Springhill Mine Disaster (1958)

DESCRIPTION: Describes collapse of mine tunnel in Springhill, Nova Scotia, 1958; twelve men are trapped in a cave-in, while several are killed. The lamps, food and water give out; after eight days some are rescued
AUTHOR: Peggy Seeger (with additional words by Ewan MacColl)
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (copyright by authors)
KEYWORDS: rescue death mining disaster ordeal worker
HISTORICAL REFERENCES:
Oct 23, 1958 - the (third) Springhill Disaster
FOUND IN:
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Silber/Silber-FolksingersWordbook, p. 124, "Ballad of Springhill (The Springhill Mine Disaster)" (1 text)
DT, SPRINGHI*

NOTES [2822 words]: I include this, although it's a recently-composed song, because it is solidly within the traditional ballad style, and because it's entered the common repertoire. - PJS
Usually listed as by MacColl and Seeger, but their official report is that it is "chiefly the work of Peggy Seeger." Peggy Seeger, in Seeger, p. 166, says that it's all her work, except that MacColl (by whom Seeger was pregnant, but to whom she was not yet married) suggested that she needed something that made it sound like she had been down in a mine, so he supplied the verse that begins "Down at the coalface miners working." Seeger adds that she considers this "my first good song." (And I will agree that it is, to this day, the one I remember best.)
Seeger reports that the song "has now been officially adopted by the community of Springhill, even though the mine closed after the 1958 'bump' and never reopened." She adds in a note on pp. 166-167 that Caleb Rushton, who is mentioned in the song (and whom she met in 1997) actually took part in the community functions, and sang the verse about him.
There is some confusion about the copyright date; it's listed as 1960 in the Folksinger's Wordbook, but Peggy Seeger's songbook says it was copyrighted 1963.
Seeger says in her book that 74 died and 99 survived (which agrees with Smith, p. 145) after "many days." Her version includes only one of the two late rescues. Seeger wrote the song while the rescue was actually taking place; she does not say so, but I suspect she wrote most of it between the rescue of the "Group of Twelve," who are mentioned in the song, and the "Group of Seven," the last men to be brought out, who are not mentioned.
The town of Springhill is in Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, not far from the New Brunswick border, on the fringes of the Cobequid Mountains (really hills). There is still coal in the area, but it is now considered a minor resource; there is, in fact, a nuclear power plant nearby.
The mine disaster of 1958 was not the only Springhill tragedy; there had been an earlier (and even more deadly) cave-in in 1891, for which see "La Complainte de Springhill (The Lament of Springhill)" and "Springhill Mine Disaster (1891)." That resulted in 125 deaths (Brown, p. 15).
Few remembered the 1891 disaster by 1958, but there was a much more recent tragedy, in 1956. "The 1956 tragedy did not draw as much publicity, even though undaunted rescuers worked tirelessly for days freeing scores of trapped miners" (Smith, p. 118); he suggests that tragic international events in that year distracted people. The tragedy took place on November 1, 1956 (Smith, p. 139), and is thought to have been a coal dust explosion sparked by an underground train that broke up and fell down into the shaft, hitting an electrical cable (Smith, pp. 139-140; Brown, p. 29). The fireball reportedly rose 200 feet in the air. 39 miners died; 88 were rescued (Smith, p. 143).
The Springhill Mine, run by DOSCO collieries (Bruce, p. 269), was by 1958 one of the deepest in the world, descending some 14,000 feet (Smith, p. 144. That's the shaft length -- two and a half miles; the actual vertical depth was 4340 feet/1324 meters, according to Brown, p. 45). The "back slope," the trolley that took the miners in and out, ran at a 33° slope (Greene, p. 8). It took twenty minutes to go all the way from the lowest level to the surface (Brown, p. 48). That long underground run had been a contributing factor to the 1956 disaster, when gas had been an issue; it had been very hard for the men to get out through the gas (Brown, pp. 31-32), and some had died because they tried to walk thought the gas levels even though those below them warned them not to (Greene, pp. 15-17). In that disaster, 39 men had died, and 88 men who had been underground survived -- many of them after a very difficult time, where a man named Con Embree played a role like that of Caleb Rushton two years later, inspiring the trapped miners (Brown, pp. 37-39). It took until January 1957 to get all the bodies out; mine #4 was then closed (Brown, p. 39) -- a sort of omen for 1958. This meant hard times for the town as hundreds of miners lost their jobs; the rest went over to the #2 mine, the last one left open (Greene, p. 20).
There was also a fairly substantial fire in the town in 1957 (Brown, pp. 41-43); it didn't kill anyone, but it probably affected the morale of the people of Springhill.
In 1958, there were three levels on which mining proceeded, at 13,000, 13,400, and 13,800 feet down the trolley path (although, curiously, the last men rescued, the "Group of Seven," were at the 12,600 foot level; Greene, p. 228). Supposedly the patterns of supports had recently been changed, at the instigation of efficiency experts; this reportedly made the miners nervous (Greene, p. 8). Possibly rightly; because the mine was uniquely deep, no one had truly relevant experience in what sorts of supports it needed! And my father, an engineer, points out that a sloped path is much less mechanically strong than a simple straight vertical shaft; the angled path was probably easier to build and maintain, but it needed heavy bracing to be strong.
"Bunps" were not unusual at Springhill; it was said to have had 525 bumps from 1917 to 1958, or slightly more than one a month.
There were 174 men working in the mine on the day of the 1958 "bump," which was said to have happened at 8:06 p.m. (Smith, p. 144). The bump itself was severe enough to be felt as an earthquake in the town above (Greene, pp. 38-39). The time could be determined precisely because a seismograph at Halifax felt it (Brown, pp. 45-46).
Not everyone in the mine was dangerously trapped. By 5:00 the next morning, 75 survivors (some of them injured) had been brought out (Greene, p. 70; on pp. 113-114 she describes someone who was rescued slightly later who was so injured that he lost a leg). But that left the majority still underground, dead or alive.
The owners quickly became sure that there could be no survivors at the 13,400 and 13,800 foot levels, and little chance even above that. They were right; the only survivors were from the 13,000 foot level and higher, who were in two groups (Brown, pp. 51-52), the "Group of Seven" and the "Group of Twelve." But eventually those on the surface heard voices and tapping from an air pipe (Brown, p. 55). For the moment, at least, men were alive down there.
The main problem was the collapse, but gas was an issue as well. Caleb Rushton reported that there wasn't a lot of it; the men who were healthy were able to endure and survive. But it was often fatal to those who were already injured (Brown, p. 53).
The first group to be rescued was the Group of Twelve, which included Caleb Rushton, mentioned in the song. According to Greene, p. 32, Caleb Rushton "was thirty-five, a clean-shaven, churchgoing, rosy-cheeked young man with large sensitive nose pinched by wire spectacles. He and his wife, Pat, lived in a nice farmhouse on the rim of a green valley outside town. Caleb was a steady and intelligent man who might have found his destiny elsewhere, perhaps in the study of history or economics, if he hadn't come of age in a coal-mining town. He was a direct descendent of the eighteenth-century United Empire Loyalists, who had received grants of land in Nova Scotia in 1785 from the English Crown." Greene adds on p. 33 that he was a heavy reader who liked to collect books.
Rushton was slightly injured in the collapse; it was his yells that caused several miners to gather together (Greene, p. 62).
Rushton's group ended up with twelve living miners (Brown, p. 54). The list, according to Greene, pp. 65-67, was Ted Michniak (the oldest, at age 58), Fred Hunter, Levi Miley, Eldred Lowther, Bowman Maddison, Gorley Kempt, Rushton, Joe Holloway, Hughie Guthro, Harold Brine, and Larry Leadbetter; they later found a man, Joe McDonald, with a broken leg (Greene, p. 68). Michniak was also injured, with a dislocated shoulder, so he couldn't do much to explore where they were trapped (Greene, p. 89), and most of the others were somewhat bruised and bothered by the gas (it would later turn out that Hunter was hiding a bad injury; Greene, pp. 97-98; his leg would eventually be amputated; Greene, p. 215). But the ten who could move went seeking a way out -- and found a lot of falls and several men killed, often in very gory ways, by the falls.
It sounds as if they weren't very efficient in their use of their resources. Water and food were shared, but apparently they at first used all their functioning headlamps at once rather than turning some of them off to preserve the batteries (Greene, p. 95). Hence they quickly ran out of light as well as living supplies.
Rushton wasn't the leader in their earlier efforts to seek a way out. Other, more eager miners did that. But things changed as they were stuck underground longer: "As their canteens went dry, batteries failed, and hopes expired, a couple of new leaders arose. Somehow Caleb Rushton and Gorley Kemp took over. Men in their loneliness found Caleb's optimism to be a source of hope, and Gorley's geniality to offer a bit of company" (Greene, p. 140).
Rushton reported on what he did: "It was while we were nibbling on our few sandwiches that [I?] started them singing hymns. I'm a choir singer. The boys really liked it when Bowie Maddison and I would do a duet on 'The Stranger of Galilee.' That was their favorite and we sung it many times each day. Prayer was what kept us alive" (Brown, pp. 53-54). Rushton "held to his faith in God. He had book learning. He spoke with a calm, low-timbred voice.... 'If the Lord had meant for us to die,' he said, 'He could have taken us a few days ago when our buddies were killed. He has a different plan in store for us'" (Greene, p. 141). And he would lead hymns, or encouraged them along if someone else started one.
The group had been underground for more than six days when they saw a flicker of light and heard voices along an air pipe (Greene is inconsistent about the exact timing; p. 185 says that it was at 3:00 p.m. on October 29, 173 hours past the "bump" -- but 173 hours after 8:06 p.m. on October 23 would be 1:06 a.m. on October 31). Eventually they made themselves heard, causing the rescuers to start digging to find them in particular (Greene, pp. 188-189). It would prove hard going -- their first attempts to pipe water down to the twelve failed because they couldn't find a long enough copper pipe; it turned out that the trapped miners were behind 83 feet of rock and coal (Greene, p. 197). And they were so desperate that they almost came to blows over the water that was trickled down to them (Greene, pp. 197-198). After that, the rescuers sent down sugary coffee, then tomato soup (Greene, p. 200); about twelve hours later, at 2:25 a.m. on October 30, the rescuers broke through (Greene, p. 206).
The song implies that Caleb Rushton and the Group of Twelve were the last to be rescued. In fact the Group of Seven was the last. This group had its own leader who helped keep them alive, Maurice Ruddick -- but he doesn't seem to have gotten as much press, perhaps because he was Black. This was more than a week after the catastrophe; they were found on November 1, nine days after the "bump" (Greene, p. 223). Dr. Burden, who had been constantly at the mine site and helped the men as they were taken out, recorded "Last man out, 8:45 P.M." (Greene, p. 227). Greene, p. 185, claims that no miners had ever survived underground so long after a disaster.
Several of these survivors were so changed by their ordeals that their wives had trouble recognizing them (e.g. Greene, pp. 234-235). The last body reportedly was brought out on November 6 -- and the wife of this last man would never admit that the body was his (Greene, p. 244). Still, he obviously never came out alive. Neither did 74 others. 99 were rescued of the 174 in the mine.
It is shocking to realize that Springhill had only two doctors (Greene, p. 53). But there probably wasn't much that could have been done even had there been more. One of them worked on the rescue without being able to do much good; later, he would be involved in identifying bodies -- often impossible, given the state of the remains; quite a few could only be identified by the identification number on their lamps, which the miners checked out individually with an identification tag (Greene, p. 136).
There were reporters everywhere -- 137, according to Greene, p. 82. It was the first major disaster covered on international television (Greene, pp. 82-83). Some of the survivors, including Caleb Rushton, were even invited onto the Ed Sullivan Show (Greene, p. 219); their appearance helped raise two million dollars in relief funds (Greene, p. 231). I can't help but wonder if this is why Peggy Seeger made Rushton her one named character, even though it was Maurice Ruddick who became "Canada's 1958 Man of the Year" (Greene, p. 278).
Even the miners who didn't make it onto TV were generally given recognition and gifts once they made it out of the hospital (Smith, p. 147, describes the media circus which followed, in which the miners became heroes) -- but they also got word that they were unemployed; the mines were shut down (Greene, p. 279). The mines were still productive, but the owners didn't want any more bad publicity or disasters (Smith, pp. 147-148). And I suspect that such a deep mine was expensive to run. On top of everything else, after the mine shut down, a coal fire got started (perhaps sparked by the poor former miners who needed heat) and burned for many years (Brown, p. 67).
The survivors often suffered in more ways than just losing their jobs. The life histories that Green offers starting on p. 290 show that several became depressed, at least one probably developed PTSD or some other trauma disorder, and several developed anger issues (anger being a common symptom of both depression and PTSD).
The disaster was hard on Springhill even apart from the lives lost; it ruined the economy. Many people left the area once the mines shut down. Brown, p. 73, has census numbers for a century. At the 1951 census, the town had 7138 residents. By 1961, it was down to 5836; it had 5262 in 1971, and just 4896 in 1981.
Brown, pp. 74-88, has a list of all people known to have been killed in the Springhill Mines from 1876 to 1969 (yes, there were a few killed after the mines closed). The majority came from the disasters of 1891 (125), 1956 (39), and 1958 (75), but it was a relatively rare year that saw no deaths at all; the total for the entire period was 429, so 190, or almost half, were killed at other times than the three major dsasters.
Brown's book is entitled Blood on the Coal: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disasters, 1976. Obviously the temptation is to assume that the title is from Peggy Seeger's song, but I don't know; he never quotes the song or mentions Seeger.
Some notes on the song itself:
"Down in the dark of the Cumberland mine": nowhere in my reading have I seen it called the "Cumberland Mine"; it was just Springhill mine #2.
"Often the earth will tremble and roll. When the earth is restless, miners die": As we saw above, "bumps" occurred in the mine about once a month. But most did not result in fatalities. The 1958 bump was bigger.
"The living and the dead men two miles down"/"Twelve men lay two miles from the pitshaft": The were not actually two miles underground -- but the shaft to the levels where they were working was actually more than two miles long; the Group of Twelve was more than two and a half miles down the trolley from the surface.
"Twelve men lay in the dark and sang": With no water, they couldn't sing all the time, but Caleb Rushton's hymns did encourage them.
"Three days passed and the lamps gave out": The battery lanterns gave out gradually, but certainly the last five or so days were spent without light.
"Caleb Rushton he up and said": There is no report that I've seen of Rushton using words similar to these, but he did insist that they keep their hopes up. Interestingly, the Digital Tradition version omits Rushton's name, substituting "our foreman." In one sense, this was good -- some of the people of Springhill resented the attention paid to Rushton and (especially) Maurice Ruddick. But there was no "foreman" down there; Rushton and Ruddick and the other leaders became leaders simply because they were more psychologically able to deal with the conditions.
"Listen for the shouts of the bareface miners": "bare-faced miners" are miners who had no masks to deal with gas or fire. Masks were specialized equipment; those trapped below ground were bare-faced miners, and so were most of those who worked to rescue them.
"Eight days passed and some were rescued": this was not the last rescue, which took place on the ninth day. But Seeger never mentions the rescue of the Group of Seven. - RBW
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