Cape Breton Post
N.S. heroes died on battlefields and in collieries.
Memories are long in this province, and it has been a week where the past has hung heavy.
Sunday marked the 77th anniversary of D-Day, the beginning of the Battle of Normandy, during which Canada suffered 18,700 casualties, including 5,000 deaths.
No precise count, to my knowledge, exists of how many of them hailed from Nova Scotia. The closest thing to a number I know of comes from the Wartime Heritage Association, created to commemorate the wartime history of Yarmouth, which has identified the names of 3,000 Nova Scotians who had lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy and elsewhere in the two world wars and other conflicts in the service of their country.
Their names and deeds rightly live on through the ages.
SOAKED IN BLOOD, VALOUR
But I think it is worth pointing out that June 11 is another date in this province’s history that is soaked in blood, sacrifice and valour.
William Davis Day, also known in this province as Miners’ Memorial Day, recognizes every person who died in Nova Scotia’s coal mines. Precisely how many perished there is unknown.
The best I can do is point you in the direction of the 2,497 entries on the Nova Scotia Museum of History’s list of coal mining fatalities in this province, who, I would argue, also fought battles against seemingly insurmountable odds, and made the ultimate sacrifice for their families and their communities.
Then I would introduce you to some of them in the hope that they too will not be forgotten.
Names like William Lowe and James Conn, who, having met their makers due to a methane explosion in Pictou County’s Storr pit in 1837, are the oldest in this roll call of the dead. But also, Patrick Campbell, Thomas McLeod and Morris White, the Timmons boys John and Peter, John Bennois, and John Sullivan, all of Cape Breton County, James Shea of Inverness, and Robert Harvey and Andrew Forbes of Pictou County who lost their lives underground in this province during the ringing year Canada became a country.
UNIMAGINABLE BODY COUNT
In the ensuing years, the body count, in rural parts of this small province, are unimaginable: the 15 men from Pictou and Cape Breton who perished in 1872; the 73 a year later, in the Gowrie, Lingan and International Mines in Cape Breton, and Pictou County’s Vale Mine and Foord Pit, but mostly in a series of explosions in the Drummond Colliery, in Westville, Pictou County, where the Museum of History tells us, 60 men, children and horses perished; the 55 in 1880, all in Pictou County, at least 44 of them at the supposedly state-of-the-art Foord Mine.
All told, 1,273 of those on the Museum of History’s list came from Cape Breton County, where my grandfather went into the pit at 11, and 73 from the mines of Inverness County, the remnants of which can now be found beneath the area’s fabled golf courses. Another 544 were from Cumberland County, home to the particularly illfated Springhill mines. In total, 606 were from Pictou County where men died in bunches: 88 in Stellarton’s Allan Mine in 1918, 19 in the McGregor Mine in the same town in 1952, 26 in the Westray mine, a three-minute drive away, 40 years later.
The mines took them in so many ways: William Cargig fell on pick handles, James D. Conway drowned, John R. Ferguson was kicked by a horse, Frank Gallant was killed by a falling timber, John Thomas Holloway was electrocuted, Alphonse MacDougall had a heart attack, Hugh MacDonald, one of the 32 MacDonalds to depart this earth in the coal mines of this province, died from a severed artery in the foot, John Gilgrist when his clothing was caught in a hoist, Arthur Penill when he fell down a mine shaft.
Most of them died from similar causes: “devastating methane explosion,” “fall of stone,” “fall of coal,” “struck by trip,” “gas and coal dust explosion,” or “terrific, devastating bump.” The death of some, though, remains a mystery, attributed to “natural causes,” “in Halifax” or “cause not recorded.”
The mines took lives above ground too. Bill Davis, of Davis Day-fame, who was five feet, two inches tall, was 37 and the father of nine children, with a 10th on the way, on June 11, 1925. At that point, he and the other Cape Breton miners had been on strike for more than three months against the British Empire Steel Corporation in a desperate bid for better working conditions and fair wages.
Their destitution was such that a Cape Breton health official sent a report to the prime minister warning that 2,000 miners and their families were “on the verge of starvation.” Relief poured in from the Red Cross, the Manitoba legislature, ordinary citizens in Ontario, the All-Russian Miner’s Union. A newspaper of the time recounted how a four-yearold boy walked into a bank branch and handed over 60 cents in pennies that he had saved “for the little boys and girls down there.”
Throughout, BESCO, famously claiming the miners “can’t stand the gaff,” comported itself with moustachetwirling villainy: cutting off the sale of coal to the miners’ homes and the supply of water, including to the local hospital, deploying its private police force to, with impunity, jail striking miners.”
I’ve stood exactly where the miners massed — estimates put them at between 700 and 3,000 strong — 96 years ago Friday. I’ve walked, as they did, down a path that runs along the rail line heading west from New Waterford, bound for the power station at Waterford Lake that they hoped to retake.
The difference was that when I emerged from the forest there were no police on horseback who rode toward them brandishing nightsticks and firing indiscriminately. Within minutes they had fired more than 300 bullets, but the miners fought back, putting 30 police officers in hospital. In the melee that followed one miner broke his back, another was shot in the arm, another still in the stomach.
I had a guide that day, an old colliery man from the area. He showed me where they found Davis — by a tree stump with three or four bullet holes — as dead as if he had stormed a beach in Normandy.