Coal Mining in Cape Breton

I grew up reading 'Sydney' on the rails of the nearby CNR railway ... and 'Algoma' on the rails of the CPR. In 1990 at Coldwell, Ontario, it read 'Nippon' on the rails which the CPR was about to install.

In 1980 and 1988, during vacations to the Atlantic Provinces, the unique industrial heritage of Cape Breton around Sydney provided an interesting lesson in Canadian history for us. This page is an attempt to explain some aspects of the pursuit of this ancient mineral resource from the beginning.

This page has become so large, that I have attempted to lessen the misery of visitors by adding the table of contents below, with links back and forth within the page.

Most readers will probably be content to simply have a quick look at the sections which interest them.

Go Introduction
Go Early collieries in Britain
Go Mine ventilation
Go A Canadian steam powered colliery railway in the 1830s
Go George Monro Grant describes Cape Breton in 1882
Go Happy Mine
Go Cornish pumping engine
Go Engineering, Scottie here.

Go Coal near Sydney
Go Get the most from your mine!
Go Boys in the mines
Go Endless rope haulage & Tippler work
Go Technology in Nova Scotia mines
Go Some uses of coal in the early 1900s
Go Glace Bay


Bluffs at Glace Bay Cape Breton

   The seashore at Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in 1980.
One of Canada's few areas of 'coal measures' ... seen during a vacation trip.

Sedimentary rock layers at Glace Bay
Looking up from the same shoreline to representative sedimentary rocks containing a little iron and a little coal.

Coal is not a uniform substance of uniform quality for burning ... unlike ... a manufactured 'sawdust log'.
A great deal of practical experience and 'nature study' over time was necessary to understand how to effectively exploit this natural resource.

Coal was essential in creating the 'western civilization' which many of us inherited ...
It reminds us of other climates and now obsolete life forms which were here long before us.

If history is any guide ...

The geological record of coal will exist long after the planet bids our civilization farewell.

*  *  *

Often shale is found just above coal. Layers of clay are often found just below coal seams.

When ancient people (like the original 'Britons') burned coal it was often found as sea coal ... which had been released by the power of the waves from the shore ... 'hey, this black rock burns!'

People also found this mysterious rock in simple surface outcroppings. Hacking away at the outcroppings they would 'mine' as much as they could.

Shapes in the coal looked like plants people had never seen before ... they gradually developed theories about where coal came from.

Much more important than 'theories' to utilitarian people concerned about comfort or trade was ... where could more of this really excellent fuel be found ... should they look for other 'plant picture rocks'? Could coal be found everywhere (in Britain) just be digging deep enough?

To spoil the surprise ... coal was formed during the Carbon-iferous period roughly 360 to 300 million years ago. Massive amounts of plant material with lots of lignin (lignin is barky stuff) died and fell down.

One explanation for coal's subsequent formation is that nothing had evolved to digest all this lignin so it was very well preserved - just like Dick Clark.

This is what is so special and precious about coal ... it is sedimentary or metamorphic rock made out of STP - Specially Treated PlantMaterial.

It has lots of 'big carbon' molecules which had no useful purpose in life ... until we thoughtfully came along and started pyrolyzing and oxidizing them ... i.e. turning rocks into air.

One aspect of atmospheric science linked to this Carbonosaurus Period is that with all this lignin going into proto-coal carbon-sinks ... the atmosphere had 'too much' oxygen in it. Without even doing cardio twice a week ... super-sized, inefficient animals could thump around the planet without even getting winded!

Those were the Good Old Days.
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Early Collieries in Britain

So coal is laid down in layers like other sedimentary rocks ... but unlike the particles forming shale (clay) or sandstone ( ... sand! ... geez!) ... coal is made of old plant material which has received some kind of protection from being completely broken down by micro-organisms and weathering. Maybe the decaying swamp was acidic ... maybe not enough 'bugs' could digest it at that time in geological history ... maybe it was effectively sealed away under other sediments. Some kinds of coal (e.g. anthracite coal) is more accurately a 'metamorphic rock' as its original sedimentary characteristics have been altered by great heat and/or great pressure.

As society demanded more and more coal, British miners devised all sorts of techniques and technologies to obtain it. As a layer of rock lies around for 300 million years, it is subject to all the effects of plate tectonics ... and forces above the lithosphere such as weathering, glaciation, and flooding.

Much of the 'coal measures' in Britain had been subject to all sorts of scrunching by tectonic plates coming together. So instead of a nice flat thick bed of coal like a pan of brownies ... British coal miners often found irregular coal beds sloping almost vertically ... or discontinuous faulted beds with some sections up and some sections down ... or folded coal seams which took on shapes like the letter 'W'.

Early coal pits were simply ... pits. They took the shape of bells as the important coal layer at the bottom was harvested down and out to the point of causing the walls of the pit to collapse. There was a general expectation by property owners that the previous bell pit would be filled in by the miners before starting the next.

Then the pits began to evolve into 'mines' as we know them ...  a single shaft was dug to reach the level of the coal deposit and tunnels were picked and shovelled ... radiating from this subterranean base to obtain as much coal as possible from the single deep shaft. Woven baskets, wheeled vehicles, and eventually vehicles travelling on rails, were used to slide the coal back to the vertical pit. Back at the pit or shaft ... ladders were used by workers to carry baskets of coal to the surface.

Eventually tubs ... hoisted by ropes ... which ran through pithead or 'headframe' pulleys ... were hauled up by horses working on the surface.

The definition of 'horsepower'
(550 foot-pounds per second) as applied to engines or motors, is derived from horses lifting coal out of the pits  ...

Miners wanted to know ... to dead-lift people, water, and coal straight up mineshafts ... could a particular steam engine provide the performance they required?

Women's labour in coal mines 1842

from The History and Description of Fossil Fuel, circa 1850

'Children began their life in the coal mines at five, six or seven years of age. Girls and women worked like boys and men, they were less than half clothed, and worked alongside of men who were stark naked. There were from twelve to fourteen working hours in the twenty-four, and these were often at night. Little girls of six or eight years of age made ten to twelve trips a day up steep ladders to the surface, carrying half a hundred weight of coal in wooden buckets on their backs at each journey. Young women appeared before the commissioners [investigating mine conditions in Britain], when summoned from their work, dressed merely in a pair of trousers, dripping wet from the water of the mine, and already weary with the labor of a day scarcely more than begun. A common form of labor consisted of drawing on hands and knees over the inequalities of a passageway not more than two feet or twenty-eight inches high a car or tub filled with three or four hundred weight of coal, attached by a chain and hook to a leather band around the waist.'

Women's labour in coal mines 1842

Legislation was passed in Britain in 1842 prohibiting women and boys under thirteen years of age from working in mines ... as well as regulations for lighting, hours of work, ventilation, safety, and licensing of engineers. There were still plenty of things which would continue to threaten human life underground throughout the history of coal mining ...

Using whale oil lamps usually attached to their clothing as they travelled, miners used picks, shovels and wedges to break the rock and coal into manageable pieces. Blasting powder was also used with a powder-filled straw serving as a fuse.

Clearing accumulated water seepage from the mines was such a persistent and universal problem that it led to the invention of the first (atmospheric) steam engines.

An early reversible mineshaft hoisting device circa 1840
Horse powered mining gin

A mine headframe and pulley ... are located at 'A'.
The hoisting rope is taken up on the reel at 'B'.
A horse operating the windlass (or 'gin') is at 'C'.

To lower items or miners, the horse would be reversed and walked in a clockwise direction.

Newcastle on Tyne 1783 coal wagon
Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1783 - an important coal centre dating back to the 1400s.

Before the Industrial Revolution employed steam power, various railway technologies were already being used to increase efficiency. Usually, the mission was to get coal from a mine ... to a canal or sea transport at a lower elevation. At water level, sailing ships or common coal barges ('keels') would be used for transportation. The coastal shipping of coal provided basic training for many sailors who would go on to crew British warships or merchant vessels on the high seas - sometimes, whether they wanted to or not (when the Press Gangs were in town).

The design of the coal wagon above (like the keel barges) was generally a standard design which evolved slowly. Copies of traditional coal wagons like this are also shown in some early coal mining photos from Nova Scotia. Many miners and mining engineers came to Cape Breton from Britain ... and brought their usual technologies with them. Above, putting the cart before the horse, the driver is SITTING on the mechanical brake lever (called a convoy) to control speed down the grade as he smokes his pipe. On steeper parts of the run downhill, the horse can provide additional braking force ... the driver hopes. The brake can also overheat - sometimes setting the wooden cart on fire. Beyond the bridge, you can see a keel or two on the river.

Coal staith for ship loading

The 'staith' illustration above shows features which allow the specialized coal pier to load both sailing ships and keels. The chute above 'L' could be used to load the low-slung keels if a mine wagon was emptied above the letter 'G' - 'L' is a 'trunk staith' . A loaded wagon weighed 2 to 3 tons. "When a waggon lets fall its contents down one of these spouts, the noise at a distance very much resembles a clap of thunder". This kind of rough treatment would be unacceptable for the lowest quality coals, as they would turn into unmarketable dust.

To load the sailing ship, the loaded wagon in the cradle at ' I ' ... is lowered in an arc from the pier's cabin ... by the boom 'D'. To maintain control, the staith operator brakes the reel hidden from us inside the cabin ... which spools the ropes 'C' as the heavy wagon descends over the sailing ship's hold. Often a staith labourer would ride down with the cradle and coal wagon, tripping the wagon's trap door and releasing the coal into the ship's hold.

Unloaded, the coal wagon is lighter ... and the attached counter-weight of cast iron plates
'H' raises the boom and the empty wagon to their starting position.

Coal mine techniques when strata folded

In the 1840 'horse gin' hoist illustration above, a pit with a vertical shaft was depicted.
As this 1880s textbook suggests, many additional techniques had been worked out to tunnel out coal however it lay.

After the bell pit design was abandoned,
a coal mine became a complex piece of architecture ...

with multiple systems engineered and installed to protect life and efficiently remove as much coal as possible.

Furthermore, a mine was only 'complete' once further architectural change yielded no further financial reward.

As architecture, a coal mine provided the 'ultimate perpetual renovation project'.

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Mine Ventilation

Out of necessity, mine ventilation rapidly became quite a science.

Imagine a simple groundhog burrow with 'a means of egress' at each end ...

If one has access to the atmosphere at each end of a tunnel ... simply pushing or pulling the air through the tunnel at one end would be adequate for good ventilation. The air will take the shortest course to equalize its pressure.

 ... so a healthy and efficient groundhog (probably after an engineering consultation with a beaver) would erect an air scoop on the windward entrance of the burrow to funnel the wind through.

Coal mines are irregular as their tunnels follow the usually disrupted pattern of the coal bed. Ideally, miners dig out only coal as they tunnel ... with a natural 'ceiling' and 'pavement' of 'worthless' rock strata left undisturbed.

The luxury of an opening on each end is not possible if the pit is very deep (e.g. Springhill, Nova Scotia) or the pit follows the coal seam out under the sea (e.g. Sydney and Glace Bay, Nova Scotia).

Coal mine ventilation is like a maze puzzle which can be solved with a pencil ... once the walls and baffles are put in place.

In the 1850s model mine pictured below - the ventilation system is is powered by two coal furnaces - the two grey rectangles on either side of 'x'.

"The furnace resembles an ordinary old-fashioned fire-place with stout grate bars. It is constructed near the foot of an opening into the mine, and furnished with a smoke-flue built of brick. This flue leads into the air passage of the surface opening at some distance above the floor of the mine. The volume of heat from this furnace passing into the airway creates and maintains a strong upward air current. In some mines the furnace is built at the foot of an air shaft a long distance from the main opening, thus making it an upcast air shaft. By the continued use of a huge fire in this furnace a powerful current of air may be put and continued in motion, but it is found an expensive way of 'raising the wind' and the system is rapidly giving place to the rotary steam fan."
'The Springhill Colliery Disaster', 1891

Model mine of the early 1800s showing ventilation scheme
Diagram, ventilation model circa 1850.

 x - Chimney (upcast) for the two furnaces - shown as grey rectangles on either side.
  a and e -  Downcast air shafts which are also used to move miners, supplies and coal.
  b - 'Boards' or galleries where active mining is taking place in the transverse direction - relative to the coal seam.
  k - Arches which allow the air to pass over its former course.
  m - 'Winning headways' are passages which head in the main direction of the coal along the seam's main axis.
  n - Stentings between the double headways.
  w - Walls or passages between the boards at the end of each pillar - 'brattice'.

  Pillars - the columns of coal left in place to support the mine structure. Pillars prevent crushing by the intense pressure which may be unleashed when the coal deposit is hollowed out - usually pressure upward from the floor or downward from the ceiling. The square areas between the two main headways are examples of pillars required to keep the floor and ceiling from coming together.

  Robbing (the pillars) - a calculated but dangerous practice commonly used near the end of the life of a mine section. The supporting pillars of coal are partially chipped away until the ceiling begins to collapse. As you would expect, this begins at a pillar far from the exit ... and retreats gradually to the exit. If robbing did not take place, all the pillar coal will be lost forever.

Coal mine ventilation furnace

As mines became more sophisticated and industrial technology advanced,
underground furnaces were replaced by a single gigantic fan powered by its own steam engine.

Guibal fan for coal mine ventilation
A Guibal fan from the late 1800s.
Left, vertical cross-section seen from the side;
Right, horizontal cross-section seen from above.

LEFT: Most of the components could be made locally. A brick enclosure held the impeller which ran at a constant speed.
The aperture at 'a' would be opened to increase the volume of air exhausted from the mine.

RIGHT: A steam cylinder powers the driving shaft. Air from the mine flows in around the impeller.
The paddles drive the air up the exhaust ... the white square at the bottom.
Usually a second fan system was maintained as backup.

Fans working on the upcast section of the shaft to suck fresh air through the mine were usually thought to be better because they were more likely to continue functioning if there was an explosion in the mine ... that is ... their vanes were turning the same direction as the explosion overpressure and were less likely to be damaged.

As well, under normal conditions, it was thought that the air course would not experience resistant 'back pressure' at locations where air was being forced through a constricted space.

Most importantly, rather than working through the passive convection of rarefied hot air from a furnace ... steam powered fans could quickly increase power to purge mines of explosive or suffocating gases in emergencies.
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A Canadian steam powered colliery railway in the 1830s.

Samson locomotive near Pictou
The 'Samson' in Nova Scotia.
The man between the chairs may have been George Davidson - the Scottish engineer
sent to Canada to assemble and manage the steam equipment at this location.

Albion (now known as Stellarton) Nova Scotia was the site of the General Mining Association's coal mining operations. Beginning in 1829, horses were used on a light railway to draw coal cars out of the mines and to the wharf near Pictou. The GMA had a legal monopoly which was significant in later history as Nova Scotia and Canada became locally governed and sought local control over resources within their boundaries.

To pay a bill:

King George IV's brother - the Duke of York - was granted the mineral rights to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. The Duke immediately paid a jeweller's debt with them and the rights were subsequently purchased by a group of London investors ... naming themselves the GMA. 

Being a British syndicate, the GMA imported modern industrial technology in the form of the locomotive 'Samson' and two others. They were shipped from the coal centre Newcastle, England in 1838. The powerful ... for their time ... locomotives could pull about 100 tons, and weighed about 20 tons themselves. You'll notice the unusual design - compared to more recent locomotives ... the engineer and pistons are at one end ... and the firemen stokes from the opposite end below the smokestack. I have always wondered if the 'ergonomic' seats for the engineer were securely anchored. Today the locomotive 'Samson' is preserved at Stellarton.

Smelting iron from the nearby mine, 3 foot cast iron 'fish belly' rails were made for the railway ... some wavy fish belly rails can be seen in the centre foreground.

We may think of modern railways as intercity 'common carriers' moving anything or anyone who wants to travel. Back in the Samson era, the coal mining industry of Britain was a major employer of short private horse tramways and steam powered railways to get coal from the mines to the nearest water transportation. This pattern was also common around Nova Scotia's coal and iron operations. Passenger transportation, in the form of stage coach bodies mounted on flanged wheels, was an afterthought.

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George Monro Grant describes Cape Breton in 1882

Sydney area in late 1800s

"The harbour of Sydney, sheltered, commodious, and of easy access, is of no mean maritime value. During the season of navigation steamers on the voyage to Europe from the more southern ports of the United States, and from the St. Lawrence, call for bunker coals and lie clustered about the colliery wharves which railroads connect with the mines in the interior. With these are some of the many steamers engaged in carrying coal to Montreal, and humbler craft which supply the nearer and less important markets. The mine on the shores of Sydney harbour has great advantages over the exposed outports in which vessels take in cargo. Many fishing and trading schooners lie off the new and more active town of North Sydney, while the frequent visits of French and British men-of-war give dignity to the older town.

"The harbour divides into two great arms, and on a peninsula which marks the entrance to the Southwest arm stands the town of Sydney, which was, before the union of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, the seat of government. At the end of the peninsula are the remains of earthworks and dilapidated and dreary quarters for the garrison which was stationed here until the Crimean War. Other traces of departed glories are to be found only in the traditions of the inhabitants. Their splendours have not taken more concrete shape.

Sydney Harbour - no opera house
The arms of Sydney harbour showing the depth soundings,
with colliery railways and their wharves.

The town of Sydney is right at the bottom of the map.
Conveniently, North Sydney is at the pointy north end of the compass.
Sydney Mines is off the map to the west.
Glace Bay is off the map to the east.

" ... But Sydney at an earlier day than that of its possession by the British has seen stirring scenes. French and British fleets have made its harbour a rendezvous, not, as now, in peace, but as a point of vantage in their struggle for the continent. ... The old name of Sydney, Spaniards Bay, came from a time when, although the fishing grounds were neutral, fishermen of different nationalities resorted to different harbours, so that the occasions of rekindling in the New World the animosities which made Europe a battlefield might, as much as possible, be avoided. The Spaniards came then to Sydney, the French to St. Anne, while English Port, the name of Louisburg before it became a French stronghold, shows that it had been the chosen resort of English fishermen. None of these nations laid claim to the island; there were no laws, and justice depended on a consensus of opinion among enough captains of vessels able to enforce it ...

Louisburg harbour with Louisbourg ruins
Louisburg harbour with the coal wharf
and the ruins of the French fortress at the opposite end of the harbour.
The British had sent sappers to completely destroy the fort after its capture.

"Numerous bays and headlands have their story to tell of battle, of shipwreck, or wild adventure. Cape Breton itself, a low headland which gives its name to the whole island, rises darkly near Louisburg. There is a tradition that Verazzano, the eminent Florentine discoverer, perished here with his crew at the hands of the Indians. He sailed into the Atlantic, from France, in 1525, and was never authentically heard of. Who knows but his bones molder in Cape Breton? British explorers came here before the close of the sixteenth century. In 1629 Lord Ochiltree, with sixty Scottish emigrants, tried to found a colony; but the French put a summary end to the enterprise. It was, however, a curious prelude to the great emigration of Highlanders in the nineteenth century to which Cape Breton owes so much.

"In 1765 Cape Breton was annexed to Nova Scotia. Twenty years later it was made a separate Province, and so continued till 1820, when it was again united to Nova Scotia. The people of Arichat  [on Isle Madame east of the Strait of Canso, previously spelled 'Canceau']  and vicinity are almost all French. The rest of the island is peopled mainly by Scottish Highlanders, who still cherish their ancestral Gaelic, and cling to the ways of the Highlands and Islands. France and Scotland were friends three hundred years ago, and for many centuries before. The old allies meet in many of our colonies, and rarely fail to fraternize.

"Next to farming and fishing, coal mining is the most important industry in Cape Breton. The coal fields are even more extensive than those of Nova Scotia. Twelve collieries are in operation. Some of the mines yield the best coal yet found in America for domestic purposes. Some are far away under the sea; some down in the heart of the hills. Coal mining commenced in Cape Breton in 1785. Indeed, Boston Puritans were wont to warm themselves and boil their tea-kettles by means of Sydney coal long before the chests were emptied in Boston harbour.

"Have you ever been down in a mine? If not, a new sensation awaits you - an experience decidedly different from anything to be enjoyed or suffered on the face of another earth and in the light of the sun. Cold, dark - darker than any midnight gloom - you may stand by a pillar a thousand yards away from daylight. The noise there is the rumble of coal laden cars hastening to discharge their burden. Reminiscences of Paradise Lost and the Inferno come unbidden and irresistibly. Glimmering lamps give needed light and no more. Figures moving about with one big 'eye' in their foreheads, what are they but cyclopean giants? In the Albion Mines in the Pictou coal field, there is proof enough that fires have been raging above and below for the past fourteen years."

Location of coal fields in Maritime provinces

This map will reappear on a page about Sydney steelmaking.

A rule of thumb is that it is more economical to bring iron ore to a coal centre, than vice versa.

While Cumberland County (e.g. Springhill) and Pictou had both iron and coal deposits close together, Sydney did not.

All three areas had long traditions of coal mining, but Sydney was a late ... bloomer ...
as Sydney's steel industry was first established with iron ore imported from outside Canada.

To comment on Grant's mine visit being 'darker than any midnight gloom' ...

On a 1988 vacation, we returned to visit the Glace Bay Miners' Museum.
In their demonstration mine, a former miner first checked with our group,
then momentarily showed us a coal mine with no light.

Unlike a dark night ... in the mine your eyes are wide open and you hear sounds ...
but it is very disorienting as there is absolutely no light - you can't see your hand in front of your face ...
light is everywhere in modern society and it feels as if there is 'something wrong'
when your eyes can register absolutely nothing.
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Happy Mine

Idealized coal mine of the 1800s with bord and room system
Welcome to Happy Mine circa 1850 !

Here at Happy Mine circa 1850, everything is idealized. It is bright and clean and spacious. In the foreground, 'trips' of coal cars are pulled by horses with boy drivers. A trapper boy operates the air door which is opened only for traffic ... to maintain the integrity of the mine's critical air courses. Everything in this mine is biological and organic ... from the miner's whale oil lamps ... to the muscle power used to move everything ... to the all-natural plant origins of the coal itself. A 'balance' - operating from the higher level of the bords (there are multiple terms for many mine features, based on local tradition) ... uses the mechanical potential energy of the harvested coal to raise empty cars to the bords for man-handling and filling. The technique of 'room and pillar' mining is well illustrated.

1880 British coal mining conditions
Not in 'Happy Mine'
From a British coal mining textbook (1880s)

Loading a large lump of coal
At the coal face, loading a car.

Immediately above and below from:
"The Company Store
J.B. McLachlan and the Cape Breton Coal Miners 1900-1925"
John Mellor, 1983.

Conditions in a 3 foot coal seam
Modern generic photo of a miner in a 3 foot seam.
In the 1920s, miners being punished by the company sometimes worked these seams.
It was not possible to meet the normal daily pay expectation (based on tonnage) working under these conditions.

Drawing of rescue from 1891 Springhill disaster
Springhill 1891 - 125 miners killed in an explosion.

Springhill disaster 1891, coffins to cemetery
Springhill 1891
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The Cornish Pumping Engine

Cornish pumping engine circa 1900

Cornwall, at the extreme southwest corner of England, was known for its tin and copper mines for centuries. Given this long history, we can assume the metals were near the surface and could be obtained with hand tools.

Another important factor was that these, and early coal mines as well, could be drained by 'adits' ... a traditional term for 'gravity mine drain'.

In other words ... water in the mine had somewhere 'down' it could flow so it was worthwhile to dig a little sloping tunnel to the outside to get rid of it ... problem solved.

Once the easy high and dry mining was finished in the region, people carried the water out, or horses powered 'winding engines' to lift the water out in containers.

The first 'atmospheric' steam engine of Newcomen design was used in 1712.

If you care: ... atmospheric engines work sort of like this ... heat and fill a flexible plastic bottle  (your 'piston')  with steam from a kettle boiling over a coal fire ... screw the cap on the plastic bottle and remove it from the heat. As the air/vapour in the bottle cools ... the pressure inside decreases ... and the bottle eventually gets bent out of shape by atmospheric pressure. So 'work' is done only when all the heat energy is completely thrown away. This was a great technological advance at the time, but it burned a lot of coal.

Thereafter, technology slowly shuffled along, until steam's expansive pressure finally ... much more efficiently ... pushed a piston to do work. As Cornwall had tin and copper but no coal ... the Cornish Pumping Engine design pictured above made the most economical use of coal which had to transported by ship to the region. This reduced the need for horses on the surface workings ... as the same engine technology could also be adapted to work as a winding engine to raise people, waste rock, and metal from the mines.

As the 1800s gathered steam ... the operators of textile mills were getting tired of using waterpower for running larger and more complex spinning machines and looms ... and miners were also getting a lot better at mining coal ...

Pretty soon, you couldn't go for a stroll anywhere in England without burning your arm on the steam engine attached to one of these now 'dark satanic mills'.

The 'Industrial Evolution' had slowly taken place all around England during the span of two hundred years. Looking back in the 1880s, an English historian said the changes were in fact 'revolutionary' as they had radically changed the structure and growth of the economy, the nature of 'manu-factory' work, societal roles and professions, education, and so on ...

The engine pictured above comes from an equipment handbook from 1901. This particular engine was designed in England for use in a mine in Chile. These pumps could generally last 50 or 60 years.

Among the wide variety of pumps and winding engines being used at Cape Breton coal mines in the early 1900s, there were still a few imported Cornish Pumping Engines soldiering on at the older mines ... their genes tracing back to the time when Cornwall needed to be more energy efficient.

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Engineering, Scottie here.

So the mines are using stationary steam engines which use the expansive characteristics of steam - that is, steam which contains more pressure than everyday atmospheric pressure. Stationary steam engine boilers alone are kind of dull when compared to locomotives ... so here is the general layout of the mechanical engineering heart of a colliery's boilers, steam engine, and related equipment - from above.

The spade symbol is located in the boiler room. The boiler fireboxes are stoked with coal from the spade end ... and the fire boils the water in the water tank portion of the boiler above the firebox ... producing steam at the very top of the water tank. The three boilers exhaust their coal fire smoke to the smoke stack ... doggie.

The heart is located in the engine room containing the steam throttles, pistons, valve gear to cycle the pistons back and forth, and any clutches necessary to connect the big flywheels to the machinery to be operated. The flywheels smooth out the force of pistons' individual power strokes for more even running.

With a railway steam locomotive, the heart room parts are on the bottom, the spade room parts sit on top, and the doggie stack rides at the front of all this.

Coal mine steam engine equipment layout

BELOW is one of two 'engines' which are partially illustrated in the heart room above.
It is connected to the winding gear - diamond.
  The second similar engine would be connected to the mine's water pump - club.

Stationary steam engine

BELOW is the winding gear - diamond.

The illustrator's back would be to the engine room ...
with the cables above his head being driven by the engine and flywheel illustrated above.
The cables then descend vertically from the winding gear's wheels into the mine shaft.

If you see the coal cars in the foreground ...
you can follow the rails back to the cage in which they were elevated from the mine.

Ornamented winding gear

Just to show that the Victorian, Eiffel Tower styling of the usually utilitarian winding gear is an aberration,
below is a hard-headed tabular comparison of different brands of boilers used in coal mining in the late 1800s.

You know ...

sometimes it is interesting ...

just to stare at charts like this for half an hour ...
to see what was 'typical' and what was 'unique' ...

to better understand how different life was back then,
and what the engineers were working to achieve ...

Table showing boiler statistics for comparison

Just kidding!

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Coal Near Sydney

Map showing nature of coal deposits in Sydney area

On the map above, red represents the coal deposits near Sydney on Cape Breton Island. You can also see the 'Cape Breton' which gives the island its name.

While the map shows many features which appeared after 1900, such as certain railways and settlements, it does show the larger picture of the coal deposits in the region.
  • Horizontal hatching - Measures containing coal seams
  • Solid red - Bituminous coal fields
  • Diagonal hatching - Concealed and submarine* coal areas
* In many mines, the coal face eventually reached two miles under the sea in the early 1900s - with hundreds of feet of layered sandstone cover overhead.

One big development was documented in 1871 and it probably provides an early example of the type and scale of submarine coal mining which was to take place for most of the next century. It is located on the shore between Point Aconi and Sydney Mines on the map above. The actual location 'Bonar Head' can be searched on Bing Maps but is not located on Google Maps. It seems a flooded rectangular engine pit is all that remains of this large mine today.

Profile of coal seams near Bonar Head 1871

The diagram above from 1871 shows a few important points well ... even its miniaturized state.

Between the Main Seam and the Lloyd Seam
(strata in ascending order)

Main Seam 6 feet COAL

Shale 2 to 6 feet

Sandstone 24 feet
Shales 72 feet
Sandstone 21 feet
Shales and sandstones 97 feet
Sandstone 47 feet
Shales and sandstones 142 feet
Sandstone 31 feet
Shales 37 feet
Sandstone 41 feet
Shales and sandstones 209 feet

Lloyd Seam 5 feet COAL

The thickness and character of the various sandstones and shales had been documented in 1849.
Similar layering continued above until the water of the Atlantic Ocean was reached.
The thickness and uniformity of the sandstone layers kept the mine relatively dry.

Initial coal mine plan Bonar Head Cape Breton

In the diagram above, you can see work beginning near the shore using a 'Room and Pillar System'. Similar to the stylized model mine above with its two furnaces, you can see the same 'pie graph', but this one shows a single upcast fan shaft and two (we assume) downcast main shaft divisions.

This mine cannot be arranged like an idealized ground hog burrow with a front and back door ... as the back door would be deep under the ocean ... instead, the fresh air from the shore will have to loop back to the shore as the fan continuously purges the various gases from the mine.

You will also notice the notation that the slope of the main seam works out to a drop of 1 unit vertical for each 12 units horizontal. A steep Canadian railway mainline might rarely operate on a 2.2 % grade ... this mine, as its narrow gauge cable-pulled railway follows the coal strata, will operate on a 8.3 % grade.

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Get the most from you mine !

Illustration - robbing coal pillars process

Robbing pillars - seen from above.
The top diagram shows a level which has been mined conventionally with minimal risk.

The cross-hatched areas represent temporary roof supports - wooden cribs filled with rock waste (goaf).
The mine roof support must be maintained as the coal supporting it for millions of years is robbed.

The arrows represent the direction in which to RUN !

Mine plan showing outcome of pillar recovery

"Plan of Portion of No. 1 Mine
Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Co. Ltd.
Showing rooms and pillars under submarine area.
Note: Practically all the coal from these pillars has been recovered.
The cover over these workings is about 1000 feet."

Pillars could removed more safely (so they said) when a sufficient amount of 'cover' was present.
Until reaching a certain distance from shore with adequate cover ... no pillars could be removed.
Rules for pillar removal were more conservative for submarine areas than when working under dry land.

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Boys in the Mines

Not at the 'Bonar Head' colliery above, but a little farther east at Glace Bay, we see boys in a mine. Given the low ceiling and the rubble on the track, this may have been taken in or near one of the rooms where active mining was taking place. It was generally advised in mining textbooks ... that on main routes horses or 'pit ponies' should be given adequate headroom to hold their necks and heads up naturally. It seems possible that this scene may have been illuminated with photographic flash powder.

Boys in coal mine at Glace Bay

"In hauling the mine cars to the bottom of the slope, the horses are driven by boys who usually take in four empty cars and bring out the same number of loaded ones. The horses are kept in stalls cut in the coal stratum near the foot of the slope. When the boy gets his horse hitched to a trip of cars, he climbs into the forward car, with lamp attached to the front of his cap, cracks his whip, and proceeds along the level into the darkness, shouting or whistling as he feels inclined, to keep up his courage. If the grade of the mine is not too steep when he reaches the foot of the first chamber he is to supply, he unfastens the front car from the others, drives the horse up the incline with it, and leaves it near the face to get filled; the other empty cars are distributed in the same way.

"On a siding of the level at the foot of the last chamber visited he finds a loaded car, to which he hitches his horse and starts on his return trip to where he started with his empty cars, picking up other loaded cars on his way to make up his complete rake. If the grade of the mine is steep, the empty cars are left at the foot of the incline chambers, and are taken up by the balance power to the working chambers to be loaded, or filled on the level siding with coal which has been mined and run down in shutes. At intervals along the main level there are sidings for this purpose and where rakes going in opposite directions may pass.

"The position of driver boy in a coal mine is the miner's first step of advancement. Having entered the mine as a little 'trapper', he graduates to the advanced position of driver, and afterwards to higher positions. The term trapper is derived from trap-door, placed as an air door for the purpose of controlling the ventilating current. At this door the little trapper must stand or remain like a sentinel from the time the first rake of cars passes it in the morning until the last comes out at night. His duty is tiresome and monotonous. He is alone all day, save when other boys and men pass through his door. His abode is a hole cut in the rib of the passage, and, as his light is dim and often goes out, he can do little to amuse himself but whistle. To save his oil, the little fellow often works in the dark.

"When he hears the sound of a footstep or wagon approaching his door his duty is to pull on a string, one end of which is attached to the door and the other secured where he can grasp it in a moment, when the door will open. After the passengers or cars have safely passed, by slacking the rope, the door shuts of its own accord. The trapper boy is generally contemplative and quiet. An observant spectator says of the little trappers:

'Sitting so long alone in the darkness the become thoughtful, sober, sometimes melancholy. They go silently to their homes, when they leave the mine; they do not stop to play tricks or joke with the fellows; they do not run, nor sing, nor whistle. Darkness and silence are always depressing, and so much of it in these young lives cannot help but sadden without sweetening them.' "
Story of the Springhill Disaster, 1891

Boy coal miners Glace Bay region
  Glace Bay boy miners.

The lights on their caps look like the whale oil open flame torches.
In 1873, a boy had to be 10 years old to work underground.
In 1891, the age was raised to 12.
After the Great War, children had to be in school until the age of 14
and by 1923 they could not work underground until the age of 16.

In the mining communities, schools often concentrated on preparing youth for a career in mining,
if training went beyond the basic literacy and math of the lower grades.

The effective enforcement of safety and other mining regulations were affected by ...

* The availability and integrity of provincial mine inspectors.
* The company's desire for cheap labour compared to the cost and probability of legal sanctions.
* The financial stresses of large families ... or the desire of boys to begin to do 'a man's work'.

(Sometimes no one objected if a numeral or two was changed on a paper record somewhere)

Springhill, Nova Scotia, February 21, 1891
(among 125 miners killed in an explosion)

Alexander Bunt - 15
Ernest Chandler - 16
Thomas Davis - 15
Joseph Dupee - 12
John Dunn - 13
Roger Ernest - 15
James Johnston - 16
George Martin - 14
David McVey - 16
James McVey - 14
James Pequinot - 15
Peter Reid - 13
Ross Murdoch - 16
Philip Ross - 14
Edward Smith - 14
Douglas Taylor - 16
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Endless Rope Haulage & Tippler Work

Diagram endless rope haulage system for coal mine

With this system, standard narrow gauge coal cars were towed by a winding engine once they reached the main gangway.
If mine access was by a shaft, they would be hauled to the shaft, then hoisted in 'cages' to the surface.
If mine access was by a slope, they would be pulled directly out of the mine on rails by the winding engine.
With the system pictured, the return rope comes back on the pulley - top left.

Endless rope haulage coal mine, around curve

Loaded coal cars would be generally be towed at a walking pace ... in the dark.
With an endless rope system, special patented clips attached to the car would clamp onto the moving rope.
The device at 'a' helps guide the rope around the curve.
With care, ropes could last 2-3 years before replacement was necessary.

Illustration Dominion Colliery No 3 Glace Bay
Dominion Colliery Number 3, Glace Bay

Data from 1914:

An air compressor provides power for coal cutting and water pumping in the mine.
The mine is 'medium size' for the area - able to produce 500 tons per day.
Underground, 147 men are employed and 46 work on surface.

An endless rope system moves the coal with a total haul 14,000 feet.
Each loaded car holds two tons of coal.
The procession of loaded cars here are headed for :
two rotary tipples with shaking screens and picking belts.
The screening plant is powered by steam engine.
At the left, and centre foreground, regular standard gauge railway equipment carries the marketable coal away.

By the time the Great War started, modern mines were usually mechanized with modern powered coal cutting equipment. Unsaleable (small or slaty) slack coal was essentially waste from the cleaning process. It cost very little to power everything at the colliery using 'waste coal' fires producing steam ... to push pistons or spin turbines. In this illustration, it is not clear how the coal cars are controlled as they travel back down the ramp to the tipple. It is possible they are re-attached to the endless rope system which may use the same single rope to haul in both directions.

Traditionally, in the tipple was a company employee to weigh the coal ... and a check-weighman to verify this weight on behalf of the miners. The miners were paid by the weight mined per day - a quantity such as that mentioned in the song 'Sixteen Tons'. A miner's token with their number was attached to each full car sent from the mine with the weight tallied for that miner ... or split between two miners working as a pair. The check-weighman was a miner himself, elected by his fellows and paid by them, to ensure they were not cheated on their pay.

The 'tipple' is where the coal cars are emptied. Generally, those patented clips attaching the coal cars to the endless rope ... were released automatically from the moving rope by a device at the tipple ... the cars were then positioned and clamped into a rotating cradle ... and tipped over to dump the coal into the tipple's large hopper. The coal fell onto shaking screens of two different gauges in this case (see the flow chart below) ... with screen holes of 2 inches in one, and 3/4 inch in the other. The 'slack' is suitable for local industrial use to fire a colliery plant or in a nearby steel mill. Nut coal was a good size for domestic use in home furnaces or stoves. Coal larger than 2 inches (and much larger) was preferred for locomotive and steamship use.

Flow chart coal screening at tipple

The picking belts at this tipple moved at about 7 inches per second according to the chart. The slate pickers were young boys, or disabled or elderly miners, who snatched out loose slate, shale, or coal with impurities as it passed with the screened coal.

Shale, slate and other rocky contaminants would not burn and miners might be docked if their coal was found to be too contaminated by the company weighman - after all, the company was paying them for a specific weight of COAL. Hard to see in the the dark, layers of shale or slate would often adhere to the layers of coal taken from the ceiling or the floor below, or just get mixed in ... with blasting or coal cutting operations.

In steam locomotives (for example) shale or slate would clog the fire grates at the bottom of the firebox ... through which combustion air had to move freely. Assuming they hadn't caused a failure on the road ... at the end of the locomotive's trip, the rocky contaminants would have to be manually removed if they were too big to be dropped clear when raking the fire and 'shaking the grates' to remove accumulated 'dead ash'.

Slate picker boys at US colliery
Boy slate pickers at a US colliery

' [slate picker] boys are artists in their line, being able to spear slate or bony coal with either hand,
and without lifting their eyes, place either in its proper chute. '

Boys were employed in this manner at Cape Breton.
Eventually, their work was eliminated by automated equipment.

Schematic diagram of coal screening at tipple

This schematic diagram depicts a similar system to that detailed in the flow diagram above.
The screens are being shaken through eccentrics powered by a steam engine.

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Technology in Nova Scotia Mines
... and the nature of the industry

Since the mid-1800s, coal mining in Canada required a significant investment of capital and expertise.

Costs, skills, and requirements included: 
  • Determining the extent and value of the deposit ;
  • Legal incorporation and acquiring a mining lease ;
  • 'Placing' the shares or debt issued by the corporation ;
  • Purchasing appropriate mining equipment and constructing the colliery ;
  • Hiring professional, trade and unskilled labour ;
  • Preparation of the coal for market ;
  • Operation of transportation systems to the customer or negotiating transportation contracts ;
  • Political relationship management (obtaining government GIFTS ... e.g. land, labour conflict 'resolution', 'bounty hunting', managing international trade ... (depending on the circumstances) ;
  • Marketing the coal to customers.

Initially, it was generally British capitalists who saw potential in some of British North America's coal resources. Canada had the advantage of importing experts and maturing British technology such as steam engines and mining equipment for the first coal mines in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Early photographs of Nova Scotia mines show scenes similar to classic British 'industrial revolution' landscapes - Newcastle mining cars and sturdy formal brick colliery buildings.

With the completion of the CPR et al, interior western Canadian coal resources - now having access to a bulk transportation system - were developed. Prior to this, Vancouver Island coal had been handy for British Admiralty bunkering.

Coal is a bulk commodity which is most economically consumed locally ... but passing ships are very 'local'. Again, the British Admiralty was a customer at Sydney and Halifax as coal grew in importance for warships over sail. Some astute British captains on the Atlantic noted their tactical advantage against potential American rivals by insisting on low-smoking coal when bunkering in Nova Scotia. They figured it gave them an extra 5 mile advantage as the ship itself (not its black smoke plume) had to be spotted by an adversary.

As the century turned to 1900, it was more often American capitalists who came calling ... but there was excellent anthracite in Pennsylvania and coal almost everywhere 'down there' ... why Cape Breton? 

Bounty hunting. The Canadian government thought it might be good to develop a stronger domestic steel industry and was willing to pay to help set one up. It is unclear, with perfect hindsight, whether Cape Breton steel was ever worth all the various costs at the time ... and the environmental price which is still being paid. Canada would always remain a coal and steel pygmy compared to Britain, the US, and European countries strategically ramping up their industrial and military strength ... Yo! Wilhelm !

... However, around 1900 ... memories were still fresh of Van Horne bringing in massive quantities of steel rails from England and the US to meet the CPR's demands. More transcontinental railways were being built and the prairies were already being weighed down by a virtual web of steel. If the Century was to belong to Canada, Canada should have a strong domestic steel industry producing rails and for domestic manufacturing (e.g. farm equipment and railway rolling stock) ... so the wisdom went.

Looking back, we were at least proud and valued steel producers during the World Wars when every little bit was needed ... well ... you know ... a lot of our proud Canadian steel ended up as rusty scrap as fast as we could produce it - either on the battlefields of Europe or sometimes at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Considering technology ... Beginning sometime around 1900, the great demand for coal to power virtually everything, and the proximity of American mining equipment suppliers, resulted in a great variety of coal mining technology being present in the coal mines of Cape Breton. Much of the durable British influence was still to be found. However, for modern internationally financed collieries, American equipment was often chosen.

Old ... 'British':
  • Horses;
  • Boy labour for trapping, driving and slate picking;
  • Picks and black powder to free the coal;
  • Steam engines on the surface for hoisting, ventilation and pumping.

New ... 'American':
  • Powerful compressed air equipment for coal cutting, water pumping, and even compressed air locomotive hauling in gassy mines;
  • or ... Electrical equipment for naturally-wet low-dust low-gas mines ... or a mix of compressed air, electricity and steam;
  • Air and electricity conduits efficiently carried energy right to the coal face or the location where the work was done;
  • Large centralized steam turbogenerators produced electricity for multiple collieries;
  • Specially designed equipment to prepare the coal for market ... eliminated manual picking belts and other labour-intensive tasks;
  • Air ventilation fans and water pumps of efficient advanced design improved both safety and productivity.
  • The ability to swap mine 'waste', flammable gases, heat, steam, electricity ... back and forth between coal mines and steel mills improved profitability.

Pneumatic coal cutting equipment circa 1900

A modern compressed air driven coal cutting machine circa 1900-1910.
The undercut coal could be shaken off the ceiling with some of the newer explosives.
Hand picks would still be used in older, more cramped collieries during this period in Cape Breton.

Finally ...

If we consider human resource management practices to be a 'technology' ...
Companies imported other 'technologies' to Nova Scotia adapted from some American coal mining companies ...

  • The Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Co; and the Dominion Coal Co used the traditional 'company store' system of pay stub check-offs ... which minimized the disposable income and independence of miners living in isolated colliery communities. A 1942 stub included deduction space for: supplies, rent, coal, trucking, check-weighman, doctor, benefit society, church, hospital.
  • The British Empire Steel Corporation, Ltd., Montreal ... beginning in 1920 ... consolidated the assets of the companies above, along with the Dominion Iron and Steel Company so there was only one major employer of coal miners in the province.
  • The company practice of firing and blacklisting any man ... throughout the coal mines and steel mills of the entire province ... if he was deemed to be supporting any co-ordinated action against the employer - including any efforts to 'organize' for a union.
  • The ability to evict the blacklisted man's family from company housing without notice during any season.
  • The use by the company of para-military forces ( e.g. " Pinkerton's " ) and the state's military forces 'to protect company property' during lockouts or strikes.

Federal help during 1909 Cape Breton coal strike
'Glace Bay during the June 1909 strike'

Source: "The Company Store: J.B. McLachlan and the Cape Breton Coal Miners 1900-1925"
John Mellor, 1983 & The Miners' Museum Glace Bay

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  Some Uses of Coal in the Early 1900s

North Sydney coal shipping pier
New coal shipping pier, North Sydney
Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company
circa 1900

Although the photo resolution is poor, you can see a few coal cars on the pier.
The pier design allows for loading both
steamships bound for the St. Lawrence or the Atlantic
and sailing ships for coal delivery along the coast.

Advertisement customers of Dominion Coal Co DOMCO
1898 Brochure

Before electricity became available for street lighting, town gas, locally produced by processing bituminous coal, was used.

Natural gas for home use was generally not available until after World War 2. The pipeline infrastructure for moving and storing natural gas in regional salt cavern 'hubs' for high winter demand had not yet been developed.

LaSalle Coke Company Montreal Lachine Canal

"LaSalle Coke Company (in 1944)... on the south bank of the Lachine Canal in the town of LaSalle, just outside the city limits of Montreal, covering more than one hundred acres ... All gas distributed in the Montreal district for household and industrial use is manufactured at this plant."

You can see a 'coal boat' by a tall unloading crane at the left edge of the photo.

At the top of the photograph, you can see two of the frames holding the expandable gas reservoirs - they look like large oil tanks in cages. Essentially, this gas has hydrogen, methane, ethylene, carbon monoxide and other good stuff which burns. Other chemical by-products are produced such as coal tar and ammonia. Coke, almost pure carbon which burns like barbecue charcoal, is left after all the volatile gas has been 'cooked off' the bituminous coal. Coke could be used in stoves and was sometimes used by steam locomotives in urban areas with strict bylaws limiting smoke production.

Dominion Coal Company Board of Directors 1898
1898 Brochure - CPR's represented, eh?

In one reference, a suggestion was made regarding why coal operations of DOMCO were never as profitable as they might have been. Whitney from Boston was the capitalist who organized the various 'Dominion'-named enterprises on Cape Breton which will be covered in other pages. It was suggested that much of Dominion's coal output was locked into low-priced contracts with Whitney's New England Gas and Coke Company with major operations in Boston.

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Glace Bay

Glace Bay colliery circa 1955

"One of Dominion Coal Co. Ltd. Collieries, Glace Bay, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia"
A CNR photo published as a postcard by C&G MacLeod Ltd of Sydney.
Probably circa 1955.

Of course this is the tipple ... and you'll note the coal which has been graded and loaded is larger than 'nut' size.

Glace Bay colliery 1980

The Glace Bay colliery scene as recorded during our vacation in 1980.

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