1922 Port Hood Mine Shaft Disaster

On July 4, 1922, a bunch of boys were playing near an old, abandoned mine shaft. Poisonous gasses caused one of the boys to fall into the shaft. The others ran for help. A neighbour went to help, followed by the boy’s father. In his hurry, the boy’s father fell into the shaft, taking the neighbour with him. They were also overcome with the poisonous gasses.

An account of the tragedy by Natalie Morris (1988), provided by the Chestico Museum:

Dan Robert was a tall, good-looking man with a moustache, like all the men in his family. He was described as a good father and a quiet, easygoing man who was respected and loved by both his family and community. His sister Isabelle was married and had a very large family. Her husband, who was also a miner, often worked the opposite shift of Dan Robert so Dan R. would come up to help her out almost every day. He frequently visited his brothers and sisters and always he brought candy for the children for whom he was a favourite.

In early summer of 1922, Dan Robert visited his brother, Angus R., in James River, Angus County. He returned home by freight train on July 4, 1922. He and his family had just finished diner when a young boy, Robbie MacDonald from Port Hood Mines came to the door. A group of boys had been playing about an old abandoned mine shaft. Jimmy, the son of Black Sandy MacDonald, had been in the lead. He had become affected with coal gas. The others managed to escape and ran to get help. They knew that the coal gas, or the “black damp,” as it was known locally, was very dangerous.

Dan Robert took his hat from a hook where he had placed it only a short time before. He told his wife, “I won’t be long,” and went to the shaft. It was only a short distance form his house approximately across from Hughie MacMillan’s house.

He started down the shaft after Jimmy. Black Sandy, Jimmy’s father, then arrived. In his hurry, Black Sandy fell and brought Dan Robert with him to the bottom of the shaft where the black damp overcame them both. They were too weak to climb back out.

One man, Ikey MacDonnell, tried to go down into the shaft to rescue them. A rope was tied around his waist and he went down. However, because of the “black damp,” he was unable to get them and had to be hauled up himself.

Dan Robert MacDonald, or Dan R. as he was commonly known, was born in Glencoe, Nova Scotia, about 1882. He was one member of the large family of Robert and Isabelle MacKinnon of the Shore Road, mother of Mrs. Marybelle MacDonald; Mrs. Mary MacIsaac, wife of Angus Hector and mother to Mrs. Marie MacDonald of Company Road; John, who was killed in Vancouver by a falling tree; William, who also died away; Alex, father to Mrs. Katie (John A.) MacDonald of Colindale and Mr. Dan Charlie MacDonald of Dunmore Road; John Archie who never married and died in Glencoe; Ronald Robert, father of Mrs. Dan Lewis MacDonald of North End, Port Hood; Duncan who was killed in the Port Hood mine explosion of February 1908; Angus R. who was Mrs. Florence Morris’ (of Colindale) father and my great grandfather; and two others who died in infancy.

As a child, Dan Robert attended school, but at a very early age began to work in the coal mines. His family was very close-knit. He and Duncan always accompanied Mary and Isabelle to dances. Later, they always visited each other in their own homes.

Dan Robert worked for a time in mines in Central Canada. He returned to work in the coal mines. He boarded with his sister Isabelle until he married Annie Laurie MacDonald, daughter of John “The Lighthouse” and Mary MacDonald of Port Hood. Then he moved to a house in Harbourview where Danny Beaton now lives.

Later that day, the train passing through Port Hood was stopped on the tracks near the mine. The train had an air compressor which was used to pump fresh air int o the shaft and bad air out. Then a lantern was sent down. It came back lit, indicating that the air was clean. Jimmy, Black Sandy, and Dan Robert all died and their bodies were hauled up.

Dan Robert left behind a wife and five children: Robert, John Allan, Mary Jane, Anna Belle, and Douglas. Their grandmother, Mary MacDonald, helped to support and raise the children but Annie Laurie still never recovered from her husband’s death. Four years later she died with a broken heart. The children then moved in with their grandmother who lived where Alex Sutherland Sr. lives now.

The children all grew up with fond but vague memories of their kind and loving parents whom they lost so early. The oldest, Robert, married and lived in Winnipeg. John Allan was killed in a mining accident in Central Canada. Mary Jane married Collie Kennedy and now lives in Kingsville, Inverness County. Anna Belle moved to Montreal where she married and raised a family. She died about two years ago. Douglas joined the army and fought in World War II. After the war, he moved to Montreal as a journalist and married there. He is still alive today.

Even sixty-six years later, those Port Hooders who know even bit and pieces of this story look back on Dan Robert as a hero who lost his life in an attempt to save a neighbour’s son. They remember how they always had “thought so much of him.”

Mining accidents were much more common then. In Dan Robert’s family, three close relatives were killed in mining accidents. Dan Robert truly reflected the spirit of Port Hood when he tried to save another from such a death.

Another account was provided by Mary Anne MacDonald (MacDougall), daughter of one of the men who retrieved the bodies, in 1993:

In the afternoon of July 1922, the children of Ronald Macdonald and the daughter of Angus MacDougall were out picking strawberries. Little did they realize the tragic events which were to happen that day.

Ronald MacDonald and Angus MacDougall were next door neighbours, and that afternoon were sitting on the front porch. One of the Burke girls, who lived just below them, came with a telephone message that Ronald’s brother had been in a mine accident in Port Hood. Right away, Ronald and Angus crossed the fields to the site of the mine accident.

One there, they learned that two boys, Bobby MacDonald and Jimmy MacDonald, were out playing around an old, abandoned mine shaft. Jimmy, the son of “Black” Sandy MacDonald, had bene in the lead, and approaching the shaft was affected by the “black damp,” or coal gas, and fell down into the pit. His friend, Bobby MacDonald (from Port Hood Mines), ran back to look for help. Seeing his friend’s father, Sandy MacDonald, he ran to him and told him of what had happened to his son. Sandy, along with Dan Robert MacDonald ( brother of Ronald MacDonald – Dunmore) rushed off to help, and in their hurry, both fell into the pit.

A call went out for more help. Trains came im from Inverness, and with air compressors, pumped fresh air into the mine shaft. This was to give the rescuers a chance of bringing up the bodies of the two men and the boy. One man, Ikey MacDougall, brought the first two bodies up but wouldn’t go back down for the third.

Father MacPherson was at the scene and he went around to each of the men gathered, asking if one of them would volunteer to retrieve the third body. He came to Angus MacDougall and asked him if he would go down into the shaft. Angus at this time was a widower, who over a brief period of time, had lost his wife and all his children except one, Mary Anne. He told Father MacPherson that he didn’t want to go down into the shaft in case something would happen to him and Mary Anne be left alone.

Father MacPherson continued his round asking for volunteers, but when no one would come forward, he came back to Angus MacDougall. “Nothing will happen to you or to Mary Anne if you go down,” he said. So with that, Angus went down the shaft in what they called a “bucket” carrying a hook. After some time, he came back with the third body in the bucket with him. A cheer went up all around and the train whistles blew.

For some reason, it was never mentioned who brought up the third body. For Angus MacDougall it was just an oversight. He was only glad ot have accomplished that which had been grateful to him for his efforts. That was enough.

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