Men of the Deeps
Sep 19, 2008
|A hard look at the Sydney Mines - Friday, September 19
Sometimes an ordinary activity turns into a moving experience - one you’ll remember for a very long time. And so it was with our visit to the Cape Breton Miners Museum in Glace Bay.
The richest of Canada’s coal deposits starts on the northeast shores of Cape Breton Island and runs for 90 miles under the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of Newfoundland. It was discovered in the 1700’s when explorers to Cape Breton Island noticed coal formations above ground. Word quickly spread, and soon the deposits were being exploited. One observer noted that coal is stored sunshine, with the power to bring the warmth of the tropics to Labrador and the polar regions. It can even help transport itself. A half pound of coal used in a steam engine can move two tons of coal a mile over land or sea.
As ground level deposits were used up mining inevitably went underground, and soon tunnels were being dug that extended under the ocean. Modern exploration has determined that there are some 13 veins, and before the fields closed a number of them had been exploited as far as seven miles out to sea. The deposits descend, and at seven miles out they are half a mile below the surface. At that point it becomes impossible to force enough air out to the face-wall, so the majority of the coal is still there waiting for technology to figure out how to extract it.
To get to the museum we had to drive all the way around Sydney Bay to the town of Glace Bay. On the way we stopped at a Marconi Center which is also in Glace Bay. Marconi received the first east to west transatlantic wireless transmission at Signal Hill in St. John’s Newfoundland, but it was from Glace Bay that he transmitted the first signal from west to east. The center is closed for the season, but there are interpretive signs outside that explain what happened here and show pictures of the towers that once stood on the hundred year old crumbling concrete foundations.
A few miles later we came to the Cape Breton Miners Museum. The Museum is built to look like the elevator structure over a shaft, and indeed the museum is built right over the remnants of an old mine. Inside there is a half hour movie and many fine exhibits, but the highlight of the museum consists of a guided tour into the mine. Our guide was a man we had talked to earlier in the lobby, and he was a lifelong miner who had worked three of Glace Bay’s mines from the age of 16 to 55. As at Battle Harbour, here we had a guide who was not a mere docent, but a miner with years of experience who was born and raised right here in Glace Bay.
Abbie Michalik is approaching 70 now and he has been working as a guide at the museum for 15 years. He is a born talker and storyteller who throws himself wholeheartedly into the tour, making it a personal history of his own life too. He went to work at the age of 16 when his father told him he had to quit school and come to work to help support the family.
For an hour he talked non-stop as he led us through the tunnels of the mine and showed us how it felt to be underground in a dark tunnel that got progressively lower. For half of the tour we were in a tunnel so low that we could not stand up straight, but had to lean over and stand and walk in a crouch. There were lights in the tunnel, but he would turn them out from time to time to show how it looked with only the light from his one miner’s helmet.
He talked about the danger of gas and explosions, and he told what the miners did to detect the gas before it killed them. He talked about shoring the tunnel, and how to prevent it from caving in and killing them. He was one of only two survivors of an explosion that killed half a dozen of his coworkers, and he talked with great emotion of how his grandfather, his father and several of his uncles survived years of backbreaking labor in the mines, only to die of black lung disease.
But the stories that had the greatest impact were stories about the inhumanity the companies showed to the miners. He said they treated the Shetland Pit Ponies that worked in the mines better than they treated the miners. He told of efforts to organize the miners into a union, and of the brutal strikebreaking tactics of the companies, and of the provincial and national governments. He talked of unimaginable hardships his parents and grandparents endured to keep from starving or freezing to death as they continued to defy the company’s efforts to break the strike. While the first strikes were eventually crushed, they built public outrage, which weakened the companies power and paved the way for later strikes to succeed.
It is one thing to read about these atrocities sitting in the comfort of your living room, but quite another to hear about them first hand, while you’re squatting in a dark, dripping tunnel that is getting lower with every turn. Miners were paid forty cents a ton for each ton of coal they sent to the surface. That was enough to buy a 20 pound sack of potatoes and on a good day they could dig out 10 tons and make four dollars between Abbie and his father.
Everything they bought was from the company store which even charged them for their tools, and for the blasting powder they used. As with the fisheries, the system was structured to keep them in debt. They could seldom break even, much less ever hope to get ahead. Like our guide Cyril at Battle Harbour, Abbie talked with emotion but not bitterness. There was a stoic acceptance of life as it was then, and even humor and laughter as he remembered many good times he enjoyed with his friends and family.
When his last mine closed and he lost his job at 55 he was in the midst of putting his three children through university. He wanted them to have the education he never got. So he went to work as a guide at the museum. Other men who lost their jobs found a new career in singing, forming a men’s choir called The Men of the Deeps. Started originally for something to do to keep their minds off their troubles, the choir is now in it’s 40th year and has played to great acclaim all over the world. We bought one of their CD’s and played it on our drive to Louisbourg. We will never play it without remembering this very special day.
We reached Louisbourg and found a campground right next to the Louisbourg Playhouse. While I paid for the campsite, Madolyn ran over and got tickets for the evening performance, and we ended the day with one of the best shows we’ve seen in a long time. Two young men put on a show called Cape Breton and a Funeral. One played the fiddle and the other the keyboard, and their comedy was as outrageously funny as their playing was sublime. What a perfect ending!