1936 Moose River Mine Disaster

On April 12, 1936, a Canadian broadcaster named J. Frank Willis mesmerized the entire Canadian radio audience with his account of what happened when three men were caught by a cave-in and trapped in a gold mine in Moose River, Nova Scotia. The men were only 43 metres below the surface, but it took six days before the rescuers made contact with them. And it took an additional eight days before they brought two survivors to safety. The third died before rescuers reached them.

“Putting the new timber for supports through the new shaft sunk to help the men trapped below.” From 1936.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

The story was voted by the Canadian Press as the top radio news story of the first half of the 20th century, beating other dramatic stories such as the coverage of the Canadian landings on Juno beach on D Day by Canadian radio war correspondent Matthew Halton or his firsthand account of the liberation of Paris.

Willis’s 99 broadcasts from Moose River were picked up and repeated out of London by the BBC and carried on US radio stations. He told how the rescuers worked relentlessly every “every hour, every minute risking their lives to save the lives of two Toronto men,” and he was scathing when he countered news reports that the rescue shaft was in danger of caving in on the rescuers. “Don’t believe that for one minute,” he told his listeners. “It is absolutely untrue.”

“Commencing the new shaft through which the rescued men were taken.” From1936.
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

The three trapped men were in the mine on an inspection tour. They were considering buying the mine. Dr. David E. Robertson, chief of staff at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children, was one of the survivors. The other survivor was Alfred Scadding, a timekeeper and bookkeeper working for the two Toronto men. The man who died was Herman Russel Magill, a 30-year-old lawyer from Toronto. The men were trapped after the ceiling caved in. They were also beset by rising water. It wasn’t until April 19 — a week after the cave-in — that a diamond drill operator named Billy Bell heard a response to the steam whistle blasts he was sending at regular intervals down a small hole created by the drill he operated. It took another week to clear a tunnel to get the trapped men to the surface.

On April 20, J. Frank Willis, the only radio reporter the CRBC (CBC’s precursor) had east of Montreal, was finally given permission to go to the site of the disaster. Newspapers were the primary source of public information at the time, and paper reporters had already flooded the area trying to get in on the story. Radio was considered a form of entertainment, rather than a place for news, but Willis would change that perception forever. Willis went on the air every half hour to offer a two- to three-minute live report. He did this around the clock and his reports were broadcasted across North America and all the way to Europe. For the next 56 hours he stayed awake and enthralled an estimated 100 million listeners on the events happening in Moose River. 

“Sketch of the slopes showing the entry to the Reynolds shaft, the method of penetrating the Magill shaft, where the shaft was blocked, and where the men were found. This sketch was drawn by W.A. West of the NS Department of Mines. From 1936.”
Photo courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives. Used by permission.

All images have been used with permission from Nova Scotia Archives.

Sources

Canadian Broadcasting Service. n.d. 1936: Moose River mining disaster,” CBC Archives. Accessed on November 6, 2020.

Day, Dian. Susan Sellers. Rita Wilson. 1936. Disaster at Moose River Gold Mine,” Virtual Museum. Accessed on November 6, 2020.

Frayne, Trent. 1951. The Cave-in That Shook the Country,” Maclean’s. Accessed on November 6, 2020. (Alternatively, this text can be read here.)

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