Lila Carson writes about how pit ponies were vital to mines.
Cape Breton mines would have had difficulty operating without the four-legged workers
Listening to the Barra MacNeils on Coast Radio 89.7, the words to their song spoke to me, reminding me how much history a song can teach:
“and they make the ponies pull til it nearly breaks their backs and they’ll never see again … down the Coaltown Road.”
I’d heard of pit ponies, who hadn’t after the book and the movie and the CBC-TV series?
Imagine 700 horses/ponies living, working and sleeping underground. With the miners also working there, it was like a whole other underground civilization.
The poor horses never saw the light of day except for the two-week miners’ vacation every summer, starting in 1947. Someone mentioned when they came out, they would need blinders on until their eyes adjusted to daylight. Coming up from the depths of the earth, they’d have two weeks of glorious freedom in fresh air to run and romp in a big green field on Minto Street before returning to another year of drudgery.
Prior to the 1961 government protection granted to Sable Island horses, they would be rounded up and shipped to Cape Breton to work as pit ponies.
Horses were so crucial to mining before mechanization that trips would be made out west and to P.E.I. to buy them. Many people say they were more valued than the miners.
Stabled beneath the surface, each horse had its own stall and ate grain and hay. They worked hard for their keep and had to be well-trained, with no biters or kickers tolerated.
The pit ponies were protected to ensure their health and safety, their heads especially. A heavy leather cap and mask was fitted between its ears, coming down over its nose. They wore a double horse collar to hook onto the carts and were bridled so the driver could control them. I don’t think they got a ‘clanny lamp’ to wear with their pit clothes.
Most men loved their horses and took very good care of them. If they didn’t, they would be taken to task for it. Even so, accidents could still happen.
Dr. John L. Sullivan, who went to France in 1916 with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, became the full-time veterinarian and built a veterinary horse hospital across from today’s Sterling Mall, to provide equine medical care. His brother M.T. Sullivan worked for the coal company in New Aberdeen and lobbied for clean water and sewage disposal. Previously they had part-time vets, Dr. Jakeman and later Dr. MacIsaac.
After an incident, the horses were brought to the surface and taken to the hospital. Dr. Sullivan created a slow-axle sloven ambulance to transport injured animals. He also built an innovative operating table that brought the animal alongside the vertical table, where they were strapped securely, chloroformed, and the table cranked into a horizontal position to allow exams, treatment and/or surgeries. This greatly improved the care of the horses and prolonged their lives.
Of course, not all animals could be saved and some did end up being shot in the Sterling Yard. Here, there was an old chimney of red bricks that had been abandoned by an old colliery. Rather than having to dig a hole to bury the horse, its body was incinerated or cremated. I guess there were no glue or dog food factories back then.
It wasn’t a vet who took care of their daily needs, it was Patrick MacNeil, a veterinary assistant, probably similar to today’s animal health technicians. He began his career driving a team of pit ponies delivering goods between different sites.
Although Paddy MacNeil never had any formal training, he did watch and learn onthe-job. His love of the horses made him a caring, dedicated caregiver.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Find what you love to do, find someone who will pay you to do it and you will never work a day in your life.”
I think MacNeil may have been one of those lucky people who found just such a job.
Either he or his stable friend were well into their 90s and still walking several miles a day. I’d say he lived long and prospered.
What’s happening the Bay?
Tonight at Old Town Hall, Carole MacDonald, author of “Historic Glace Bay,” will speak at 7 p.m.
The Friday Night Knitting Club meets at the Glace Bay Library at 7 p.m.
A CD launch for Matthew Earhart will take place Friday at 7 p.m. at the Savoy Theatre.
No. 20 Colliery, 1952. Horses on Vacation. The only time the pit ponies were brought to the surface was during the miners’ two-week vacation period.
No. 1B Colliery, 1955. Fraser. The last of the 1B pit ponies. Fraser spent most of his life in the service of the coal company. He is shown here on the occasion of his retirement.