On Thursday, October 23, 1958, the No. 2 coal mine in Springhill, Nova Scotia, experienced a tremendous “bump.” At 8:06 p.m., local families were huddled around their new television sets, watching I Love Lucy and Don Messer’s Jubilee. Suddenly, without warning, the ground shook — sending shock waves as far as Ottawa within moments. The mine had caved in, trapping 174 men far, far below the surface.
The great Springhill mining disaster — known by many as the Big One — was actually the site’s second major cave‑in and only the latest in a succession of disturbances stretching back to 1891. A serious explosion in 1956 should have served as a warning that conditions were unsafe, but operations continued at what was reputed to be the deepest coal mine in North America. Ultimately, seventy-five of the miners trapped underground that fall evening lost their lives. Others were rescued from their potential tomb under the glare of television cameras, in the CBC’s first live broadcast outside of a controlled studio.
In 2003, the American author Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the disaster in her riveting Last Man Out. Several years later, the Canadian journalist John DeMont published the memorable and searing Coal Black Heart. Now Ken Cuthbertson has produced another finely crafted book, Blood on the Coal: The True Story of the Great Springhill Mining Disaster. Taking his title from Roger David Brown’s roughly hewn but authentic volume from 1976 — produced by a small regional publisher — Cuthbertson presents a gripping story for a general audience, as he has done previously with The Halifax Explosion and 1945: The Year That Made Modern Canada. Readers already in the know may find little that’s new in Blood on the Coal, but Cuthbertson accurately reconstructs the harrowing episode.
Coal once dominated the Nova Scotia economy beyond Halifax. Without it, DeMont observed in 2009, the province “might still be just a collection of scattered farms and fishing villages.” Mining gave Nova Scotians “their edge and urgency,” he wrote, with a “spirit forged by a flame that comes from betting everything, year after year, on the vagaries of a single commodity.” Although Cuthbertson has roots in the province on his mother’s side, this latest book is clearly written by an outsider (he’s based in Kingston, Ontario). A foreword by Anne Murray, Nova Scotia’s renowned songbird, does lend a local touch. Yet as she recalls middle-class family life in Springhill, with perhaps too much nostalgia, she almost downplays the Big One’s devastating impact on her hometown.
Small-scale mining began in Cumberland County in the 1830s; serious commercial operations started in the 1870s, which is when No. 2 —“the gassiest and most dangerous of Springhill’s mines”— opened. Rail connections to New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario as well as the United States further transformed the town. “In 1874, the population was two hundred,” Cuthbertson writes. “Within a decade, it was five thousand, and people just kept coming.” Soon the area was the country’s largest coal producer: “Ol’ King Coal was sitting high on his throne, and life in Springhill was good.” Then came the bump and the eventual decimation of a community.
Daily newspapers, from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald to the Boston Globe, covered the disaster in minute detail, and the rescue operation dominated the CBC’s nightly newscasts for several weeks. Although Cuthbertson draws upon Chronicle-Herald and Globe and Mail reports, he pays comparatively less attention to the Toronto Star, which published dramatic contemporaneous accounts. Beyond the archives, he incorporates the recollections of old-timers like Harold Brine as well as family members of the survivors.
The disaster attracted global attention and even prompted a visit by Prince Philip, who “chanced to be in Ottawa when the Bump happened.” His impromptu stop —“at the Queen’s request”— was a much bigger deal than Cuthbertson acknowledges. “I think it is wonderful,” Springhill’s mayor, Ralph Gilroy, said at the time. “I think the people of Springhill will be thrilled and very humble over the fact that he has decided to spend a few moments with them.” Indeed, locals worshipped the monarchy in those days.
The Duke of Edinburgh was met in Moncton by an official delegation — led by Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor, Edward C. Plow — before travelling the sixty miles to Springhill by car. Upon arriving, the small convoy headed straight to All Saints’ Cottage Hospital. After talking to individual survivors (even breaching protocol to sign a few autographs), Prince Philip was briefed on the rescue operations by the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation’s general manager. Two and a half hours later, he was whisked back to the airport, past kids dressed in their Halloween costumes, and took off for London.
The last six survivors were raised to the surface the day after Prince Philip’s visit. They had been trapped 13,000 feet below ground —“in the hellish chamber in which they’d been entombed for eight-and-a-half days.” Then in the early morning hours of November 1, a small rescue crew encountered a stench that was “stomach churning and fetid beyond measure. It reeked of human waste, unwashed bodies, and the sickly sweet, heavy smell of decaying flesh.”
Among the weary men “waiting for death to take them” was Maurice Ruddick, who had passed the time singing his favourite hymns, including “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Rock of Ages.” The lone Black miner trapped below, he reportedly told his rescuers, “Give me some water, and I’ll sing you a song.” Cuthbertson suspects those words “were the product of a journalist’s imagination.” Ruddick himself had no recollection of the exchange.
While Cuthbertson sympathetically reconstructs the lives of the Springhill miners, particularly after the disaster, his character vignettes sometimes lack the revealing clinical analysis found in Last Man Out, where Greene does a better job of explaining the immediate effects of trauma. Some men were tormented by survivor’s guilt and struggled with depression; a few experienced an epiphany and attempted to change the course of their lives. Still others were swept up by forces beyond their control. Most left town to escape the pall of poverty and the torment of bitter memories.
News coverage thrust the miners into the spotlight, and some even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Further south, political advisers convinced Marvin Griffin, Georgia’s governor and a staunch segregationist, to treat the survivors and their families to a week-long vacation on Jekyll Island, with hopes of promoting tourism in his state. The stunt backfired when he realized that Ruddick would be among the Canadians. “In a bid to appear conciliatory while defending the undefendable,” Cuthbertson writes, “Griffin announced that his invitation would stand only if Ruddick, his wife, and their children agreed to stay in quarters separate from the white miners and their families.”
“Being more of a diplomat — and a much better person — than Georgia’s racist governor ever was,” Cuthbertson continues, “Ruddick agreed to abide by the state’s segregationist laws.” Reporters seized upon the marginalized Nova Scotian, nicknaming him the Singing Miner and inflating his role in the drama. When the Toronto Telegram ran its Citizen of the Year competition in January 1959, Ruddick topped the list of twenty-one nominees, including John Diefenbaker.
Ruddick returned from the Telegram awards ceremony, where Ontario premier Leslie M. Frost paid tribute to his courage, so buoyed up that he appeared, in Greene’s vivid description, “dazed with happiness.” But his fame quickly faded, and Springhill’s dark side became more visible. Some townsfolk celebrated their hometown hero, but many others, including fellow miners, were baffled, resentful, and disgusted by the praise heaped upon the only non-white survivor, who ended up scratching out a living by forming a touring musical troupe with his children called the Harmony Babes.
Compared with Greene’s Last Man Out, Cuthbertson’s Blood on the Coal misses the mark on Ruddick and underlying issues of race. Cuthbertson suggests, for example, that Springhill “wasn’t a bad place for Black people to live in the 1950s. White and Black children attended school together — unlike the situation in some parts of Nova Scotia, where school segregation was very much a reality.” Yet even he concedes that Springhill’s white and Black populations “tended not to mix socially.” Indeed, life above ground in Cumberland County was not that different than it was in New Glasgow, where Viola Desmond had been ejected from the Roseland Theatre a decade earlier for daring to sit in the white section.
As John DeMont observed in Coal Black Heart, about 2,500 have perished in the province’s mines, and hundreds more have died slower deaths from lung diseases acquired on the job. Cuthbertson knits together a compelling story, but his book falls a little short of DeMont’s in capturing the resilient “soldier on” attitude and the “poetry in the lives” of the miners. Nonetheless, Blood on the Coal is solidly researched and places the Springhill disaster of 1958 in the broader boom-and-bust context of Nova Scotia coal mining.
Paul W. Bennett is an author, education columnist, and regular guest commentator on talk radio. He lives in Halifax.