Monday, March 12, 2007

Canadian Heroes You've Never Heard Of, Part 1

Vince Coleman was a telegraph operator and train dispatcher in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the early years of the 20th Century. On the morning of December 6, 1917, he witnessed a ship on fire, drifting towards Pier 6 in downtown Halifax. A sailor ashore from the ship warned that the ship, the Mont Blanc, was full of explosives. Coleman realised that some hundreds of people (some accounts say 300, others 700) aboard inbound trains were en route to Halifax and went back into the dispatch office to send a Morse code message down the line. The message he sent was "Stop trains. Munition ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye."

It was the last thing he ever did.

Just before 9:05AM, the Mont Blanc exploded, the largest man-made explosion ever, prior to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth (across the harbour) were flattened. Approximately 2000 people were killed and another 9000 seriously injured. The blast was felt 126km away.

Wikipedia article on the Halifax Explosion
Wikipedia article on Vince Coleman
Heritage Minute on Vince Coleman
CBC site on the Halifax Explosion


In 1958, Maurice Ruddick was a miner in the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. Springhill was notorious for its dangerous coal mines; the entire area is the ideal location for mine disasters, since the unstable, friable rock contains vast quantities of high-quality, yet extremely gassy and dusty, coal. (The infamous Westray mine disaster that claimed 26 miners' lives in 1992 happened not far away in Pictou County.) There had already been two mining disasters in Springhill by 1958, a terrible fire on February 21, 1891 that killed 125 miners, and a coal dust explosion on November 1, 1956.

On October 23, 1958, there would be a third and final mine disaster in Springhill. The mines would be closed for good afterward.

At 8:06PM, an enormous "bump"* collapsed the three working faces and the ends of the four mine levels nearest the working faces. One hundred and seventy four men were in the mine at the time, including Maurice Ruddick. Seventy four of those men died in the incident, while a hundred made it out alive.

On November 1, 1958, a draegerman walking past a ventilation pipe heard singing drifting out of the mine. The community mounted yet another rescue attempt, and finally, six more miners, including Maurice Ruddick, were brought out of the mine. Ruddick, who had a reputation around town for singing, had helped keep the men alive and in good spirits by getting them to sing hymns.

The last group of men rescued from the mine were instant celebrities across Canada and into the United States. However, the crest of good wishes soon turned to a political turmoil when the Governor of Georgia invited the miners on a luxury holiday to Jeckyll Island. According to, "The most telling tale of tribute came from the Governor of the state of Georgia. He generously invited the nineteen survivors to vacation at one of his state's luxurious resorts, usually reserved for millionaires. When the Governor discovered that one of the miners was black, he explained that while Ruddick was still invited, he would have to be segregated from the others. 'It is the law here that Negroes must be separate,' said the Governor.

When the miners heard this, they were reluctant to accept the offer. 'There was no segregation down that hole, and there's none in this group,' said one miner. But Ruddick agreed to go on the Governor's terms, knowing how much the others really wanted the vacation."

Maurice Ruddick always modestly downplayed his role in saving his and his colleagues' lives, and died in near-obscurity in 1988.

Eyewitness account of the 1958 Bump from Dr. Arnold Burden
History Minute on Maurice Ruddick
Wikipedia article on the Springhill Mine Disasters


* According to Illustrated Mining Terms, a bump is "a violent dislocation of the mine workings which is attributed to severe stresses in the rock surrounding the workings."


Blogger Dr. Know said...

Interesting stories, and a relief from the usual partisan political yammerings seen on most blogs from the states - including mine. ;-)

FYI, the Georgia Governor referred to in the coal mine disaster story was probably Marvin Griffin, a staunch segregationist.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

Yes, I believe so. I left it out, though, because I'd never heard of him, and that second vignette was getting overlong as it was. :)

12:57 AM  

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