I’d have to say our visit to the Cape Breton Coal Miner’s museum in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia was life changing.
I’ve heard about coal mining, and Cape Breton, and even went down in a coal mine in Springhill when I was a kid on our family vacation.
But this experience was all together different. The museum was planned, built, and is run by the former coal miners. There is no white washing of the history here.
Basically, what may be hard to except, is that the coal miners and their families were slaves. Slaves to the company, and its owners, who were remote owners and didn’t live in town.
The miners were brought to Canada from overseas, with the promise of a job and a company house! It sounded like a great opportunity!
But in reality, they worked brutally awful jobs, that were completely unsafe, and hundreds died.
They were paid by how much coal they took out, not for their travel time to get down in the mine, or prep time to get the wall of coal ready for mining. Some days they’d make 68 cents. Some days nothing. Other days, a few dollars. Boys started working in the mines well before they were teens. Wives and mothers never knew if their men would return from the mine each day. All their goods had to be purchased from the company store, and were subtracted from their earnings. Their home was a simple, uninsulated home, and its rent was also subtracted from their earnings. How were they ever to escape from this system? They were in Glace Bay, on the north end of Cape Breton Island, far away from their home lands, and close to nothing. There was simply no where to go, and no way to get there.
All of the coal was “owned” by the government, so royalties were paid to the government on all the coal that was removed. By 1914, all the mines in Cape Breton, the steel mill, the transportation, and all the lumber yards were owned by British Empire Steel and Coal Company (BESCO). They owned everything, from the food, the water, the coal the miners heated their company homes with, the electricity.. Everything.
The workers had historic strikes, fighting for more wages and a safer work environment. As they finally improved their working conditions, by 2001 it was decided the coal mining just wasn’t profitable and all the mines were closed.
Luckily the miners had foreseen the possibility of the mines closing one day, and they preserved a seam of coal in a perfect location for the museum, so visitors could go underground.
All the coal in the area is in seams under the ocean. Some of the seams go all the way to Newfoundland, and most of them had 5-7 seams of coal on top of each other.
Dad and I timed our visit perfectly, just by chance, for a trip down in the coal mine. Our tour guide was former coal miner Abbie Michalik. He is a third generation coal miner. His father and grandfather and uncles came from Poland to work in the Cape Breton coal mines.
Abbie had us put on capes, and a hard hat, and then he told us emotional stories about his life as a coal miner.
Unlike the mines that Abbie worked in, this one had cement walls going down, for the safety of the visitors. You can see they built this mine shaft for visitors in 1967, decades before the mines closed in 2001.
However, a coal mine is only as deep as the vein of coal. Meaning we started walking, then we had to duck, then the roof got as low as 4.5 feet. It was simply awful. At first I wondered why they wouldn’t make it taller for visitors. But what a way for us to have 30 minutes of misery, so we could relate to what the miners went through! They worked down there for years, lifetimes! Abbie told us he knew a guy who spent years on his stomach, working in a dark vein of coal, only 36 inches high.
It was so hard to stand up when the roof is so short. The air isn’t good, your body is hurting in places it shouldn’t. I was stretching my legs wide apart and was shifting the weight of my bag and camera front to back. Poor Dad had his really heavy camera bag. Another fellow was well over 6 feet and he was in agony at times, and even kneeled for awhile.
This was the shortest area. It was impossible to stand and listen to Abbie so we sat on little benches around a little garden. Years ago a miner asked permission to plant a flower garden down in an active coal mine for the workers and the mine owners arranged it!
Think about spending your life in the dark, down in a mine. Can you imagine? And it wasn’t just people. They also had little horses from Cape Sable Island under ground as work horses. When the workers earned better working conditions, so did the horses. Abbie said they had to blindfold them at first when they brought them to the surface for their Sunday rest day.I’ll never forget my trip to Glace Bay. The museum and mine tour are excellent and really shouldn’t be missed.
I hope the museum can find a way to keep the stories alive, even after the miners are gone.