Coal mining has been a part of life in Eastern Canada for over two hundred years. A broad arc of coal deposits stretches from the eastern edge of Cape Breton through the western parts of the Island and onto the Nova Scotia mainland in Pictou and Cumberland counties; it stretches westward from there across south-eastern and central New Brunswick, though the deposits there are less productive. Coal found in this region is bituminous grade, i.e. a soft coal valued as a heating fuel. After it has been purified of its various chemical components, it makes a near-pure carbon known as coke, a fundamental component in the manufacture of iron and steel.
Nova Scotia’s coal deposits are among the deepest underground in the world; some are sub-marine, extending far under the ocean, which are among the most dangerous to mine. Deep coal seams emit dangerous methane gas when they are disturbed through the mining process. These coal seams are often found as multiple layers, sandwiched between rock or shale. Generally speaking, the thicker the seam the easier the coal is to mine, though depth and consistency also have a bearing. Most of the commonly working seams are about 1-2 metres thick; though some, such as ones in Cumberland County at Joggins, have been mined at as little as ½ a metre. Parts of Pictou County’s Foord Seam exceed 10 metres in thickness, but that is extraordinarily rare and can be quite dangerous due to the build-up of gas that has to be siphoned off safely.
Extracting coal from these seams, some of which over-lay one another, is laborious and requires intensive use of technology, particularly when they go deep underground. The largest could go as much as 6-8 kms from the surface and involve mining over several hundred hectares. Following seams of coal underground to maximize the return on the investment for costly infrastructure depended on the skill of the miners and technologies that facilitated both the extraction of coal from the seams and its transport to the surface.
Along the way there are great dangers. Coal mines that are deep underground could flood (water has to be pumped out constantly); can suffer from bad air and build-up of combustible gases (air has to be pumped into these mines continuously); and disturbing the overburden through extensive mining can cause localized rock falls, the most common source of injuries. Sometimes larger areas mined create disturbances known as the “Bumps” that caused so much death and destruction in Springhill’s mines.
Day-to-day dangers caused over 2500 deaths over the years, up to and including the 26 men who lost their lives in the last major explosion, at Westray, in 1992. Over the years many more miners were maimed in various ways, the burden of their working lives inscribed on their bodies through, for example, lost fingers and injured backs, not to mention blackened lungs. While major disasters were transformational and dramatic, the commonplace occurrence of injury or death in the normal conduct of mining was equally palpable for miners and their families.
At its peak early in the 20th century upwards of 12,000 men worked in and around the coal mines spread across the region. Combined with the steel and steel fabrication industries coal accounted for one in five employed Nova Scotians for much of the 20th century. Their numbers gradually declined as more and more technology replaced the boys and horses that were a staple of the early industry. But new technology did not remove the threat of injury or fatality in the pit. As many lives were lost since the 1920s as before that date, and the large scale loss of life was just as frequent as mines got deeper and deeper in the quest for coal. Today no sub-surface mines remain active in the region, the last having closed in 2001, though there are a couple of surface mines.
The communities that grew around the mines were unlike most communities. The manner of exploiting coal required lots of community support in order to reproduce the daily labour of the thousands of men and boys underground. The dangers associated with the industry produced a close knit and interdependent community. But dealing with death and injury on a regular basis also produced a wide variety of coping mechanisms; something necessary if men were to keep going into the pits in spite of accidents. Songs were a part of a coping-process, just as were various other forms of commemoration and memorialization of workers who lost their lives. Annual commemorative occasions, museums, commemorative plaques, statues to fallen miners, etc. abound throughout the region as a way of signifying the breadth and depth of the sacrifices made.