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Trapped miner remembers Springhill doctor who helped save him

Dr. Arnold Burden, 96, passed away Saturday.
Dr. Arnold Burden, 96, passed away Saturday. - Submitted

Dr. Arnold Burden passes after 96 years

SPRINGHILL – Springhill’s most renowned country doctor has passed.

Dr. Arnold Burden, 96, passed away peacefully March 18. Among the family and friends who will mourn the passing of the almost-legendary doctor will be one of the men whose lives he helped save, Ken Melanson.

In their prime, the world was a different place. Springhill was a different place. The town was so busy, Melanson said, if you wanted a good parking spot on Main Street you needed to be downtown before 6 a.m. and there wasn’t a vacant store on the whole street.

Coal was the major employer but the vicious wounds and death Dr. Burden confronted during the Second World War didn’t end with the Allied victory. The Sprinhgill coal mines would take their toll on hardworking men and their families for another decade, including the explosion of 1956 and the bump of 1958.

Melanson was one of the miners trapped underground in 1956. As he and the other survivors huddled around the little light their helmet lamps allowed and waited, some felt the end was closer than not. A journal was passed around for the men to write their farewells in, but Melanson skipped his turn, later saying he was too scared to.

Little did they know then, but above ground the country doctor had traded in his white coat for coveralls and joined the rescue efforts to reach the men.

“He was a remarkable man. I think most people realize – maybe people outside of Springhill don’t realize – every time that man went down in the mine to help find bodies and do what he could, he was putting his life right on the line.”

When the rescuers reached the trapped men Dr. Burden was right behind them.

“When he walked in, that man, oh boy. They should have a statue of him for what he’s done through the years. Not just for the coal mining, but for everything.”

In his lifetime, Dr. Burden wrote a number of books on the ‘everything’ Melanson mentioned. He performed his first surgery at 14 following a hunting accident and his experiences overseas are the stuff of movies. He was part of the first medical team on the shores of Normandy, liberated and treated the victims of a concentration camp.  Following the 1956 mine explosion that tried to claim Melanson’s life, he would repeat his valour in 1958 when the last major mine disaster gripped the community.

Dr. Burden’s life was so riveting, it cost Melanson a good day of hunting.

“There’s one he wrote about when he was in the war overseas. I had a hoochie out in the woods I used to go to and wait for the deer to come out. I got into that book and was so interested when I put the book down there were three deer there watching me and they took off.”

Later, Melanson would become involved with local tourism promoting the Miners Museum and Springhill’s coal mining past. Regardless of when or where the parade or speaking engagement, Melanson says if he asked Dr. Burden, he would be there.

It would be his trademark.  Dr. Burden was there for the Legion. He was there for the schools. He was there for the young people, to remind them the cost of war and the values of community.

Besides the medals on his chest, Dr. Burden was named to the Order of Nova Scotia, France’s Legion of Honour and a recipient of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award for outstanding and selfless contribution to his country and community.

The stories are many. The memories are plenty. The deeds were selfless.

Melanson is not the first to summarize the passing of the iconic doctor in such a way, but it is suffice to say it will be said many times over in the coming days and year to come: “The town lost a great man.”

christopher.gooding@amherstnews.ca

Twitter: @ADNchris

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