As time goes on, the number of people attending Miner’s Memorial Day in Springhill continues to dwindle.
To Clare Turnbull, who organizes the annual memorial ceremony with her sister, Cathy Fisher, it’s important for Springhillers to remember their coal mining heritage and the terrible toll paid to mine coal from the earth deep underground.
“We have to remember. This is our heritage; it’s Springhill’s heritage,” Turnbull said. “They’re more than names on a piece of rock - they’re people and their families are here and their descendants are here. We must keep this going because this is Springhill. It’s what built us.”
This year marks 65 years since the last of three major mine disasters ended large-scale mining in the community. The Bump in October 1958 killed 75 miners, occurring just two years after a mine explosion in 1956 killed 39 miners. The 1891 explosion killed 125 men and boys.
The names of the victims are engraved on the memorials in Miner’s Memorial Park on Main Street along with several hundred more names of victims killed in the mines throughout the industry’s history in Springhill.
Turnbull’s father, William, was among those killed when the floor of the Springhill mine crashed into the ceiling. She was only five months old at the time and her sister was only two. Her brothers Arthur and John were five and seven.
“My mother was 27 at the time and not from Springhill. She had to raise four kids on her own,” she said.
Turnbull and Fisher have played a prominent role in organizing the annual memorial service and while recently they’ve contemplated passing on the responsibility, each year they decide to do it for another year.
She recounted a story from several years ago when she was in the park preparing for the memorial service when a man came over to her weeping. He told her people see the name on the memorial as those engraved on stone, but he knew every single man on that stone.
“It moved me,” she said. “For him, for the widows, the family and friends we have to keep this going.
“Every year I say this is it, but then I realize it’s something we have to continue doing because we cannot allow what happened here to be forgotten,” she said. “I was brought up to know what happened to my dad and children were brought up to know what happened to their grandfather. It’s very important in our family and I’d hope it’s important for all Springhillers to know the history of their town. Everyone needs to know. This isn’t just a statue.”
Municipality of Cumberland Mayor Murray Scott said Davis Day is very important to Springhill and other mining communities in Nova Scotia.
“We gather to remember those who lost their lives in the coal mines,” Mayor Scott said. “These communities were built on the coal mines. I was fortunate enough not to have lost a parent or a brother, but close friends of mine did. I remember growing up with them with their fathers no longer with them and the significance of that.”
The mayor said coal meant so much to communities such as Springhill, River Hebert, Joggins, Maccan and Fenwick and while it drove the economy of those areas it was done so at high risk and a high price.
“It’s so important that we remember,” the mayor said.
The mayor said he spoke to Harold Brine earlier Sunday. Brine is the last survivor of the 1958 Bump.
“We talked about the mines and what they meant to him,” the mayor said. “Harold remembers very well what happened and what it was like being trapped underground waiting and hoping to be rescued. He’s 91 (years old) and when he’s gone, we’ll lose another piece of our history.”
Mary Willa Littler, who has worked tirelessly over the years to document and raise awareness of Springhill’s mining heritage, spoke during a church service at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church.
Littler spoke about William Davis and the significance of the day.
Littler said Miner’s Memorial Day is also known as Davis Day, an annual day of remembrance of miners who were killed on the job in Nova Scotia. It’s named for William Davis, a coal miner who was killed in 1925 during a protest by striking miners. The protest occurred near New Waterford in Cape Breton after the mining company cut off water and electricity during a long, bitter miners’ strike. Residents marched on the pumping station at Waterford Lake demanding the utilities be restored.
During a confrontation with armed company police, shots were fired and Davis was killed.
The Davis family had a strong connection to Springhill. The family immigrated to Canada and settled in Springhill around 1888. At the time, Davis would have been a year old.
His older brother, Thomas, was a victim of the 1891 Springhill mine explosion. He was 14 years old when he died in the first of three major mine disasters to beset the community.
Davis left Springhill to live and work in the Cape Breton coal mines around 1905.
His parents lived on the upper Herrett Road in Springhill and are buried in Hillside Cemetery.