Canada’s first underwater coal mine in Joggins

The following article was written by Harry L Burke, appeared In the Chronicle Herald on November 23, 1965 and has been submitted to The Citizen by Ernest Coates.

Did you know that Canada’s first underwater coal mine was at Joggins, Cumberland County, and that they used horses down in the mine to haul the coal from the levels to the main slope. The law required that the horses be brought to the surface once a year, but they became blind when their eyes met the strong light after being underground for such a long period. 

Although coal was mined from the cliffs in Joggins as early as 1730, according to a log book of Captain Hale’s which is in the Essex Institute at Salem, Massachusetts, the first large seam of coal was discovered out under the turbulent waters of the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest rise and fall of tides in the world. Around the turn of the century, a slope was put down near the shore under the sea-bed of the bay. It was a hazardous task as there was danger of the ocean water breaking through into the mine and not every miner would risk his life in this type of mine. 

However, there were hardened miners with years of experience who defied death every day and they sunk the slope, taking particular care to support the roof and sides with extra heavy timbers. Although some water seeped through the ocean floor bed, it was kept pumped out night and day. 

There were actually two slopes – one which the miners were lowered down in box cars and one by which the cars of coal were brought up. There was a continuous cable which let the men down into the mine in one slope while the coal was raised up the other slope. 

When the main slope was down to a depth of half a mile under the bay, levels were developed on either side which extended in both directions for a mile or more. Horses were used to haul the cars of coal out to the main slope. These horses were kept in stables down in the mine and were only brought up to the surface once a year to comply with the laws of the government. These horses would become blinded when brought to the surface in the bright light after being kept in the darkness of the deep mine for a year. Young boys, 12 and 13 years old, looked after the horses down in the mine. 

Such words as sinking, gob, pans, which are easily understood by a miner but unfamiliar to most other people, are standard in a coal mine.

At first the miners used a tiny metal lamp filled with whale oil and a tiny wick provided meagre light for performing their duties of digging coal down in the bowels of the earth. These were later replaced by the carbide lamp; then came the safety lamp. Open lights were always dangerous and could cause explosions, but for safety purposes, a canary used to be taken into the mine to measure the amount of gas there. If the canary died, then it was not safe for the men to enter the mine until the gas cleared. 

There are still a number of the miners living today who can remember what it was like to work in the depths under the immense body of water. As one miner told me: “It wasn’t so bad once you got used to it. Of course, there were always the danger of the ocean breaking through and that would have been the end for the more than 600 miners working underground, but we were lucky. It never did.”

Closed in 1926

The mine closed in 1926 when engineers decided that the mine was too deep and proved a hazard to the miners’ lives. The mouth of the slope was sealed off the bank head torn down and moved further inland from the bay where a new seam of coal was discovered. 

Coal has always been king in the town of Joggins since the first French Acadian settlers arrived here in the early 1700s. There have been periods of prosperity and periods of depression, explosions and accidents, but what most people expected – a flood – never occurred. 

A 10-mile spur railway line had been built in 1887 from Joggins to Maccan, where it connected with the Intercolonial Railway. Both the Canadian Pacific and the Intercolonial. The NB & PEI railways purchased coal from this mine to keep their trains running. Two, three and four-masted schooners loaded coal at the Joggins wharf for various industries throughout Canada. Coal was sold for $2.00 a ton in those days, but when you consider that miners received only $1.50 a day for 10 hours of work you can understand why it sold so cheaply.

(Source: The Citizen, Saturday, March 19, 1994, – A Touch of Cumberland History – Canada’s first underwater coal mine in Joggins)

Couple remember 1928 Joggins fire
By Jennifer Dempsey

JOGGINS – Kathleen Mills remembers the 1928 fire that ravaged the town of Joggins like it was yesterday. 

“I was 13 years old,” she told The Citizen during an interview from her home last week. “I was scared to death.”

The historic fire occurred on December 30, 1928. Nearly 40 buildings including The Wonderland Theatre, Canadian National Express office, blacksmith shop, post office, eight room school, barbershops, shoe shop, barns and numerous residences were completely destroyed by the blaze which swept through the upper half of Main Street causing an estimated $100,000 damage. 

The fire broke out at 7 a.m. in a bungalow owned by Fred J. Burke and a couple of hours later the whole upper half of the street was in smouldering ruins. 

Gusting winds carried the flames from building to building and threatened to destroy the entire town. 

The following morning the coal mining town took on a whole new appearance. 

“It was so sad. You hardly knew where you were,” said Mrs. Mills whose father Pat Terrio helped fight the fire. 

Firefighters and equipment had to be brought in from the neighboring communities of Amherst, Springhill and Parrsboro. There was no water supply or fire apparatus in Joggins so the fire had to be fought, for the most part, by a volunteer bucket brigade. 

“There was nothing here to fight the fire with,” Art Mills added. “All they had was a 45 gallon tank with chemicals,” he recalled. 

Mr. Mills lived in River Hebert but was working in Minudie at the time of the fire. 

“But we could see it. It completely lit up the sky.” 

 Although Mrs. Mill’s home was never in direct danger of catching fire because the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, she watched as houses burned all around her. 

Joggins was a bustling little town in 1928 with a population of 1,700. It’s now considered a village with less than 500 residents. 

Mrs. Mills said the town was never the same following the fire. Hotels and other businesses destroyed in the fire were never replaced. 

“It really interrupted life,” Mrs. Mills remembered. “We had to go out of town for pretty well all of the services once available in the community.” 

School had to be held at the Odd Fellows Hall and at an old church. 

Very few people remain in Joggins who remember the fire. However, the Mills’ (now in their 80s) have shared their stories of the fire with their children. 

Their daughter, Jeanette, really took an interest in the fire and has spent considerable time researching the historic event at the archives in Halifax. 

She obtained details of the fire from newspaper articles and subsequently passed the information along to her parents. 

Mrs. Mills said her skin still gets bumps when she reads the articles. 

“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” Mrs. Mills added as she looked at photocopies of the newspaper articles. “It really brings you back to that day.”

(Source: The Citizen, Saturday, December 28, 1996, – A Touch of Cumberland History – Couple remember 1928 Joggins fire)