The New Brunswick coal industry experienced steady but slow growth after the 1630s, but entered the modern age and grew quickly after 1892 when local miners started using power equipment. The introduction of steam engines, which used wood or coal to boil water, produce steam and generate power, transformed coal mining into a modern industry that was safer for miners and produced much more coal for the owners. The first steam engines were developed in England in the late 1600s and were used mainly in coal mines, cotton mills and similar industries. By 1712, they were efficient enough to pump as much water from an underground coal mine as had been removed by pumps powered by 50 horses.
Several factors helped the coal industry to grow. In 1888, the steam powered railroad reached Chipman and began to transport coal, people and other cargo back to Norton and Saint John. In 1904, the rail lines reached Minto and in 1913 they reached Fredericton. After the main lines were in place, spur lines were built to individual mine sites, which made transporting the coal much easier. According to History of Coal Mining in the Minto & Chipman Areas, 1783 – 1978 by Douglas Higgins, the first New Brunswick coal mine to use a steam engine was the Elkin Mine. In 1892, they installed steam powered hoisting equipment in their underground mine at Coal Creek, near Chipman. The Coal Creek area has also been identified, by Professor LW Bailey, as the site of the first coal mining by the French pioneers in the early 1600s. Dr. Bailey was the lead Geologist for several editions of the Report on the Mines and Minerals of New Brunswick about 1870.
In 1917, New Brunswick’s first steam powered dragline and shovel began digging coal at New Zion, within 2 kms of this author’s current home. A dragline removed the earth from above the coal and a shovel (smaller that the dragline) dug the coal and dumped it into trucks or rail cars. These excavators were operated by Dave and Alex Tees, for the Reade Construction Co from Ontario, and later were purchased by the Tees brothers and operated by their company near Minto. From the beginning to the end of the Mid-Modern period of NB coal mining (about 1888 to 1969), annual production increased from 10,528 tons to approximately 1,000,000 tons. This period featured private mining companies using increasingly larger power equipment for pit mining, underground mining and strip mining; two World Wars which increased demand for coal; steamships and railroads to burn and transport the coal and the opening of a local coal fired power plant.
For many years after the 1917 dragline began working, the most any dragline could lift in one bucket was about 7 cubic yards of earth. The largest and last dragline to mine coal in New Brunswick, the Marion 8200-21R, had a bucket capacity of 65 cubic yards. It mined near Grand Lake from 1979 until 2010. [See featured image at head of this story.]
During this time period, an accident occurred which has been called “Minto’s greatest tragedy” and a “labour landmark”. Although this event resulted in the death of 3 children, between 10 and 13 years old, and 2 adults, it illustrates one way Grand Lake coal mining has benefitted the entire country, and demonstrates the courage and determination of local coal miners.
The accident happened on July 28, 1932 when 4 children climbed down a ladder-like structure into an abandoned underground mine shaft (which is now permanently covered by the Minto Centennial Arena). The first 3 boys, brothers Cyril and Vernon Stack and Allen Gaudine, were overcome by poison gas and fell to the bottom of the 45 foot shaft. The boy at the top of the ladder climbed back up and got help. The first attempt to rescue the boys was by Bart Stack, the 18 year old brother of two of the boys. He was also overcome by the gas. Within minutes, four other adults were also unconscious at the shaft bottom. The next of the 11 men who went down had ropes tied around them, so they could be hauled back up when the gas got to them. Several went down more than once after being affected by the gas on their first descent. One miner, 34 year old Mathias Wuhr, went down 5 times and was overcome by the gas each time. On his last four trips, he was able to tie ropes onto one of the victims each time before he lost consciousness himself and was hauled up. Two of the rescuers, Vernon Betts, aged 37, and Thomas Gallant, aged 48, did not survive the gas. Their widows were left to raise a total of twelve children.
An inquest into this accident identified the lack of regulations related to safety around abandoned mine sites and the lack of safety training or rescue equipment at the mines as factors that made the accident a tragedy. The Mines Act regulations were amended in April 1933 to correct the lack of regulations. The mine owners were given responsibility for safety at working and abandoned mine sites. A minimum age of 16 was set for miners. An 8 hour work day was established. Before this tragedy, the miner’s union (One Big Union) did not have much power. In 1937, the Minto branch of the United Mine Workers of America, Local 7409, was chartered, with Mathias Wuhr as it’s first President. The working conditions began to improve because of the UMWA efforts to ensure enforcement of the new regulations. Another positive result of this tragedy was improved coverage from the Workmen’s Compensation Board. The initial requests for compensation for the two widows were disallowed. The Miramichi Lumber Company, owner of the mine site where the accident occurred, helped to finance an appeal of that decision. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in favour of the widows, setting a president for wider interpretations of Compensation claims in N.B. and also throughout Canada.
Like in several other provinces, coal mining in New Brunswick ended in 2010 when the Minto mine was closed due to environmental and other concerns. The N.B. Coal employees were transferred to the mine’s parent company Énergie NB Power or pensioned off. The power plant was de-commissioned, equipment was sold and work sites were cleaned up and re-purposed.
Everyone involved in the Grand Lake coal industry since 1639 can be very proud of the impacts coal has had on the local area, New Brunswick and Canada. Grand Lake is recognized as a National Historic Site for being the first coal mining area in North America. The usefulness and easy access to Grand Lake coal was one of the reasons Saint John became the main French stronghold in Acadia in the early 1630’s. Coal was the objective of the 1639 trade mission (probably the first) between what became the United States and Canada. The English protected the Saint John river valley by moving 2,000 troops to the area in 1758 and by giving free land grants and travel funding to thousands of retired soldiers and other loyalists. These early preparations helped to defeat an American attempt to occupy the Saint John river valley (and probably all of Canada) in June of 1777. Coal provided comfort and convenience to individual homes and fueled the industrial development of the area. Coal provided stable local employment during two world wars and an economic depression.
Coal miners often worked long hours in terrible conditions and results of their determination are still evident around Grand Lake. Since the mines closed in 2010, efforts have been made to use the area’s history, mine sites and equipment to attract interest in the area. Other activities are planned to honour the miners and promote the Grand Lake area.