Bone and blood
Is the price of coal
Entrance to Springhill mine
A common misconception about the Springhill Mining Disaster, for those who know what it was (mostly Canadians), is that there was only one, when in fact there were three: 1891, 1956, and 1958. However, when Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl
penned the tune, aptly named "The Ballad of Springhill," they were specifically thinking about the most recent one.
Springhill, Nova Scotia, is one of the easternmost places in North America and was the childhood home of Anne Murray. Originally identified as a town, the county board decided to dissolve it fifty years after the mining disaster that took most of the town with it, and absorb it into the Municipality of the County of Cumberland. Coal had been so prevalent in the area for the past century that, according to the Springhill Heritage Group, “There was a time when men got coal out of their backyards; shallow pits were found everywhere. In recent years, there have been instances when a homeowner would step out of his door only to find a big gaping hole where his driveway had been. Another part of an old mine had caved in.”
On the early evening of October 23rd, 1958, an earthquake - known in mining areas as bumps - occurred. How this differs from a regular old-fashioned earthquake can be confusing, but essentially, what caused this particular bump could have been the removal of coal from the layers of strata beneath the surface. Before the bump, it was one of the deepest mines in the entire world, more than 4,000 feet down, with tunnels 14,000 feet in length.
Inside Springhill mine c 2007
Small bumps are fairly common in mines, so when the primary, smaller bump hit in that evening, it went largely ignored. About an hour later, another bump hit. This time three distinct shockwaves echoed throughout the mine causing shifting layers of earth to release toxic gases. With the walls and of the tunnel severely compromised, survival of the miners deep under the earth's surface was questionable. Rescue operations began almost immediately, and while eventual counts showed a large number of survivors, the situation looked bleak. Of the 174 total miners, only 99 were rescued and survived. As a result of their fierce efforts in the rescue of their friends and loved ones, the townsfolk became the only group to ever receive the Carnegie Medal for Heroism, an award usually reserved for individuals only.
Following the disaster the mine was shut down. Unemployment increased. The population dispersed. The powers that be opted to build a prison nearby in an effort to diversify the town’s economy. Out go the miners, in come the convicts.
Since the disaster, many have recorded a version of Seeger and MacColl’s song, including the Dubliners, and U2. Other artists have taken it upon themselves to reference the song in other versions of their own, including Brian Vardigans and Tanglefoot. But the more well-known and one of the first versions of the recording belongs to Peter, Paul, and Mary.
They break into a belting harmony on the line, “Crumble of rock and the walls close round.” Blending their voices seamlessly in a rich harmony you can almost see, PP&M's version is beyond compare. As far as the composition of the song, Seeger told Mojo
in 2015, “In those days I'd sing protest songs without knowing much about them. I just thought they needed to be sung.” Is "Tthe Ballad of Springhill" a protest song? Well it certainly paints a very graphic and negative picture of coal mining. So while it’s not directly political, the subtext is that mining is bad and all mines should be shut down before yet another disaster occurs.
Today, the area which used to be Springhill now boasts a population of under 3,000. We'd like to think the heroism of that October day in 1958 holds a special place in the hearts of those who remain. However, it's more likely the horror of all who were lost is overwhelmingly in the forefront of their memories. And much like the tiny town of Aberfan
, Wales, which suffered a mining tragedy six years later almost to the day, Springhill will serve as a blight on coal mining practices and with any luck, it may also serve as a learning point in preventing such incidents from repeating themselves.
~ Justin Novelli
(thanks to Sakis Boikos for the song suggestion.)