Life in the Coal Pits
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Life in the Coal Pits
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Life in the Coal Pits
Misery and danger dominate the life of a Cape Breton coal miner
In the early 1900s, coal was king. The industrial revolution was underway and it depended on coal to keep its engines humming.
Employers controlled almost every aspect of a Canadian coal miner's life in the early 1900s. The company owned the stores and houses in the mining town and determined the wages and working conditions. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Employers controlled almost every aspect of a Canadian coal miner's life in the early 1900s. The company owned the stores and houses in the mining town and determined the wages and working conditions. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

Underground, Cape Breton coal miners like Matthius "Tius" Tutty worked in dangerous, primitive conditions.

"I had a lot of accidents. Theres no question about it ... I had this hand smashed ... I had that skull fracture(d)" remembered Tutty. "I got to make a living and there's no other place to go. I said, I'm not a coward. If I die down there well I'll die down there."

Tutty starting working in the Glace Bay coal mines when he was 14 years old. His father had drowned and Tutty became the first in five generations to leave the sea.

Tutty drove horses that hauled boxes of coal along the underground tracks. He worked six days a week, surrounded by other child miners, some as young as nine.

Here's how one of them remembers life in the mine:

"We had been ... working 12 hours a day loading in a low seam on our hands, being cursed at from morning to night by a greedy boss and seeing daylight only on Sundays ... We faced the prospects of a dismal and unhappy existence."

The children ran the horses until they were old enough to swing a pick axe and handle blasting powder. After a few years, Tutty got a pickaxe and a job mining coals for the seams of mine. He was paid for each box of coal he delivered to the surface. But he had to pay for his own equipment, explosives and clothes.

Dominion Coal controlled almost every aspect of a miners life in Glace Bay. The company owned the stores and houses and determined the wages and working conditions. At the end of a month Tutty could take home as little as 70 cents.

But Tutty remained a miner. He had little education and no choice.

In 1909, many Cape Breton miners including Tutty joined a strike organized by the newly formed United Mineworkers of America. The union wanted to challenge the dominance of the mine owners over the workers. It was a long and violent strike and 500 armed Canadian soldiers were sent to Cape Breton to deal with the potential unrest.

For ten months, Tutty lived nervously under the sights of the machine guns, with no pay or relief. Children died of cholera and starvation. Finally the miners went back to work. The strike had failed.

"Maybe I should have kept fishing," Tutty said. "I don't know how I'm living. I really don't."

Tutty lived his entire life in Glace Bay and died there at the age of 95.

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