Ten Days in Hell: The 1936 Moose River Mine Disaster

Armed with an acetylene lamp and a few flashlights, three men descended into the dank depths of the Moose River Mine April 12, 1936. Their mission seemed innocuous enough - to examine the mine for a pending sale. As they worked their way into the bowels of the mine, the men could not know it waited to take them hostage - for ten bone-chilling days. Nor could they know that when they finally re-emerged, only two of them will see the beautiful Nova Scotia sky.

First mined for its yellow bounty in 1881, Halifax County's Moose River area churned out 26,000 troy ounces before it shut down in the early 1900s. For decades, shovels, picks and trolleys rusted in solitude. Shafts filled with water, beams rotted, walls caved in, and roofs crumbled.

Then spectators reappeared. The Moose River Gold Syndicate seized the claim to Moose River goldmine's five main 185-foot deep shafts. Pumping money in and water out, the Syndicate hoped for full production in August 1936. In the meantime, the Syndicate chipped away at the gold held by the natural rock pillars which supported the shafts. Without replacing the natural supports or the beams that time and moisture had reduced to wooden bogs, the tunnels became increasingly unsafe. The Syndicate decided to rid itself of its gilt albatross.

So on Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, three men descended into the mine to assess its readiness for a potential sale. Owners Herman Magill, a 30-year-old lawyer, and David E. Robertson, 52-year old chief of staff at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, were accompanied by the mine's 42-year old timekeeper Charles Scadding.

Schlepping through dank passages, the men viewed with growing horror the structure's deplorable condition. The creaking, screeching timbers and constant rain patter did not bode well. Suddenly Scadding remarked upon an unusual amount of noise; the men fled back to the skip. The underground mine cart would return them to the surface, but it held only two riders at a time. Magill and Robertson tumbled into the cart. With Scadding clinging desperately to the side, they signalled the alarm bell.

At the surface, hands hauled to. The skip was quickly hoisted to the 141-foot level, but it would go no farther. Rocks crashed down; rotted timbers split and splintered. A huge depression appeared at the surface - an ominous sign to those at the surface. The mine had collapsed.

The cable supporting the skip immediately snapped. Not that it mattered because the rubble trapped the cable, holding the skip in place. Miraculously, a single collapsed timber supported 100 feet of fallen rock, sealing the men into a tiny chamber. Slipping and sliding over piles of debris, the three fled to the relative safety of a nearby cross-cut tunnel. The little tunnel would become their home for the longest ten days of their lives.

Smashing an abandoned dynamite crate into kindling, the men ignited a small fire upon a flat rock. The fire would be constantly threatened by a steady downpour of water. Dampened spirits and the rising water were mixing a deadly cocktail. Drenched by endless drizzle, the three desperate men huddled inside Mother Nature's scarred womb. As flickering firelight played across their haggard faces, they wondered, "Would those above give up on them?" The waiting had begun.

Everyone knew rescue efforts would be difficult, if not futile. The only entrance to the tunnel was now sealed shut. What kept the survivors in would keep would-be rescuers out.

For six days, the captives were unable to signal their survival. Their silence contrasted dramatically with the cacophony above. Word of the cave-in had spread rapidly. Rescuers from nearby Springhill, Caribou and Montague mines responded to the call for "single men with guts." Confusion reigned when rescuers learned no blueprints existed for the underground shafts.

While the survivors shivered in silent despair, the rest of the world tuned in to a play-by-play of the confused rescue efforts. Planeloads of media had arrived at Moose River and among them were reporters from Canada's latest media craze - the radio. Newspaper "Extras" no longer satisfied hungry newshounds. CBC neophyte J. Frank Willis would broadcast 99 consecutive messages from the site, making media history for the most consecutive live broadcasts from one location. His reports were picked up by BBC for the benefit of their European listeners. For days, however, the reports spoke only of rescue efforts, not of survivors.

Hope floundered when the borehole reached the 141-foot level. No signal came from below; clearly, the men must be dead. Rescuers were ordered to give up their efforts.

Nevertheless, derby-hatted Billy Bell, a diamond drill operator with the Nova Scotia government, refused to surrender. The character who simultaneously chewed tobacco and smoked cigarettes disobeyed orders and forged ahead. He sent a steam whistle down the hole, praying the survivors would hear it. Bell's efforts paid off. At thirty minutes past midnight April 19, the entombed Scadding hammered a jubilant response on the pipe.

Rescuers quickly fed a garden hose through the pipeline, a simple tube which would represent the lifeline of the trapped men. For five days, down the tub went candles, matches, chocolate, brandy and hot soup. MT&T sent down a miniature telephone, designed especially for the survivors. The prisoners now had food, communication and perhaps most important, a reason to believe they might survive.

Inclement weather and rock falls held back rescuers. The unstable Reynolds Shaft had no solid roof. Water licked the rescuers' boots. Time was running out.

Enter C. D. Sampson, mine engineer, who understood only too well the special conditions of the Reynolds Shaft. Like Moose River, his own Drummond Mine "undercoal operation" had no solid roof. And so at midnight April 22, the new crew set to work soon. Grudging admiration displaced grumbled jealousy as the crew advanced more than seven feet on their first shift. Within 15 hours, the Drummond men had claimed an incredible thirty-three and a half feet. Their predecessors had inched forward a mere foot in the same amount of time.

As old rail ties became roof supports, Sampson crawled into an opening to call out a hopeful "hallo!" Sampson heard nothing but those at the surface did. The trapped men had heard Sampson's "hallo." They had made contact. But the ordeal, it seemed, was not ended.

That night, the roof again collapsed. Their 34-hour shift had exhausted the Drummond crew, whose efforts now slowed. With the roof resecured, the Drummond men stepped aside. The Acadia men would make the final rescue.

As the Acadians worked their way down, Frank Willis reported, ". . . can hear the men working, breaking through the rocks to get to the men." Then just after midnight April 23, came Willis' jubilant conclusion, "They have been saved. They are out of the mine. That is all. This is the Canadian Radio Commission."

Exhausted, shaken, and dirty but clearly alive, Robertson and Scadding looked at the sky for the first time in ten days. Sadly, Magill had succumbed to the mine's dampness, dying of pneumonia only three days earlier.

Seven decades later, a park, a stone cairn and a small mining museum mark the site of that long ago ordeal to which more than 100 million listeners tuned in so long ago. In terms of human lives lost, the Moose River cave-in had been a relative non-event. But in terms of historical influence, Willis' hourly updates "jump started" the Canadian radio industry. And his reporting style turned the Moose River disaster into the biggest radio story of the first half of the twentieth century.

Did You Know

You can listen to excerpts from Willis' original radio broadcast at www.broadcasting-history.ca/news/unique/ramfiles/moose/moose.ram

The first scheduled radio program in the world - a Dorothy Lutton concert - was broadcast on May 20, 1920.

In 1923, the Canadian National Railway's radio stations were considered the greatest radio services in the country.

The first hockey program was broadcast February 8, 1923.

In 1997, CBC Radio was the world's first public broadcaster to offer programs live on the Internet (webcasting).

Created by: Shirley Collingridge, Wordsmith