SPRINGHILL, N.S. – Springhill mining history came to life at the 2019 Davis Day service June 11 at the St. Andrews-Wesley United Church in Springhill.
“As was the practice in those days, the eldest son, Donald, my grandfather, went to work at a man’s job at the age of 13 to support his family,” Shawna Canning said to the crowd gathered for the service.
Born in 1913, Canning’s grandfather, Donald Arthur Campbell, was named after his grandfather who was killed in the 1891 explosion that killed 125 miners.
Donald began working at the mine at the age of 13 after his father, John Campbell, was injured at the mine and was unable to work again.
Thirty years later, at the age of 43, Donald was working at the mine at the time of the 1956 explosion. He was disabled in the explosion and never worked again, dying from lung cancer in 1972 at the age of 59.
Canning’s mother, Dawn Campbell, was eight-years-old at the time of the 1956 explosion and she never talked about the mine disaster, but in 2006 her sister Louise, who was 15-years-old at the time of the explosion, wrote about the experience.
“I am honoured to read you her story,” said Canning.
On Nov. 1, 1956, just after supper, Louise was at home getting ready to attend Canadian Girls in Training at the Presbyterian Church when the explosion happened.
“The ground suddenly shook and dishes rattled in the cupboard,” Louise said. “We learned there had been a problem at the mines where dad was working the evening shift.”
Relatives arrived from Halifax and their home was filled with people.
“CBC Radio stayed on the air twenty-four hours a day. When not reporting, they played somewhat mournful classical music. My 13-year-old sister hated it,” Louise said. “There was talk of having to seal off the mine to prevent further explosions. It was absolutely horrible, and I often went upstairs to cry by myself.”
Bad news came regarding her favourite uncle, Alex Spence.
“He was a dragger man trained to do underground rescues and had died from exposure to gas while trying to find survivors.”
After three days rescuers located trapped miners, and word came that her dad was alive.
“Much, much later we were told dad was above ground at the makeshift hospital at the armoury.”
Louise and her mom Helen went to the armoury to visit him.
“When we were to go inside the building I froze. She had to go in alone.”
After he was discharged, Louise said her father looked dreadful.
“My handsome father was thin, pale and weak,” she said.
A total of 59 miners were brought up alive and 39 were killed in the 1956 explosion.
“Due to methane gas, there was a high risk of another explosion. The Number 4 Mine had to be sealed. The rest of the bodies were brought up a few months later when the fires were out,” Louise said.
Only two years later was the 1958 bump.
A total of 75 men died in the Bump including the Campbell’s next-door neighbour, Bill Turnbull.
“This left his widow, Elaine, with four children to bring up alone,” Louise said.
“No matter which way I looked in town, there were homes now without fathers,” she added. “The sadness throughout the community was palpable. I still had a father and felt pretty fortunate.”
In 1959, Louise left home to study nursing at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax.
“Looking back over these three years, I see a pattern of not talking about the emotional trauma suffered by the entire community,” said Louise. “I wonder how much these experiences influenced my choice of career in nursing and later becoming a mental health nurse.”
Shawna finished her aunts’ story with words of thanks.
“In closing, I would like to thank my aunt Louise for allowing me to share this write up with you. She was unable to be here today,” said Canning.