1891 Springhill Mine Disaster

On Saturday, February 21, 1891, at approximately 12:43 PM a powerful explosion occurred in the No. 3 board off the No 7 balance in the No 1 mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia. This was unexpected in part due to the fact that some miners’ earlier fears about an accident (fears apparently caused by the prediction of an old woman in Pictou, Mother Coo, of a mine disaster in May of 1891) led the Miner’s Union to have the mine inspected by a committee. This committee reported the mine to be in excellent condition and probably one of the safest mines in the province. On February 20, 1891, a government inspector completed his inspection of the mines and agreed with the committee.

“Arrival at the morgue of bodies from the pits”; published in The Dominion Illustrated, 7 March 1891, p. 229.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

The inquest into the cause of the explosion indicated that the exact cause of the explosion was uncertain. However, it was strongly suspected that when Thomas Wilson attempted to blow coal out from the seam, as was his job, a crack in the packing around the explosive allowed the flames to come into contact with and ignite the coal dust and gasses within the mine. This magnified the explosion sending it up from the 1900 foot level to 1300 foot level where it spilled into the No. 2 mine by way of a connecting tunnel.

The blast and resulting gasses killed 121 men and boys within minutes and injured another 17, four of whom succumbed to their injuries, bringing the total death toll to 125; 17 of the dead were younger than sixteen years of age. The mine gasses were particularly bad after the explosion, with what miners called the deadly “white damp” being a serious threat. Many of those miners who survived the blast immediately attempted to flee the mine. Many came into contact with gasses and were rendered unconscious, and then either regained consciousness and continued their escape or died. This was particularly true in the No. 2 mine where gas was the more prominent killer.

“This illustration published in R.A.H. Morrow, Story of the Springhill Colliery Explosion: Comprising a Full and Authenic Account of the Great Coal Mining Explosion at Springhill Mines, Nova Scotia, February 21st, 1891 … Fully illustrated (Saint John, NB, 1891).”
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

After 2:00 PM on February 21, 1891, no more survivors would exit the mine. The rescue efforts were over, and the rescuers then turned their focus to retrieving the bodies and clearing them out so the mine could reopen for work. As the mine had suffered little structural damage, there was minimal debris and it was fairly easy to navigate, though gas and minor fires were still a threat and the risk of another violent explosion was significant. The removal of bodies was a long and emotionally strenuous task for the volunteers, due to both the personal relationships many had with the dead and the mutilation many of the bodies had suffered. Once retrieved, bodies were taken to the carpentry shop, a makeshift morgue, where they were identified and then sent to the families. Some were easily identified, as they simply looked to be asleep, while others either had to be identified by clothing or repairs to clothing. Funerals were held throughout the week. Many volunteers were required to dig the required graves in the frozen ground. The last body to be removed was that of the popular mine manager, Henry Swift, on the evening on Thursday, February 26, 1891.

The mine explosion left approximately 57 widows, 167 fatherless children, and 8 childless mothers. To aid these people, the town of Springhill established the Springhill Relief Fund and the Halifax Morning Herald created its own fund, both of which sought donations to support the families. They asked for a total of seventy thousand dollars, and in three months they had received one hundred and forty thousand dollars, assuring that the families of the victims would be cared for.

A photo of the Miner’s Monument at Springhill, taken from a rooftop.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

Note: “One Hundred and Twenty Men and Boys met Death in the Fatal Pit” (The Globe and Mail, February 24, 1891, p1) records 55 widows and 165 fatherless children, though that count may not have accounted for some remaining dead, while James Brown’s Miracle Town: Springhill Nova Scotia 1790-1982 states that 56 widow and 108 children were left behind. Also note that McKnight mentions not 8 childless mothers, but 8 widowed mothers.


Brown, James B. 1983. Miracle Town: Springhill, Nova Scotia 1790-1982. Hantsport, Nova Scotia, Lancelot Press.

Brown, Roger David. (2002) Blood on the Coal. Revised Edition. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Nimbus Publishing.

M.A. McKnight. (1891) The Great Colliery Explosion at Springhill, Nova Scotia, February 21, 1891: full particulars of the greatest mining disaster in Canada, with a brief description and historical sketch of the Springhill collieries. Springhill N.S.: M.A. McKnight.

All images used with permission from Nova Scotia Archives.


Explosion Predicted – 125 Dead

One response to “1891 Springhill Mine Disaster”

  1. […] to determining exactly what has occurred, and how liable Curragh Incorporated was for the incident.[23] The RCMP eventually charged Curragh Incorporated and two mine managers with criminal negligence […]

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