Nova Scotia Archives

Men in the Mines

A History of Mining Activity in Nova Scotia, 1720-1992


Life Above Ground

In Nova Scotia's mining communities, 'life above ground' really means only one thing — the microcosm of the coal-mining existence. Gold, iron, gypsum, salt, offshore oil, natural gas — all bring challenge and danger, hard labour, common purpose and solidarity; but nothing in this province's mining history equals the influence of ‘King Coal' in shaping the rhythm of life in those communities created by its presence — or those in which its memory lingers.

Daily life is different in coal-mining communities. When miners work with explosives, tunnelling deep underground or out under the ocean, when they labour in semi-darkness, breathe in foul, corrosive air, and live constantly with the threat of death, there is a complex dynamic at work. When miners spend entire lives working for little pay, less satisfaction, and only to improve the profit margins of their employers, collective frustration and anger are inevitable. And when life collides with death, as it frequently does in the mines, entire communities come to a halt and gather at the pit-head to wait. The bonds linking miner to miner below, and family to family above, are enduring and imperishable.

The virtual exhibit presented here only begins to examine what 'life above ground' meant historically in Nova Scotia's mining communities. The exhibit is overwhelmingly about coal, and is roughly divided into three sections.

Company Control

The arrival of the General Mining Association at Pictou in 1827 marked Nova Scotia's entry into the Industrial Age. The subsequent development of the province's coal reserves opened up endless employment opportunities for Nova Scotians; no one had to leave the province to find work, and in the early days there were jobs for anyone willing to relocate a short distance — Blacks from Guysborough County, for example, found ready employment in the Pictou coal fields. Wages were low but the work was secure, and migrating from one mine to another, or one community to another, was common.

From the beginning, however, there was a shortage of skilled labour, especially around coal technology; as a result, mechanics and engineers were frequently brought from Great Britain, induced with offers of high wages and special benefits. Managers and senior staff with the General Mining Association and the other big industrial concerns which gradually established themselves, also came from Great Britain, or later from central Canada and the United States. They occupied company residences like 'Mount Rundle' at Albion Mines (Stellarton), where they lived in a genteel comfort which was awkwardly at variance with the hard-scrabble existence of the thousands of men whose work and lives they controlled.

By the late 1800s, coal mines were being developed in Nova Scotia faster than men could be found to labour in them; the work had also become diversified, but technical training was not yet available provincially. The result was an influx of skilled immigrant miners and their families, from France, Belgium, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and various Eastern European countries.

The world in which the miners lived was completely dominated by whatever company employed them. Invariably, it was the company that created the community — in the early days, a group of rough buildings and sheds quickly built to service mine-related activities. Later, purpose-built offices and administrative buildings appeared, with appropriate staff to manage operations and employees. And as the technology progressed, complex engineering structures like the Cornish Pumphouse or the electrical generating stations of the early 20th century were built, intended to increase mine production or advance general efficiency.

The early 20th century model community of Broughton in Cape Breton was an unusual example of corporate (but doomed) idealism; otherwise, 'the company town' in Nova Scotia was a much different place. Along with the gritty industrial sprawl that formed the nucleus of a typical coal-mining community, came the ever-present company houses — tiny detached cottages or row-homes, designed to keep miners and their families together — close to the pit-head, and in minimum comfort by the standards of the day. This followed the factory-system pattern of industrial development established in Great Britain during the early 19th century, and then transferred to American mill-towns and mining communities.

Along with the company houses came the company store — one in each community, stocked with everything that the miner or his family would ever need. These were quality goods, but they came with a high price; everything could be charged on credit against the miner's pay envelope, and few families escaped being in perpetual economic bondage. Over time, company stores in Nova Scotia's coal-mining towns became symbols of corporate oppression and in times of labour unrest were the objects of looting and violence.

Labour's Response

The inevitable collision between business and labour over issues such as hours of work, wages and benefits, working conditions, mine safety and general living conditions did not take long to develop. As early as the 1830s there were riots in the Pictou coal fields, and in 1864 provincial troops were brought in to Sydney Mines to quell disturbances there. As the mining companies became larger and more powerful in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so too did the stranglehold they exerted over their communities, and the misery they inflicted on their employees.

Miners found a collective voice in 1879, when the Provincial Workmen's Association was organized at Springhill, later extending to Pictou and Cape Breton; it was intended to protect miners' interests against those of the companies which employed them. In 1917 the Association merged with the United Mine Workers of America to become the Amalgamated Mine Workers of Nova Scotia.

Conflict between miners and employers was a constant in Nova Scotia after the 1860s, resulting in strikes and lock-outs, company police, military intervention, hostility, brutality and corporate intransigence. The long strike of 1909-11, which lasted for 22 months in some communities, and the bitter 1925 strike with its accompanying destitution and descent into violence, remain landmark episodes in the province’s long, turbulent history of unrest in the mines.

This exhibit includes only brief references to the large and complex subject of labour relations, labour unrest and union activity in Nova Scotia's mining industry. The inclusion of Christina Lamey's article on "Davis Day Through the Years: A Cape Breton Coalmining Tradition," helps to explain how the death of one man in 1925 became a rallying point for preserving the memory of labour unrest and perseverance in this province.

Coal-Mining Communities in the 20th Century

As the 20th century progressed, the stranglehold of big business was gradually broken. Labour unions slowly asserted their collective rights to fair wages, benefits and improved working conditions. From the early 1900s, miners had access within their communities to technical training, and consequently went into their work better prepared. Improvements to mine safety and rescue techniques also brought a fragile sense of security — severely tested, however, by the Springhill and Westray disasters of the 1950s and 1992.

Beginning in the 1930s the Antigonish Cooperative Movement, with its emphasis on education, self-improvement and sustainable home ownership, brought a renewed sense of shared values and family strength to mining communities. The cooperative housing initiative at Tompkinsville in Cape Breton is perhaps the best-known example of this. The role and contributions of women to family and community life were also acknowledged and promoted.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the shared community life which miners had always depended on underground now moved above ground, with an emphasis on sports and recreation. Frequently sponsored and underwritten by the mining companies or unions, team activities such as baseball and hockey thrived in mining communities across Nova Scotia through the 20th century, bringing miners and their families together and encouraging a healthy lifestyle.

Community bands and musical groups also became popular, patterned after long-established models found in English and Welsh coal-mining communities. The outstanding Nova Scotia example is, of course, 'The Men of the Deeps' — the world-famous miners' choir founded in 1966 specifically to preserve Cape Breton's mining culture. This event was part of a growing awareness at the community level of what had been accomplished, at great cost, over the previous 250 years of mining activity in Nova Scotia. This knowledge led in turn to the determination 'to rise again' in spirit and in memory, and resulted in the establishment of at least three museums dedicated to preserving and celebrating the coal-mining experience in this province.


View images from Life Above Ground in the 'Men in the Mines' Virtual Exhibit