in his spare time. He was modest about his role, but others attributed their survival to Ruddick’s positive spirit. He was named Citizen of the Year by the Toronto Telegram after the rescue.

Marvin Griffin, the governor of Georgia, later invited 19 of the survivors to stay at a luxurious holiday resort in his home state. Griffin had been in Canada during the disaster and had been moved to do something for those who had been trapped. Ruddick was one of the invitees, but when Griffin learned that the much-respected miner was African-Canadian, he insisted that Ruddick be kept segregated.

The other miners were not im­pressed, with one miner reportedly saying, “There was no segregation down in that hole, and there’s none in this group.” However, Ruddick obliged Griffin, not wanting to come between his fellow survivors and their much-needed vacation. Along with his wife and their children, Ruddick stayed in a separate trailer and did not see his white companions until the vacation was over.

Back home, the Springhill miners had to look elsewhere for work. The bump was so destructive to the underground workings that the mine was shut down after the rescue effort, never to reopen.

Maurice Ruddick wrote a song, The Springhill Disaster, which was recorded and performed by American bluegrass singer Bill Clifton. All proceeds went to a miners’ relief fund. Visit www.cim.org/magazine/Springhill for the lyrics.

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