SPRINGHILL, N.S. - One minute, Valarie Alderson was at her grandmother’s kitchen table. The next, her life and the lives of many others changed forever.
“I was standing at the kitchen table, finishing my homework, and I felt the ground shake,” Alderson recalled.
Her grandmother came out from the living room and stood in the doorway.
“My mother looked at my grandmother and said ‘it’s the mine’ and started to cry.”
It was 8:06 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 23, 1958. Far below the surface, 174 men – including Alderson’s father, Raymond Tabor – were working on the Number 2 colliery of the Springhill mines when the earth shifted. The floor of the tunnels at the bottom of the mine slammed into the ceiling in what became known as the Bump.
Seventy-three men, including Tabor’s 38-year-old dad, were crushed. The rest were trapped in complete darkness more than a kilometre under Springhill.
Confusion followed in the wake of what would be the second major mine disaster in two years and the third dating back to 1891 when an explosion killed 125 men and boys.
“My grandmother had three boys in the mine, including my father. There were lots of telephone calls and people coming and going,” she said. “The next morning, my mother came in and said my father had been trapped. It was very chaotic.”
While they soon received word her uncles had gotten out, there was still no news on her father. She and her sister, Susan, were sent to an older couple to give her mother some space to deal with what was going on.
“Susan didn’t want to stay and came back home and I would be getting bits and pieces from hearing them talk,” she said. “My older brother and older sister would go to the mine and wait for news.”
Alderson didn’t go to school in the days following the disaster. The people she stayed with got the newspaper every day; she saw the list of missing miners.
“I was by myself in the living room reading the newspaper and I read all the names of the missing and my father’s name wasn’t there. My heart leapt and I thought ‘Oh my God, isn’t that great’ and then I was kicked in the stomach when I read the words ‘to be continued’,” she said. “I turned the page and there it was, his name. That will be forever etched in my memory. I built up so much hope and then there it was.”
Sad and challenging times
Two weeks after the disaster, her older brother pulled her aside with the news.
“My brother was twelve. He wanted to see me outside; he wanted to tell me that they found Dad,” she said. “He didn’t want my uncle to do it, he felt he had to do it, as my brother.”
Alderson had held out hope, since men had been found alive after six and eight days.
The Bump left a lasting impact on Springhill, at that time a community of about 7,000 people, according to the Springhill Heritage Group. Someone on every street had a relative or friend working in the mines and many lost people they knew, she said.
“Back in those days, they brought the bodies home and there was a lot of that happening,” she said. “I remember my father’s casket being there and so many people coming to the house. I remember there being so many funerals.”
It was only two years earlier that an explosion in the Number 2 mine killed 39 men.
She vividly remembers that day as well.
“I remember seeing the mushroom cloud that came out of the pithead,” she said. “These were sad and challenging times for Springhill.”
Alderson said the response following the bump was amazing. For years, a couple in Campbellton, N.B., sent her mother a cheque every Christmas until they passed away and her mother would knit things to send back.
The disaster – and the subsequent closure of the mine – left a lasting impression on Springhill. Many of her friends left the community as their parents went looking for jobs elsewhere.
“There was a lot of survivors’ guilt,” Alderson said. “There was one person I knew very well who felt it because his father lived, and his friends’ fathers died. It’s something a lot never got over.”
Alderson doesn’t want memories of those who lost their lives in the mines to be forgotten. While they deserve to be honoured, remembered and mourned, she says Springhill has shown amazing resilience in the years since – even since it lost status as a town several years ago when it merged with the surrounding Municipality of Cumberland.
“The Bump was a sad event and a tragic event, and when you sit and think about it, it can sometimes overwhelm you,” Alderson said. “But time and time again, this community has proven it can rise again.”
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- VIDEO: Last survivor remembers the Springhill bump
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