Thursday, October 23, 2008


The town of Springhill, Nova Scotia had long made its living from coal mining, and the community was no stranger to tregedy. The first small mine was opened in 1834, and by 1872 larger scale mining was underway. In 1884 the Cumberland Coal & Railway Company merged with the Springhill & Parrsboro Coal and Railway Company to form the Cumberland Railway &Coal Company Ltd.. This was later bought out by the Dominion Coal Company in 1910.
Over the reign of King Coal there were three major disasters, but even "normal" times could be hazardous. The town lost 182 men in over 125 accidents between the first great disaster of 1891 and the second in 1956. The first large scale tragedy happened on February 21, 1891 when 125 miners were killed in an underground fire. The second occurred on November 1, 1956 when 39 miners were killed by a methane gas explosion.
What grabbed the world's attention, however, was what happened on October 23, 1958. On that date the Springhill mine was the site of the largest underground "bump" in North American history. A "bump" is a mining term for what is basically an earthquake caused by removal of supporting coal strata, leading to a collapse of surrounding bedrock. The first bump occurred at 7:00 pm, but it was ignored. At 8:06 pm the major collapse occurred, producing an earthquake that immediately alerted people on the surface to the problems below. "Draeger teams" (rescue miners) were sent in immediately. By 4:00 am the next day 75 survivors had been brought to the surface, but the amount of rockfall slowed progress. By dawn a total of 81 men had been brought up. rescue efforts went on, and on October 29 a voice from one of a group of 12 miners still trapped. Small "bumps" continued as the rescuers laboured on, and a final seven men were brought to safety at 9;15 am November 1. Despite all efforts 74 miners had died in the event.
The Springhill disaster gripped the world's attention because it was the first international event to be broadcast live on television. The miners who participated in the rescue were awarded the Royal Canadian Humane Association Gold Medal for bravery, the first time the medal had ever been awarded to a group. The town of Springhill was awarded the 'Carnegie Hero Medal' for its efforts in the rescue.
One of the surviving miners, Maurice Ruddick, was chosen as Canada's 'Citizen of the Year' as his role in keeping his fellows alive was recognized. this had interesting repercussions as the Governor of the US State of Georgia offered the survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island in that State. One problem, however, when the group stepped off the plane- Ruddick was Black. The Governor was not pleased.
Following the disaster the now Dominion Steel & Coal Corporation Ltd. closed the mine, and it was never re-opened. Today the abandoned mine is still amongst the deepest in the world, and its galleries, now filled with water, provide geothermal heat to Springhill's industrial park.
The Springhill disaster has passed into popular culture, especially labour songs. The original "The Ballad of Springhill"(see below) was composed by Peggy Seeger with help from Ewan MacColl. It was taken up as part of the repertoire of Peter, Paul and Mary and later by the Irish band U2. To hear it sung today go to Brian Vardigans website. For further information on the Springhill disaster see the Wikepedia article on same and also the Town of Springhill website. The two sites are quite complementary.

Ballad of Spring Hill (Spring Hill Disaster):
By Peggy Seeger

In the town of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia,
Down in the heart of the Cumberland Mine,
There's blood on the coal and miners lie
In the roads that never saw sun or sky.
Roads that never saw sun or sky.

Down at the coal face the miner's workin'
Rattle of the belt and the cutter's blade
Crumble of rock and the walls close round
Living and the dead men two miles down
Living and the dead men two miles down.

Twelve men lay two miles from the pitshaft
Listen for the drillin' of a rescue team
Six hundred feet of coal and slag
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam
Hope imprisoned in a three-foot seam.

Eight days passed and some were rescued
Leaving the dead to lie alone
All their lives they dug their graves
Two miles of earth for a markin' stone
Two miles of earth for a markin' stone.

In the town of Spring Hill you don't sleep easy
Often the Earth will tremble and groan
When the Earth is restless, miners die
Bone and blood is the price of coal
Bone and blood is the price of coal
-- Peggy Seeger

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