While lumbering in the Moose River region, John Pulsifer noticed and reported pieces of shiny quartz in 1866. But prospectors did not file claims until a decade later when the area was surveyed and became the Moose River Gold District. By the early 1900s, gold mining declined at Moose River as elsewhere in Nova Scotia. Mines were abandoned, resulting in many shafts filling up with water. With the renewed interest in gold mining during the 1930s, the Moose River mine was sold to a group that wanted to get the mine into production again. After pumping out water in some of the shafts, mining resumed in 1935. By early 1936 F.D. Henderson had been hired as mine manager and David Robertson and Herman Magill bought into the company, becoming major shareholders.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, Robertson, Magill and their employee, Alfred Scadding, decided to inspect the mine. They became trapped underground at the 141 foot level after a massive cave-in. Before then, few people had ever heard of Moose River, let alone the Moose River Gold mine. After the mine collapse and subsequent dramatic rescue, the name became known by millions the world over through the news media. Altho Read More
While lumbering in the Moose River region, John Pulsifer noticed and reported pieces of shiny quartz in 1866. But prospectors did not file claims until a decade later when the area was surveyed and became the Moose River Gold District. By the early 1900s, gold mining declined at Moose River as elsewhere in Nova Scotia. Mines were abandoned, resulting in many shafts filling up with water. With the renewed interest in gold mining during the 1930s, the Moose River mine was sold to a group that wanted to get the mine into production again. After pumping out water in some of the shafts, mining resumed in 1935. By early 1936 F.D. Henderson had been hired as mine manager and David Robertson and Herman Magill bought into the company, becoming major shareholders.

On Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, Robertson, Magill and their employee, Alfred Scadding, decided to inspect the mine. They became trapped underground at the 141 foot level after a massive cave-in. Before then, few people had ever heard of Moose River, let alone the Moose River Gold mine. After the mine collapse and subsequent dramatic rescue, the name became known by millions the world over through the news media. Although on the spot broadcasting of the event changed radio forever, the disaster did not significantly alter adherence to mine safety regulations. More serious mining disasters with great loss of life were yet to happen in Nova Scotia: Springhill (1956 and 1958) and Westray (1992), for example.

Ironically, the three men trapped in the Moose River Gold mine were not miners.  Dr. David E. Robertson was an eminent Toronto surgeon, Herman Magill, a young Toronto barrister, and Alfred Scadding, a timekeeper. After frantically searching for an escape route, the three men realized that there was no way out. They were trapped underground with water rising from below and shaft timbers ominously shifting overhead.
          
Miners from all over the province and from Ontario converged to help with the difficult rescue attempt. It rained and a raw cold wind blew most of the time. The ground at the mine site and dirt road into Moose River turned into a muddy morass. Newspaper reporters flooded in, literally fighting to get their stories out over the one telephone which was a party line serving the entire community. On Monday, April 20th, J. Frank Willis of the CRBC (precursor to the CBC) arrived and began broadcasting, providing the first ever live 24 hour radio coverage of a breaking news story in Canada. He never slept and barely ate for the next 56 hours, broadcasting two or three minutes every half hour. Over 100 million people in North America and Europe stayed glued to their radios, anxious to hear every detail of the rescue as it unfolded.

Voted the top radio news item from the first half of the 20th century by the Canadian Press, the Moose River mine disaster encompasses three linked stories.  One revolves around lingering questions concerning the three who were trapped.  Why did they go down into the mine late Easter Sunday evening when they had been forewarned that parts of the mine were unsafe?  A second concerns the birth of live on the spot radio broadcasting; and the third is a compelling narrative about the heroic rescue which succeeded despite all odds.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Illustration showing the mine shafts of the Moose River rescue.

Artist sketch depicting the location of the trapped men and the rescue route at Moose River.

W.A. West, Nova Scotia Department of Mines.
1936
Moose River, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Nova Scotia Museum of Industry, I91.32.571
© 2013, Nova Scotia Museum of Industry. All Rights Reserved.


Within an hour or two after the mine collapse and realization that three men were trapped below, locals and miners began arriving to begin the rescue attempt. Many doubted that anyone had survived the massive cave-in, until wisps of smoke from a fire lit by the underground survivors came seeping through cracks in the ground near the mine shaft. These “smoke signals” happened on Monday, Day 1. Hope soared only to plummet when there was a second cave-in that day. 
         
Everyone felt the urgency to find out if the men were still alive. By now there were about 150 miners at the disaster site working 8 hour shifts. Digging through adjacent shafts was slow, laborious and frustrating. But more than anything, it was dangerous. Billy Bell, a diamond drill operator working for the Department of Mines, wanted to help with the rescue effort earlier but did not get permission until late Wednesday, April 15th. He arrived the next morning, Day 4, at 2 a.m. after a harrowing journey hauling his long drill over bad roads. Boring for 48 hours through hard rock, he at last broke through to the cavity in the Magill shaft w Read More
Within an hour or two after the mine collapse and realization that three men were trapped below, locals and miners began arriving to begin the rescue attempt. Many doubted that anyone had survived the massive cave-in, until wisps of smoke from a fire lit by the underground survivors came seeping through cracks in the ground near the mine shaft. These “smoke signals” happened on Monday, Day 1. Hope soared only to plummet when there was a second cave-in that day. 
         
Everyone felt the urgency to find out if the men were still alive. By now there were about 150 miners at the disaster site working 8 hour shifts. Digging through adjacent shafts was slow, laborious and frustrating. But more than anything, it was dangerous. Billy Bell, a diamond drill operator working for the Department of Mines, wanted to help with the rescue effort earlier but did not get permission until late Wednesday, April 15th. He arrived the next morning, Day 4, at 2 a.m. after a harrowing journey hauling his long drill over bad roads. Boring for 48 hours through hard rock, he at last broke through to the cavity in the Magill shaft where he thought the survivors might be. After various attempts using flares and small steam whistles to get the survivors’ attention through the hole he had drilled, Bell was at last successful; someone was tapping on the borehole pipe. It was 12:30 a.m. Sunday, Day 7. “Are you all three alive”, shouted Billy. “Yes” was Alfred Scadding’s answer.

According to veteran newspaperman, Gregory Clark, the perseverance of Billy Bell may be the great unheralded story of this disaster. Clark covered the Moose River mine disaster for The Toronto Star for two weeks, right from the first horrific news about the cave-in to his exclusive interview of Dr. David E. Robertson as he lay recuperating at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. Clark did not learn until later that Bell had been trapped twice underground as a young man. It was from those experiences that Billy Bell had vowed to learn how to work the diamond drill because it could bore through hard rock, facilitating contact with trapped miners. Although just about everyone, including his bosses, had given up when there was no response to the flares and whistles, Bell persisted. When at last he heard the first faint tap from below on the borehole pipe, Billy Bell, vindicated, jumped up, raised his arms to the sky and shouted, “God they’re here!”
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

J. Frank Willis, a Maritime radio announcer with CRBC, also wanted to be at the Moose River mine disaster site when he learned about it on Easter Monday. But he was denied permission to do an on the spot broadcast until Monday, April 20th, when he finally received the go ahead from his superiors. He left Halifax for Moose River immediately, arriving in the late afternoon. It was now Day 8.

His first broadcast that Monday lasted 15 minutes:

“It is a frozen country down here – drab and desolate; a country of scrub and second growth of rock – rock – relentless, hard, cruel-hard.  It is against rock of this sort that miners for the past week have fought and fought grim lipped, determined…”

Thereafter, Willis did two or three minute bulletins every half hour for the next 56 hours.
His broadcasts were an historic first – a groundbreaking round the clock coverage of a news event carried across Canada on all 58 of its stations and connecting to 650 stat Read More
J. Frank Willis, a Maritime radio announcer with CRBC, also wanted to be at the Moose River mine disaster site when he learned about it on Easter Monday. But he was denied permission to do an on the spot broadcast until Monday, April 20th, when he finally received the go ahead from his superiors. He left Halifax for Moose River immediately, arriving in the late afternoon. It was now Day 8.

His first broadcast that Monday lasted 15 minutes:

“It is a frozen country down here – drab and desolate; a country of scrub and second growth of rock – rock – relentless, hard, cruel-hard.  It is against rock of this sort that miners for the past week have fought and fought grim lipped, determined…”

Thereafter, Willis did two or three minute bulletins every half hour for the next 56 hours.
His broadcasts were an historic first – a groundbreaking round the clock coverage of a news event carried across Canada on all 58 of its stations and connecting to 650 stations in the United States and the United Kingdom – heard by more than 100 million listeners. 

At 2 a.m. on Thursday, April 23rd, J. Frank Willis ended a total of 99 consecutive broadcasts from the Moose River mine with a terse:

“This is for the world:  they have been saved.  They are out of the mine.”

With these broadcasts, made without operational error, Willis turned radio into a reliable hard news source. The immediacy and professionalism of his descriptive bulletins demonstrated radio’s capability to deliver breaking news on the spot from remote locations. Public radio thereafter would no longer be just a medium for music, occasional news events and dramas.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph of a group of men gathered around Allister Bowman, listening to the men trapped in the mine.

Maritime Tel & Tel employee J. Allister Bowman using earphones to listen for word from the trapped men who used a microphone lowered down a 120’ borehole to communicate with the surface. MT&T making such a small microphone in such a short time was an impressive achievement.

Photograph by Allen Fraser.
1936-04
Moose River, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Nova Scotia Archives, N-318
© 2013, Nova Scotia Archives. All Rights Reserved.


In addition to the 300 hard rock miners willing to risk their lives who arrived at the site from far and wide, many others played a crucial role in the rescue operation. Officers from the RCMP came to keep the peace and maintain some semblance of traffic order in the muck and confusion. Maritime Telegraph & Telephone devised a tiny radio transmitter which was carefully lowered through the borehole on Monday, Day 8, enabling morale-building contact with the trapped men. The Salvation Army served coffee and food to the exhausted rescue workers, journalists, and mining officials. By the time two volunteers of the Salvation Army came to the area, the road leading into the Moose River mine had disappeared into a sea of mud.  Undeterred, they left their vehicle by the side of the road and walked in, lugging donuts and coffee, all 17 miles!

Once the borehole was in place, thanks to Billy Bell and his crew, the trapped men received soup and coffee poured through a rubber hose inserted into the pipe lining the hole. But unbeknownst to the well meaning rescue team on the surface, for the most part any food or drink made the men nauseous, causing them to vomit. In order t Read More
In addition to the 300 hard rock miners willing to risk their lives who arrived at the site from far and wide, many others played a crucial role in the rescue operation. Officers from the RCMP came to keep the peace and maintain some semblance of traffic order in the muck and confusion. Maritime Telegraph & Telephone devised a tiny radio transmitter which was carefully lowered through the borehole on Monday, Day 8, enabling morale-building contact with the trapped men. The Salvation Army served coffee and food to the exhausted rescue workers, journalists, and mining officials. By the time two volunteers of the Salvation Army came to the area, the road leading into the Moose River mine had disappeared into a sea of mud.  Undeterred, they left their vehicle by the side of the road and walked in, lugging donuts and coffee, all 17 miles!

Once the borehole was in place, thanks to Billy Bell and his crew, the trapped men received soup and coffee poured through a rubber hose inserted into the pipe lining the hole. But unbeknownst to the well meaning rescue team on the surface, for the most part any food or drink made the men nauseous, causing them to vomit. In order to lower the radio transmitter with instructions taped on, it was decided to pull the liner hose for fear that the fragile transmitter might get stuck going down.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph of Dr. D.E. Robertson emerging from the Moose River, NS, surrounded by rescuers.

Dr. D.E. Robertson emerging from the Moose River, NS gold mine after 11 days trapped underground, April, 23, 1936. He was able to walk out of the mine. His first words were: “thank you boys”.

Evening Telegram, Toronto
1936-04
Moose River, Nova Scotia, CANADA
Nova Scotia Archives, J.W. Nelson NSARM no. 2
© 2013, Nova Scotia Archives. All Rights Reserved.


Around 9:30 in the evening on Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, Dr. David Robertson and Herman Magill rode the skip deep down into the mine. Alf Scadding joined them a few minutes later, riding the skip down by himself. While Magill explained some technicalities, Scadding became increasingly worried by the ominous sounds of rock falling, timbers creaking. He urged them to leave the mine. But it was too late. As they were about to be hoisted up on the skip, the entire mine above them collapsed. Frantically searching for a way out, the men soon realized that they were trapped in a small cavity at the 141 foot level. 

The three men suffered horribly – first from the mental anguish that rescuers would give them up for dead – and then physically from the water continually “raining” on them from above and the damp cold which seeped into their every bone. They huddled together on a flattish rock trying not to think about their feet and legs which were hour by hour becoming more numb and swollen. They also feared another cave-in, which they knew would most certainly crush them completely.

On Monday, Day 1 of their ordeal, the men managed t Read More
Around 9:30 in the evening on Easter Sunday, April 12, 1936, Dr. David Robertson and Herman Magill rode the skip deep down into the mine. Alf Scadding joined them a few minutes later, riding the skip down by himself. While Magill explained some technicalities, Scadding became increasingly worried by the ominous sounds of rock falling, timbers creaking. He urged them to leave the mine. But it was too late. As they were about to be hoisted up on the skip, the entire mine above them collapsed. Frantically searching for a way out, the men soon realized that they were trapped in a small cavity at the 141 foot level. 

The three men suffered horribly – first from the mental anguish that rescuers would give them up for dead – and then physically from the water continually “raining” on them from above and the damp cold which seeped into their every bone. They huddled together on a flattish rock trying not to think about their feet and legs which were hour by hour becoming more numb and swollen. They also feared another cave-in, which they knew would most certainly crush them completely.

On Monday, Day 1 of their ordeal, the men managed to make a fire from the wood of an old dynamite box, hopeful that the smoke would signal their survival to those above.  They also tried banging on nearby pipes and Scadding dropped rocks down the open shaft to try and determine how fast the water was rising. But, as the hours, then days, passed, their overall physical condition deteriorated. Herman Magill developed pneumonia and Dr. Robertson, without medical equipment or drugs, felt stricken watching his friend and business associate become increasingly ill. Magill tried to take the blame for their plight, though the others assured him it was not his fault. They were all in it together.

Their hopes for being rescued soared when contact with the surface was made through the borehole pipe. However, by then, Herman Magill’s condition had worsened. After sitting up and asking for water, he fell back and died on Monday, April 20th, Day 8 of their entrapment. Scadding and Robertson carried Magill’s body to the north side of the tunnel and laid it reverently on a board. Then Scadding yelled up the pipe that Magill was dead.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph of a group of rescuers standing next to a pond.

A group of rescuers standing next to a pond and the collapsed earth above the cave-in at the Moose River Gold Mine, 1936.

J.C.M. Hayward
1936-04
Moose River, Nova Scotia, CANADA
NSA Catherine Godwin no. 2
© 2013, Nova Scotia Archives. All Rights Reserved.


With time running out for Alfred Scadding and David Robertson, both anxious and weakened, the rescue workers renewed efforts to tunnel into the Magill shaft where the trapped men were. Timbers had to be installed for support and to hold back falling debris every foot of the way but the rescuers kept burrowing ever forward. Finally, the words everyone was waiting for came at 11:40 p.m. Wednesday evening, April 22ed when Dr. Robertson yelled into the tiny radio transmitter created by MT & T: “They’ve arrived here.”

The trapped men had been found! Jim Simpson, leader of the Stellarton draeger team, shoveled a hole through to Robertson and Scadding and helped two other rescue workers into the confined area where the men had been trapped for ten days, eleven nights. They put their shirts around Scadding and Robertson and called for Dr. F.R. Davis, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health, to come down into the mine to examine the men before they started up the shaft.  Now all that remained was crawling out. Slowly David Robertson started up the tunnel and made it most of the way on his own.

At 12:44 a.m. on April 23, Robertson emerged from Read More
With time running out for Alfred Scadding and David Robertson, both anxious and weakened, the rescue workers renewed efforts to tunnel into the Magill shaft where the trapped men were. Timbers had to be installed for support and to hold back falling debris every foot of the way but the rescuers kept burrowing ever forward. Finally, the words everyone was waiting for came at 11:40 p.m. Wednesday evening, April 22ed when Dr. Robertson yelled into the tiny radio transmitter created by MT & T: “They’ve arrived here.”

The trapped men had been found! Jim Simpson, leader of the Stellarton draeger team, shoveled a hole through to Robertson and Scadding and helped two other rescue workers into the confined area where the men had been trapped for ten days, eleven nights. They put their shirts around Scadding and Robertson and called for Dr. F.R. Davis, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health, to come down into the mine to examine the men before they started up the shaft.  Now all that remained was crawling out. Slowly David Robertson started up the tunnel and made it most of the way on his own.

At 12:44 a.m. on April 23, Robertson emerged from the tunnel. Journalists, trying to catch this historic moment on camera, had set up magnesium flares to give necessary light. But doctors on the site worried that the light would be too much for the survivors’ eyes, accustomed to the dark for so long, and ran around extinguishing the flares.

Robertson looked up and said “Thank you, boys.” Led by the Salvation Army, everyone burst into singing “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Seeing his wife, Robertson called out, “Pauline, dear.” The ambulance came and whisked Robertson off to the field hospital. Meanwhile, rescue worker James Rushton carried Alf Scadding out on his back. Scadding appeared at the surface at 1 a.m. and was quickly moved to the field hospital. Rushton went back down the dangerous tunnel with another rescue worker, Duncan McNeil, and together they carried out Magill’s body. As they emerged, a respectful hush fell over the crowd. The only sounds were those of the men carrying the deceased to the waiting ambulance. By Thursday at dawn, the Moose River mine was practically deserted; the two survivors recovering in a Halifax hospital.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. David Robertson returned to his medical practice after the rescue and a short stint in hospital. He died eight years later of causes unrelated to the mine cave-in. Alf Scadding spent six months in hospital recovering from his ordeal in the mine disaster. Eventually, all of his toes had to be amputated. Returning to Toronto, he became a philatelist.

Twenty years after the Moose River Mine disaster, J. Frank Willis interviewed Alfred Scadding on CBC television.
  
Dr. David Robertson returned to his medical practice after the rescue and a short stint in hospital. He died eight years later of causes unrelated to the mine cave-in. Alf Scadding spent six months in hospital recovering from his ordeal in the mine disaster. Eventually, all of his toes had to be amputated. Returning to Toronto, he became a philatelist.

Twenty years after the Moose River Mine disaster, J. Frank Willis interviewed Alfred Scadding on CBC television.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

CRBC radio reporter J. Frank Willis interviewing rescue workers, Moose River, 1936.

J. Frank Willis (holding microphone) interviews Billy Bedaux from Stellarton, NS. After his ground-breaking broadcasts at the Moose River Gold Mine disaster, 28 year old J. Frank Willis received many offers of work elsewhere. He stayed on with the CRBC, later the CBC, eventually moving to Toronto. At the time of his death at age 60, he was called “the Dean of Canadian Broadcasting.”

CBC Still Photo Collection
1936-04
Moose River, Nova Scotia, CANADA
© 2013, CBC Still Photo Collection. All Rights Reserved.


Wilf Carter wrote Rescue at Moose River Gold Mine after listening to J. Frank Willis’s radio broadcasts. The song has become a Canadian classic.


    Way down in old Nova Scotia
    Moose River it seemed was the name
    Three Canadians on Easter Sunday
    To a tumbled down gold mine they came

    They descended the mine for inspection
    Never dreamed fate trailed close at hand
    With a crash that gave them no warning
    They were trapped in that mine there to die.

    Great men from all over the country
    Volunteered to give up their lives
    They slaved with unceasing effort
    It seemed that death they defied.

    On Monday they got their first message
    From the men prisoned far, far below
    “Can you help us?” they heard the men calling Read More
Wilf Carter wrote Rescue at Moose River Gold Mine after listening to J. Frank Willis’s radio broadcasts. The song has become a Canadian classic.


    Way down in old Nova Scotia
    Moose River it seemed was the name
    Three Canadians on Easter Sunday
    To a tumbled down gold mine they came

    They descended the mine for inspection
    Never dreamed fate trailed close at hand
    With a crash that gave them no warning
    They were trapped in that mine there to die.

    Great men from all over the country
    Volunteered to give up their lives
    They slaved with unceasing effort
    It seemed that death they defied.

    On Monday they got their first message
    From the men prisoned far, far below
    “Can you help us?” they heard the men calling
    “Our suffering God only knows.”

    Next message filled all hearts with sorrow
    As they heard them say one pal is gone
    “We are trying our best to hold on, boys,”
    “Do your best.” “Don’t make it too long.”

    On Sunday they got their last message
    A miner out of breath brought the news
    “We’ve won the great fight,” he was shouting
    “At last we have dug our way through.”

    Now friends my story is ending
    With hardships of many a day
    But the rescue will go down in history
    Of the gold mine down Moose River way.

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Photograph of a stone cairn commemorating the Moose River rescue.

The Nova Scotia Department of Mines erected a memorial cairn at the site of the Moose River Gold Mines in Halifax County to commemorate the mining disaster of 1936 and the rescue of the survivors. It was erected on the spot where the pipe used to communicate with those trapped still stuck out of the ground. The pipe was incorporated into the monument. In 2006 vandals removed the plaque from the cairn.

Ivan Smith
c. 2004
Moose River, Nova Scotia, CANADA
© 2013, Ivan Smith. All Rights Reserved.


1. After studying the disaster and rescue at the Moose River Gold mine in April, 1936, construct a time-line of this historic event, including at least 15 points.

2. Compare and contrast the disaster and rescue at the Westray Mine (1992) with the Moose River Gold Mine disaster in 1936. Using these two mining disasters as examples, explain at least one safety precaution or regulation which was not followed in either mine. Why do you think it is difficult for us to learn from our mistakes?

3. After considering the roles of various people and groups during the Moose River Gold Mine disaster, if you had been there, how would you have made a contribution in the rescue attempt? Would you have been a nurse or doctor in the field hospital set up near the mine? A Salvation Army volunteer making and serving food to the miners and others at the rescue site? A newspaper reporter filing stories each day? A miner digging the escape tunnel? Use your imagined skills and hard work ethic to help rescue the trapped men. Describe what you did and how you felt Read More
1. After studying the disaster and rescue at the Moose River Gold mine in April, 1936, construct a time-line of this historic event, including at least 15 points.

2. Compare and contrast the disaster and rescue at the Westray Mine (1992) with the Moose River Gold Mine disaster in 1936. Using these two mining disasters as examples, explain at least one safety precaution or regulation which was not followed in either mine. Why do you think it is difficult for us to learn from our mistakes?

3. After considering the roles of various people and groups during the Moose River Gold Mine disaster, if you had been there, how would you have made a contribution in the rescue attempt? Would you have been a nurse or doctor in the field hospital set up near the mine? A Salvation Army volunteer making and serving food to the miners and others at the rescue site? A newspaper reporter filing stories each day? A miner digging the escape tunnel? Use your imagined skills and hard work ethic to help rescue the trapped men. Describe what you did and how you felt as the days unfolded.
  

© 2013, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

1.  Students communicate ideas and information clearly and effectively.
    (English Language Arts, Grades 7-12)

2.  Students demonstrate and analyze linkages between a region’s natural geology and its resource base.
    (Geography, Grade 11)

3.  Students demonstrate an understanding of the past and how it affects the future.
    (Canadian History, Grade 11; Social Studies, Grades 7-12)

4.  Students demonstrate an understanding of the connection between physical and cultural landscapes and the shaping of the Canadian identity.
    (Geography, Grade 12)  

5.  Students use written and other ways of representation to explain, clarify and reflect on their feelings, experiences and learnings, and to use their imaginations.  
    (English Language Arts, Grades 7-12)

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