SPRINGHILL DISASTER (My small contribution – CAPER)

Reading and writing about the emergency at Meat Cove reminded me of an incident that I was involved in during the supply of assistance at the Springhill Coal Mining Disaster in 1958. I was stationed with the Navy at HMCS Coverdale across the river from Moncton, NB when the disaster occurred. The call went out for food and clothing in support of the families at Springhill. Carmen and I had just been married and didn’t have much in the way to offer but Carmen gathered up a number of cans of food and I took them down to the depot that was being organized by the NB Emergency Measures Organization to supply relief to the Springhill mining community. They were looking for volunteers to assist in the collection of goods and to drive to and from Springhill. As I said we didn’t have a lot to offer but I had just commenced my 72 hours off duty so I said to them we don’t have much in the way of material goods or money but I have myself to volunteer. And so I did and ended up driving a five ton truck with several volunteers around Moncton picking up supplies and driving these items to Springhill.

As long as I live I shall never forget the scene on the mine bank head when we arrived there. I of course was very concerned for these families because my father had been a bare faced miner at several mines in Cape Breton and all of my uncles and other family members and friends worked in the mines. Families including mothers and children and close friends of miners who were still underground and many who later died had tables set up serving tea, coffee, and food endlessly to all who were present. A small irony associated with my first delivery occurred when I slowed down to speak to a member of the RCMP who was directing traffic. I wanted specific directions for off loading. He looked up at me and said, “What the hell are you doing here?” It turned out that he was the same chap that pulled me over a few years before between North Sydney and Sydney and charged me with having a load of bootleg coal and driving with four in the front. I think his name was Vandenberg or something that sounded like that. After we off loaded and had some soup I found him and we had a good chat. I guess he was surprised to learn that I was a Leading Seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy and not in the nearby Dorchester Penitentiary.

1958 Bump

The 1958 Bump which occurred on October 23, 1958 was the most severe “bump” (underground earthquake) in North American mining history. The 1958 Bump devastated the people of Springhill for the casualties they suffered; it also devastated the town, as the coal industry had been its economic lifeblood.

Springhill Mine Bankhead – 1958

It is not exactly known what causes a “bump”, however it is believed that it could be caused when coal is totally removed from a bedrock unit or “stratum“, and the resulting geological stresses upon surrounding strata (sandstone, shale, etc. in most coal-bearing units) cause the pillars (coal left in place) supporting the galleries to suddenly and catastrophically disintegrate, causing the shaft to collapse.

The No. 2 colliery was one of the deepest coal mines in the world. Sloping shafts 14,200 feet long ended more than 4,000 feet below the surface in a massive labyrinth of galleries off the main shafts. In the case of the No. 2 colliery, the mining techniques were changed 20 years before this disaster, from “room and pillar” to “long wall retreating” after reports documenting the increased danger of “bump” phenomena in the use of the former technique.

On October 23 a small bump occurred at 7:00pm during the evening shift, but was ignored as this was a somewhat common occurrence. However just over an hour later at 8:06pm an enormous bump “severely impacted the middle of the three walls that were being mined and the ends of the four levels nearest the walls.”

The bump spread as three distinct shock waves, resembling a small earthquake throughout the region, alerting residents on the surface for a wide area to the disaster. Draeger (Named after the man who invented mine gas detection equipment) teams as well as teams of barefaced miners entered the No. 2 colliery to begin the rescue effort. (Note: a number of these Draeger teams were from Cape Breton Island – CAPER) The rescue teams encountered survivors at the 13,400 foot level walking or limping toward the surface. Gas released by the bump was encountered in increasing concentrations at the 13,800 foot level where the ceiling had collapsed, and rescuers were forced to work down shafts that were in a partial state of collapse or were blocked completely by debris.

Entry to Hell – A Working Coal Mine


Any miners who weren’t covered either in side galleries or some other shelter were immediately crushed during the bump; the coal faces having been completely destroyed. 75 survivors were on the surface by 4:00am on October 24, 1958. Rescue teams continued working but the number of rock falls and amount of debris slowed progress.

Meanwhile the Canadian and international news media had made their way to Springhill. The disaster actually became famous for being the first major international event to appear in live television broadcasts (on the CBC). As the world waited and those on the surface kept their vigil, rescuers continued to toil below the surface trying to reach trapped survivors. Teams began to arrive from other coal mines on Cape Breton Island and Pictou County.

After five and a half days (placing it around the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 1958) contact was established with a group of 12 survivors on the other side of a 160 foot rock fall. A rescue tunnel was dug and broke through to the trapped miners at 2:25am on Thursday, October 30, 1958.

On Friday, October 31, 1958 the rescue site was visited by various dignitaries including the Premier of Nova Scotia, Robert Stanfield and His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh who had been at meetings in Ottawa.

On Saturday, November 1, 1958 an additional group of survivors were found, however there would be no more in the following days. Instead bodies of the dead were hauled out in airtight aluminum coffins on account of the advanced stage of decomposition, accelerated by the Earth’s heat in the depths of the No. 2 mine at 13,000-14,000 feet from the mine entrance.

Of the 174 miners in No. 2 colliery at the time of the bump, 74 were killed and 100 trapped but eventually rescued.

The rescuers were awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Canadian Humane Association for bravery in lifesaving, the first time the medal had been awarded to a group.[2]

Draegermen Get Ready to Enter Mine

Aftermath and representations in popular culture

The aftermath of the 1958 Bump had a profound effect on the town but there were some interesting footnotes involving political and economic exploitation of survivors:

  • In the media crush at the pithead (the shaft entrance at the surface), reporters would rush to speak with survivors, particularly the 2 groups of miners who had been trapped until Thursday and Sunday respectively. When asked what he wanted most, survivor Douglas Jewkes replied, “A 7-Up.” Following this high-profile media event and unexpected “plug,” the 7-Up company hired the miner as a spokesman.
  • Another miner, Maurice Ruddick, was chosen as Canada’s “Citizen of the Year”. (Through singing and telling jokes he was credited with keeping the morale of the stranded miners up while they awaited rescue – CAPER)
  • An aide to the Governor of Georgia Marvin Griffin took advantage of the intense media coverage to promote tourism to that state by offering a group of survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island. However to the segregationist governor’s chagrin (he had been vacationing on a hunting trip in Manitoba at the time of the disaster), one of the rescued Springhill coal miners—Ruddick—was black, resulting in a public relations nightmare.

(Note: Even to this day I feel sorry for some of our American friends who have been and continue to be so blindly prejudiced against their Black Citizens. For over three hundred years White Americans have been nursed, even suckled, catered to, served food, had their food grown by and served by Black Americans. These same Black Citizens also fought and died for White America in their wars. Yet when we lived in Maryland in 1960 – 1962 the Old Black Man who was the handy man in our high rise was not allowed to enter into the front entrance nor was he permitted to come out of the basement without permission of the White Staff. I used to buy fresh eggs from him and would go down in the basement where he tended to the furnace and have a talk with him from time to time. CAPER)


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