History of Coal Mining in Nova Scotia
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Dept. Mines


It is to be regretted that the number of fatal accidents at the collieries considerably exceeds those of the two previous years. An excess over late years was certainly to be expected on account of the increase of business; yet the proportion is greater to the amount of work and number of persons employed than the average in the collieries of Great Britain.

                                     Gt. Britain.  Nova Scotia. 
                                          1871.        1872.

Number of persons employed              370,881         3522
Quantity of coal raised             117,439,251      880,950
Lives lost by the accidents               1,075           13
Persons employed per lives lost             345          271
Tons of coal raised per life lost       109,246       67,765

The high average of this years fatalities cannot be accounted for on the ground that the coal mines of the Province are peculiarly dangerous. With but few exceptions the roofs over the seams are sound and require little or no timber while the seams themselves can generally be wrought with perfect safety.

It would seem rather to be due--if all the reports can be accepted as correct--to the rashness or ignorance of consequences on the part of individual miners. Consequently little blame can be indirectly charged to the mine managers; yet a feeling of something more than regret seems to be expressed in the reluctance shown by some to report accidents which have happened in mines under their superintendence.

Plausible excuses are always to be found when accidents do occur, nevertheless a more strict surveillance (by those in charge) has elsewhere been attended by a sensible decrease in the ratio of deaths to tonnage, and doubtless if attended to here would also be followed by the same happy results.

In Great Britain since the commencement of the inspection twenty years ago the proportion of deaths to the number employed has decreased from 1 in 219 persons to l in 345 persons.

A stricter discipline and a more general observance of regulations would be advantageous in some of the mines. It would at least be well if mine managers and overmen made it a more general rule to caution every new hand who goes under-ground and especially those who have not served an apprenticeship in mines, of the dangers that are particularly to be guarded against in the pits under their charge.

It will be noticed on referring to the table that besides fatal accidents several very serious ones happened which in their consequences are almost as disastrous as though they had been fatal. Men have been maimed for life, and the burden of their future maintenance thrown on their relations and friends. This part of the list, full as it is, I have every reason to believe, is incomplete, and that the report of several casualities has been withheld.

The following tables state the accidents reported and shows the number of deaths that have resulted from them.


1March 23Neil FergussonSydneyExplosion of gasSlightly burnt.
2March 26Norman McIverVictoriaFall of roof coalFatal.
3April 10Angus MacCormackSydneyFall of stoneFatal.
4April 17Wm. SumnersSydneyFall-down shaftFatal.
5April 18James HaleyNova ScotiaFall of coalLeg broken.
6May 27Wm. HamiltonIntercolonialKnocked off train of tubsLeg broken.
7May 27John McInnesAcadiaFall of coalFatal.
8June 5Angus BoydMeridian (gold)Fall-down shaftFatal
9June 12James BonnerSydneyFall of stoneSeverely cut.
10June 13Angus MorrisonSydneyFall of coalSeriously injured.
11June 13John LeadbeaterIntercolonialExplosion of powderFatal.
11June 13Wm. MirtanIntercolonialExplosion of powderSeverely burnt.
12July 6Donald McDonaldCaledoniaFall of CoalShoulder blade broken.
13July 22Archy McDonaldCaledoniaCaught by cage in shaftArm broken.
14July 24Bennett McKinnonVictoriaExplosion of gasSlightly burnt.
15Sept. 6Edward WinterVictoriaFall of coalFatal.
16Sept. 11Malcolm MorrisonSydneyFall of coalRibs broken.
17Sept. 13James LammondSydneyFall of stoneFatal.
18Sep. 24Niel McDonaldReserveCrushed by wagonsSeverely injured.
19Oct. 7William SkelleyIntercolonialExplosion of gasVery seriously burnt,
19Oct. 7D. CampbellIntercolonialExplosion of gasFatal.
19Oct. 7Alexander FinlayIntercolonialExplosion of gasSeverely burnt.
20Oct. 15Anthony McDougallLorwayCrushed by cageFatal.
21Oct. 20Charles CarmichaelGowrieCrushed by machineryFatal.
22Nov. 7James ReevesAcadiaFall of coalFatal.
23Nov. 16Alexander CameronIntercolonialExplosion of gasSlightly burnt.
24Nov. 18Alexander RossIntercolonialCrushed by tubsFatal.
25Nov. 19Joseph ChappelIntercolonialExplosion of gasSlightly burnt.
26Nov. 21Allen McLeanVictoriaFall of coalSeverely bruised,
26Nov. 21Allen McEachrenVictoriaFall of coalSeverely bruised.
27Dec. 2Angus McLeanGowrieRun over by wagonFatal


Explosion of gas, 1; explosion of powder, 1; falls of coal and stone, 6; accidents in shafts, 3; crushed by machinery, 1; crushed by tubs, 2; total, 14.


Of the five explosions of gas reported only one was attended by fatal results.

Numbers 1, 14, 23 and 25 were caused by carelessness or inattention to orders on the part of the individual men who suffered and call for no special comment.

Number 19 was an accident of a much more serious character and was undoubtedly caused by the gross negligence of one of the party in consequence of which all were severely burnt. Without minutes of the evidence adduced at the inquest, I am unable to accurately state how the accident did occur, but from what I heard at the colliery shortly after the occurrence I understood that William Skelly, Alexander Findlay and David Campbell worked together in one bord. The two former as miners, the latter, quite a young man, as loader. On the morning of the 7th of October when they went down as usual to work they were warned by the fireman that gas had accumulated in their bord. The two miners with safety lamps in their hands went in, leaving Campbell with a naked light in the return level. They brushed the gas out as they thought and calling to Campbell came down to meet him. Just as he reached the corner, and before entering the bord, the gas fired at his lamp and all three were severely burnt. Apparently Campbell was the least injured, but he never recovered from the shock and died fifteen days afterward.


Accident number 11 showed a recklessness by no means uncommon in the handling of powder by miners. John Leadbeater was engaged at the Intercolonial colliery charging a hole with powder on the 13th of June. Through negligence some powder had remained in his "skip" from the previous charging, and this falling on his naked light standing close by him on the pavement flashed, and communicated the flame with the powder in the cannister, causing it--a quantity of about 5 lbs.--to explode and injure him so severely that, five days subsequently he expired, His companion, William Mirtan, was at the same time seriously burnt by the explosion but finally recovered.


Most of the casualities caused by falls of coal and stone were due to the neglect of the persons injured, to set props and sprags or remove blocks of coal and stone known to be loose and unsecured.

Accident No. 2. Norman McIver, but the moment before he was himself crushed, had warned those working with him of the danger in which they stood. He had sought for a prop with which to temporarily protect himself, but not finding one in any of the bords near, returned to take down the shaken roof coal. He commenced to do so, when a greater quantity fell than he looked for, and his life was sacrificed. Accidents will sometimes occur with the most careful men, but usually that indifference which grows on men inured to dangers is the source of most of those falling under this head.

No. 3. Angus McCormack working the pillars at the Sydney Mines, was crushed by the fall of a stump of a fossil tree, "a caldron bottom," from the roof. The fall of those blocks of stone from the "pot holes" is always sudden and their position in the roof often escapes the eye of the most experienced miner.

No. 15. Occurred at the Victoria Colliery. Edward Winter was a filler in the pit, and on the morning of the 6th September having some spare time on his hands and desirous of learning how to cut coal, went into one of the rooms where Malcolm McNeil and, John Carey were at work and asked Carey for a "spell of the pick;" his request being granted he began to work at a block of coal left in the holing. He struck but a few blows before a mass of coal weighing over a ton broke away from the face and falling on him crushed him instantly to death. The seam being highly inclined when the working face is holed and sheared, masses of coal are apt to break off suddenly especially where a "lype" runs through the coal. As McNeil and Carey left a block of coal unwrought in the holing presumably fearing some such accident, it seems to me they were greatly to blame for allowing Winter to work where he did.

September 13th--Jas. Lannand a pit driver was instantly killed by a mass of stone falling upon him from the roof, at one of the stations where the boys wait with the horses for the empty tubs going inbye. The roof is of freestone and had stood secure for two years. It was supposed to be solid but it appears there was a parting in it about 10 inches up at which point the stone separated. At the inquest on the body, one of the colliers stated that he had observed a crack coming in the stone a day or two before and told two of the driver boys to inform the deputy or overman. This they neglected to do and a fatal accident was the result.

No. 7. Mclnnes neglected to sound the coal still standing from his last shot before he began to wedge down a block not detached, and a mass hanging above fell on him and killed him.

No. 22. A similar case to No. 15. Reeves Was working a stump of coal left in the holing when a mass of coal fell from the face and crushed him to death. Unlike Winter, he worked contrary to the advice of his partner.


No. 4. William Summers was a sinker at the new winning a the Sydney mines. When stepping out of a tub into the mouth of a drift which opens into the staple shaft he missed his foothold and fell to the bottom of the shaft, a distance of 22 fathoms.

No. 8. When the men where returning after dinner to their work in the Meridian (gold) mine, Sherbrooke, and were descending the shaft, Angus Boyd lost his hold and fell a distance of fifty feet, passing five men who were on the ladders below him without touching them. The deceased is said to have been subject to fits of giddiness after smoking much. A pipe was in his mouth when he fell.

No. 22. This accident was precisely similar in character to that which occurred to John Lockman two years previously at the neighboring International colliery, and was caused by the deceased Anthony McDougall, incautiously leaning over the mouth of the shaft down which he wished to call. The cage in descending struck him and he almost instantly expired.


No. 21. Charles Carmichael was the night pumping engineer at the Gowrie colliery. On the night of the accident the water was "out" early and the engine stood for some hours. When he went to start again the engine stuck on the centre, the steam being low, and in order to get the engine off the centre he threw his weight on the fly-wheel. Incautiously he placed both feet on an arm of the fly-wheel, and the engine starting suddenly, before he was able to extricate himself he was drawn into the race and thrown violently against the wall. His injuries were such that he died almost immediately.


No. 24. This accident happened to a lad who had not been working long underground. He was a loader at the Intercolonial colliery, and, being at work near the foot of the slope, was called by the onsetter to help him replace a tub which was off the track. While so engaged, a coupling link in the rake of tubs broke and four of the tubs ran back, caught him, and crushed him so severely that he lived only three days. Those with him succeeded in making their escape, but he, unaccustomed to the position, failed to catch in time the meaning of their warning cries.

If the above list had included accounts of one or more accidents from Explosions of Steam no astonishment would have been caused in the mind of any one familiar with the condition in which steam boilers are now often kept at some of the mining establishments. A condition probably due to a false spirit of economy engendered by the slackness of trade during late years.

Boilers may be seen in use with seams and rivet holes leaking, with water running over and corroding them where they rest on the brickwork, or with plates strained and bulged or covered with patches. In Great Britain the Mines Regulation Act under the head of General Rules states: "Every steam boiler shall be provided with a proper steam gauge and water gauge, to show respectively the pressure of steam and the height of water in the boiler, and with a proper safety valve." And these provisions are not always to be met with in this country.

As illustrations of the utter recklessness with which men will expose their lives to dangers, when the dangers, although acknowledged imminent, are familiar, invisible and temporarily doubtful, I mention two cases; both in connection with marine boilers in tug boats at Cape Breton.

One boiler, although repeatedly repaired when cracks had suddenly appeared and seams had started, was used in that condition for several years, and until early last Winter when it actually exploded, sinking the boat, but luckily killing no one.

The other, in bad order on its first arrival four years ago, was still in use at the time of my visit to Cape Breton in September. It had been repeatedly patched and repatched, and was never safe, if safe at all, except with a much lower pressure of steam than the tug boat required. It has, I have been since informed, blown a hole in its shell, and is now likely to be condemned. I was once on board the boat, when the engineer became interested in a race, and without any urging, forced the boiler to a pressure of 55lbs., or 20 lbs. beyond a pressure, that, but a short time before he had complained of as unsafe.

To lessen the danger from similar sources of accident, there is the Steamboat Inspection Act, which has only to be enforced to be of service: but land boilers are under no supervision whatever. Still, rules and regulations, if not authorized with due care, may become as dangerous as lawless recklessness. It was only last Summer that riding in the cab of a locomotive on a colliery road, I noticed with much surprise the levers of both safety valves tightly wedged down, making it utterly impossible for steam to escape at any pressure. Pointing it out to the driver, I asked the reason, as I saw the Salter balances were new and apparently in order. His reply was, "Oh! the office ordered those thimbles to be put on the balances to let the valves blow off at 85 lbs., but finding that that pressure was not sufficient for the work to be done, and not being allowed to remove the thimbles, I wedged the levers." The officials in charge of the road could hardly be otherwise than aware of the manner in which their instructions, if carried out to the letter, were broken in spirit. However this was a case requiring only to be mentioned in order to be remedied.

I have mentioned the above cases for the purpose of showing that the men of Nova Scotia have no greater regard for the value of human life than the men of Great Britain and Pennsylvania, where such accidents as the Hartley, the Oaks, and the Avondale disaster happening, aroused the spirit of the people of these countries to call on their governments to interfere and endeavor by wise legislation to guard against such wholesale slaughter in the future. In Great Britain inspection has been attended by a marked diminution in the number of accidents. In the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania the stringent bills passed by the State Sessions of 1870 and 1871 have been actively enforced, but have been in operation for too short a time to have any effect. In this Province, guided by the experience of Great Britain, the legislature appointed an Inspector of Mines, with the understanding that he should be ruled by the practice of English Inspectors. My predecessors in office governed themselves according to that understanding, but as I have had personally no experience of the working of the Inspection Acts of Great Britain, I should prefer to see a written law, not only for my own guidance, but also for the guidance of those actually engaged in mining, of whom a similar knowledge is required.

I therefore beg leave to call the attention of the Government to that which in my humble opinion seems an incompleteness in the present law relating to mines and to suggest (for the better preservation of life and property) an immediate and serious consideration of the necessity that exists for explaining more fully and explicitly section (5) of the Mines and Mineral Act, rather than to wait until some appalling disaster,--from which happily the Province has hitherto been free,--too plainly points to the necessity of legislative interference.

In view of the increasing royalty and the inevitable law which annually requires the sacrifice of a proportionate number of the men engaged in mining, should a Bill similar in purport to the Mines Regulation Act of Great Britain receive the approbation of the Legislature, it might well be supplemented by an agreement on the part of the Government to insure the lives of all miners against fatal accidents, demanding no premium from the men and agreeing to pay, say: $200 to the family of each unfortunate man, to every widow $1 per week for ten years or until marriage, and to every child $l per. week; to boys until they are 12 years of age and to girls until they are 16 years of age. If such an agreement should be carried out it would obviate a good deal of suffering and misery.

I wish also to state that several of the Agents have called my attention to the different interpretations of the term "slack" as now rendered by the practice at certain collieries and the rough method adopted by others in estimating the quantities of coal sold and shipped.

As the varied practice is in consequence of the absence of legal definitions and requirements, I deem the settlement of these questions, which not only effect the amount of royalty due the Crown but also cause jealousy among the operators, to be of great importance, and I beg to suggest that an opinion be taken from persons who prior to the Act relating to the surrender of the mines to Her Majesty in 1858 were in the employment of the General Mining Association and capable of authoritatively stating what the clause, "except coal now known in the said Province as slack coal" positively meant.

I have the honor to be

Your obedient servant,


The Hon. Daniel Macdonald, M. P. P.,
Commissioner of Public Works and Mines.

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Last Modified: 99-06-10

Originally Printed by: The Citizen Publishing Company

The information contained on this site is not provided for the purpose of factual
representation. Instead, it is provided in an historical context. Every effort has
been made to ensure that this information represents the actual content
of the published Nova Scotia Department of Mines annual reports.
Nevertheless, no warranties are provided in any respect.

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