SPRINGHILL, N.S. – Ken Melanson thought his life was going to end on Nov. 1, 1956.
His shift in the Springhill coal mine started at 4 p.m. that day. It wasn’t long after he reported to work that a mine train headed to the surface lost several of its cars, which clipped a power line during their descent, igniting coal dust and setting off an explosion that would kill 39 miners and leave another 88 trapped deep underground.
Melanson, who was only 19 or 20 at the time, was among those trapped 5,400 feet under Springhill. He would spend 80 hours there before rescue.
“They said we were dead when we were down there,” Melanson told the Amherst News in a 2015 interview. “They told the newspapers in all probability there were no more survivors.”
There were survivors. The miners found a ventilation hose and cut into it to give themselves breaths of air until they were rescued several days later.
It marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to honour the men who lost their lives in Springhill’s mining disasters in 1891, 1956 and 1958 as well as the community’s mining heritage.
Melanson died Tuesday at age 81, nearly 62 years after being trapped in the depths of the Springhill mines.
Wearing a miner’s hat and lantern, Melanson often kept vigil every June 11 during Miner’s Memorial Day as families and dignitaries laid wreaths in memory of those who died in the Springhill mines, which number in the hundreds and some who were as young as 10 and 13 years old.
Melanson personally knew some of those miners. He always remembered the good these miners brought to the community and that it was their lives, as well as their deaths, that made the community what it is.
"I think of the past and the way things used to be,” he said three years ago. “It was like a different world back then. No one had any money, so if one of the fellas bought a car that's all he'd talk about for a month. And if someone came up with the money for a house the guys from that side of the mine would come on a Sunday and help you build the foundation and then come back the next weekend and help you build the house. You don't see that today, but that's what made Springhill a community."
For many years, Melanson greeted visitors to the miner’s museum in Springhill and went underground with them to show what life was like in the mines.
James Nodwell was a lifelong friend of Melanson’s. He said Melanson was a very humble and down to earth guy, who wanted to make sure Springhill never forgot its mining past.
“He cared so much about the history of the mines. He wanted to make sure no one forgot,” said the 89-year-old Nodwell. “He was a very caring type of person. I know in 1984 when my mother died he used to pick me up every week and take me out to get groceries. He’d do anything for anyone.”
Herb Pepperdine, who is 95, was trapped in the mines just two years later during the 1958 bump. He didn’t work with Melanson, but got to know him as a former miner and through the miner’s museum and annual memorial day.
“He was a great guy,” Pepperdine said.
There is no funeral for Melanson, but a gravesite service is planned for Friday at 2 p.m. at Hillside Cemetery in Springhill. Donations can be made to a charity of choice and sharing of memories and condolences can be made at his online memorial at www.allenfuneralhome.ca or the W. Allen Funeral Home Facebook page.