The story Springhill is no longer a mining community is not really true.
Some say the end of mining in this community came after a work place disaster claimed the lives of 75 men in 1958. The risk of losing more wasn’t worth the reward coal could offer and, so, Springhill lost its major employer of the day.
With the majority of the community unemployed businesses shut down, families moved away and those who remained continue to recall how the proud community above ground once thrived because of the work beneath it.
Some of that work, however, is still taking place and by men much younger than those who remember Springhill’s heyday.
The Springhill Miners Museum is about to open for another season offering its popular Tour-A-Mine. Hundreds of feet beneath the earth Tony Somers and Tony Dowe are handling the same work miners did back in the day, in some cases using the very same tools from that time and techniques handed down to them from the very miners remembered in story and song.
“People see us as tour guides but they don’t see all the backbreaking labour that goes on underground. But that’s something we do,” Dowe says.
In the days leading up to the opening of the museum, the two Tonys have replaced props, boards and posts the old-fashioned way – brute force. Anything not deemed not up-to-snuff is painstakingly removed and replaced to ensure the mine is a safe place to visit, while maintaining the aesthetic of an older operation.
The fact they use old tools to do this work has little to do with authenticity.
“We have a special tool from 1946 that we use,” Somers says as he picks up what looks like two rulers clamped together. “You set that on your new prop, mark it, cut it off at the same length and then put it back in… I was using a measuring tape just to measure from the floor up, but it was so hard to get at. But this thing here, you put it in, line it up. Done. We have three of these on display.”
“Someone donated this one,” Dowe said. “And it is excellent.”
Another tool they rely on heavily looks like a large spoon or cut off hoe attached to an axe handle. It might be 100 years old, but nothing in that time has come close to being the right tool for the job when it comes time to replace posts, Somers says.
The right tool is only half the battle, but knowing which tool to use and when is something neither had to figure out on their own.
“It’s all been passed on ever since the place started,” Somers said.
“The miners started [the museum] and then when other people started working they showed them and then they had the skills,” Dowe said. “Once they were done it was passed on again.”
Retired miners from former mining communities like Springhill and Joggins still volunteer their time at the museum as guides, but the successful operation calls for younger hands and backs to do the hard labour.
Somers started this work when he was hired as a seasonal employee in 2008 and Dowe came into the fold last year. Both have the good fortune of retired miners sharing their insights when visiting the museum. Some share the tricks of the trade, while others share memories of what life was like. It was a hard life for the men below the ground who endured the perils for their families up above.
Good intentions, however, never went far in those days.
“The mine didn’t care about you or your family,” Dowe said. “If you lived in a [mine company owned] row house you were going to get cheap rent and you might get a deal at the general store the mine owns, but it was a vicious thing. When the husbands died, like in the explosion or whatever, they [the family] had to leave.”
A caveat for many of these families was they could stay if a son in the household took their father’s place.
Things are not as cruel today. Instead, you can find the Tonys cracking jokes above and below ground as they carry on a tradition handed down to them by a community that wants to champion its past. It’s hard work on the front end but makes the tourism season a pleasure as people from far and wide visiting the storied town enjoy the rewards of a tradition has yet to be forgotten.
Catching the Tonys when they work in the mine is like stepping back in time, museum president Paul Atkinson says.
“These guys right here are doing the same thing miners would be doing to keep the mine open,” Atkinson said. “It’s pry bars and mauls. Hard work.”
The pre-season work makes for a pleasant visit and sometimes some treasure for the museum. In previous years workers have found a number of artifacts inside the mine during maintenance work that has been added to the museum’s above ground collection, including clay pipes dating back to the late 1800s.
For the future, the two Tony’s have added their own artifact.
“We put a time capsule in there for the next guy who replaces stuff,” Somers said. “I figure 20 years from now when someone replaces those boards they are going to find something that’s not supposed to be there.”
“We wrote a little note, and then we put it in a zip lock bag,” Dowe said. “We wrote…”
Well, what they wrote is something for 20-years from now.
Or you can ask one of the Tonys when you visit.
The Springhill Miners Museum and Tour-A-Mine opens Saturday, May 19.