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Springhill Strikes!

For the week of Monday May 24, 2004

On May 27, 1911, the long and bitter 22-month coal miners’ strike in Springhill, Nova Scotia, came to an end. It was only one of a series of events that beset the Springhill coal mining industry, bringing the inhabitants of the historic town both prosperity and heartbreak. 

Springhill Collieries in Springhill, N.S.
© Photo courtesy of History Collection of the Nova Scotia Museum
Mining began on a large scale in 1872 when the Springhill and Parrasboro Coal and Railway Company sank shafts and opened a rail line. The town prospered from the success of the coal industry. Coal was king and people across Canada flooded to Nova Scotia to be part of the success. But, the joy in Springhill came to a sudden halt after the town’s first mining disaster. In 1891, an explosion occurred in one of the mines leaving a staggering death toll of 125 men and boys.

After the disaster, the men returned to the mines with feelings of uneasiness. Work continued without incident until 1909, when the largest miners’ strike occurred. The strike was due to terrible working conditions and the formation of a new mining union that demanded recognition before returning to work. The miners felt oppressed and were forced to work long, hard hours for little pay, often in highly dangerous conditions. After a long battle with the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company, the strike ended when the Dominion Steel Corporation bought the mines.

The terror of their ordeal etched in their faces, rescued miners Bill Miller (L) and Don Ferguson rest after the October 1958 explosion
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-177106
The 1911 strike was not the last difficult challenge for Springhill. The end of the strike signalled a period of progress. There were minor strikes, but no serious work stoppages until two explosions and a fire over a period of two years shocked the town. An explosion in 1956 took the lives of 39 miners. A year later a fire ravaged the town. It destroyed homes, stores and municipal buildings, and devastated the small community. The town’s population declined and unemployment increased with the closure of all but one of the mines.

In 1958, a collapse in the last remaining mine sent a shockwave of earthquake proportions through the town – 75 men perished and the mine was closed. After almost 85 years, the town’s principal industry was finally put to rest. Although coal mining returned a few years later, the town enjoyed a gradual diversification of industry and employment, relying less on mining. As one of Canada’s most commercially important coalfields, Springhill Coal Mining was designated a national historic site.

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