Cape Breton is an Island that sits at the top of Nova Scotia. It is connected to the rest of mainland Nova Scotia by a thin man-made causeway called the Canso Causeway. The causeway took three years to build and was completed in 1955. It was built of granite that was blasted from nearby Cape Porcupine and dumped into the sea. It is a beautiful island a bit like the highlands of Scotland, which is perhaps why so many Scots settled here.
The French military first obtained coal in Cape Breton by prying it out of the cliffs with a pickaxe. The first proper coal mine in Canada was opened in Port Morien in 1720 by the French. This was because Fortress Louisbourg needed a readily available supply of coal. Over the many years since then there have been over a hundred different mine operations in this area.
The earliest tools used were probably crowbars, to help pry the coal from the rock outcrops. Later, when the first shafts were sunk, the miners used picks and wedges. During the 1800’s, they started to use hand augers or hand drills to make holes six feet deep which they filled with a charge of powder. This would break up the coal and make it much easier to get out.
The miner had to not only be strong, but he must also be courageous. Each day they went down the mines, they lived with the threat of death and frequently they were the victims of tragedy. When tragedies happened, however, the coal miners looked out for one another and were prepared to go down to find their trapped fellow workers.
Some of the dangers inside a mine were explosion due to coal dust igniting, the collapse of the walls and roof of the tunnel called a “bump”, explosion or asphyxiation from bad gas (methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide) that sometimes was trapped in with the coal and would leak out and fill the tunnel, and since most of the mines in Nova Scotia reach out under the sea, drowning from flooding. Coal miners were also often afflicted with lung diseases from breathing in coal dust. In Nova Scotia there have been ten major mining disasters and hundreds of people have died as a result of mining coal.
There are also environmental concerns with mining. Coal is not a renewable resource. Once we have pulled the coal out of the earth, burned it to produce electricity or steel, it is gone. We cannot make more. Although coal is more plentiful than oil and gas, it will eventually run out. Burning coal also produces carbon dioxide which contributes to global warming and acid rain.
PROJECT: Locate Cape Breton Island, Sydney, Glace Bay, Port Morien (first commercial coal mine in Canada), Springhill (site of three major mining disasters on the mainland).
FIELD TRIP: A wonderful museum that provides a remembrance of the early days of coal-mining: Coal Miner’s Museum, Glace Bay, Cape Breton.
BOOKS: Boy of the Deeps, written and illustrated by Ian Wallace, Douglas & McIntyre, c1999 (picture book), Out of the Deeps, written by Anne Laurel Carter and illustrated by Nicolas Debon, Orca Book Publishers, c2008 (picture book).
FILM: There is a CBC film called Pit Pony (1997). If you cannot find the film, you can read the book it is based on Pit Pony, by Joyce Barkhouse. In this story, some of the ponies used in the mines came from Sable Island.
View coal mining while serenaded by coal miners, Men of the Deeps.