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Community Members & Miner's Testimonies

Below are interviews and testimonies from members of the Malagash Community and Miner's with their stories of the Malagash Salt Mine.


Unknown Miner

You started at the Salt Mine when you were 16 was it?
Yeh? 1950. November 13th, 1950.
So tell us about when you started work at the Salt Plant, what was it like then?
Well, I was never a very big person, I only weighed about 125 lbs and when I went to work the first day, the first job I had was carrying 140 lb bags of salt. After a week of that, I had second thoughts about going back to school, but I didn't, I stayed with it.
So that was your first job was it?
Yes, carrying bags of salt out into the box cars.
So how many would have started, like how many were doing that job with you?
At the time, there would be one fellow filling the bags; two sewing the bags - these were jute bags, they call them feed bags today I guess - they'd be two sewing and then there would be two in the box car. They came down a chute. You carry them one end of the? from the middle of the box car to the back of the box car, so it was quite a little lug, and you'd pile them 6 or 7 high.
And they were pretty heavy then?
140 lbs!
So what time of day, was that day shift that you worked?
Day shift and afternoons.
What hours did you work, 8 hour shifts?
Eight to four and four to twelve.
What was the pay rate back then, do you remember?
Very little!! I don't remember the exact amount. I know that my take-home pay when I worked six days a week was $28.00.
And that was in 1950?
Yes. That was my take-home pay so it would be about $32.00 a week roughly.

So what was your next job after the jute bags?
I got promoted upstairs as they call it, to be a sewer of the jute bags. There was always a contest on who was the fastest sewer.
Did you ever win?!
Yes. I was, after a while I became one of the fastest sewers. Jimmy Drummond was the fastest man they had in the plant for sewing.
So how fast, how many bags did you sew? So many an hour or a day?
Err... we, I can't remember exactly, but I think Jimmy could sew one in about 35 seconds.
That was just sewing the top?
Sewing the top. Those are the ones, that you see, sometimes you see pictures of them and they have ears, and you just sew them across.
How long did you have that job?
Ok? 1950 I was in the box cars untill? Ok in 1951, I probably had that job for a couple of months. I was just working seasonal you see. No seniority, I'd just started, so I only worked part-time.
So were you still going to school as well then?

So what was it like when you started work at the salt mine, any idea how many they employed then, how busy it was?
Oh yes, there was about 120 people working there then, roughly.
So what were some of the other jobs they would have been doing then?
Oh there were quite a few jobs. At 1951 they changed to paper bags instead of jute bags. They still had to fill some jute bags but they went to paper, 100 lbs, and that was a picnic compared to the other ones. And Jimmy Waugh? you want to hear that story about Jimmy Waugh?
Oh sure.
Jimmy Waugh, the maintenance superintendent he went to New Brunswick up to a sugar plant for a company visit or something; and he saw a small machine up there that filled 2lb bags with sugar. He got thinking about it and he came back to Malagash and the maintenance department and him built a rotary bagging machine, and it had three heads on it, that meant it would fill three bags at a time. It rotated around in a circle and it automatically filled, and two men one fella putting the empty paper bags on and one taking the full ones off. They put it on like a little table up quite high, and you had a feed trolley, and you'd take your feed trolley and pull it up to the front of that and load the bags on the feed trolley very carefully. And sometimes I had to trolley, I became a trolley-man, and sometimes I had to trolley ten bags, which was half a ton, on two wheels; but it wasn't the strength because I didn't have that much, it was the skill of doing it, and you would trolley it out into the box car.
So that was quite innovative then for him to go and see that and make one for Malagash?
Oh yes. In Malagash if something broke, we usually had to make the part. You couldn't phone up and say send me one; and a lot of things that were at the salt mine Jimmy Waugh, Theodore McKenzie, Baxter Mattertol, Alec Smith, those four fellas invented a lot of things for the first time.

 Kenny Wilson.  Miner started 1950

So what kind of markets were there back then for the salt?
Mostly Newfoundland, fish salt, hay salt in the summertime. We couldn't sell enough of the fines that we got, the fine that we got; they had to dump it over the bank actually.
The fine salt you mean, like the table salt?
It turned out like table salt because of the explosion of the dynamite - we didn't sell table salt, it was just industrial, you know hay salt and fish salt.
So the fish salt that was for salting the cod and so on?
That's right, Newfoundland.
So what was the hay salt exactly?
When you put hay in the barn, you ever hear tell of hay catching on fire by itself?
If you put salt, a layer of hay and a little bit of salt on it, it prevents it from heating and it also helps the protein in the hay stay green.

So how was life in Malagash at the time? You were 16 you started you had just started at the salt mine. Obviously the population was a lot bigger, what was it like back then?
Well if we had a bad snow storm in the wintertime and it lasted a week, it wouldn't affect us at all because we had grocery stores. In the salt mine right down here we had a grocery store, a pool room, which is like a convenience store they call it today. We had a tea room where the ladies could go and have tea, a post office, a community hall and we had movies once a week. Pretty well self sufficient.
So that was all a result of the salt mine was it?
Basically yes.
So after you did the sewing of the bags do you remember what job you did after that? That was 1951 you said?
In 1952 when I got laid off my job in the wintertime, about February; I went to school in Sydney and took an auto body course. That Summer when I came back, finished it, I already knew who to weld and I knew how to paint, so I was only there four months instead of six, and I got called back to work at the mine. And I thought what's going on, this time of year we don't usually get called back to work. But they had decided that I would be working with CIL (Canadian Industries Limited); and they were going to try, Canadian Industries Limited were going to try and go underground and change the way that we dynamited the salt out of the face of the wall.So they put me with them and I worked there for about three months, I think it was roughly. Determining how to change the way we did it to get the salt out of the wall in bigger chunks, was what the idea was; because we couldn't sell the fines, couldn't sell all the fine salt. So underground they used a big undercutter which was like a big power saw with a twelve foot boom on it, and that cuts the bottom of the wall, and that's what makes the floor, or whatever you want to call it, nice and smooth underground. And then they drill every four feet you drill a hole about twelve feet deep in a sequence, and then you put dynamite in the holes with timers on them. And the first row of dynamite on the bottom goes out the first and that leaves room for the rest to explode to move out. And we had to change the way we did it. Instead of putting so much dynamite in and such a snap to the salt to break it all up, we started using tubes of salt made out of dynamite paper.
So how did that work exactly?
That helped, you got quite bigger chunks of salt.
So was the dynamite wrapped in some kind of paper?
Well the sticks of dynamite are always wrapped in paper, just like wax paper, they were about a foot long. And I should tell you that we had a special belt for carrying these salt sticks that I had. I used to make them up they looked exactly like a stick of dynamite because I was using the papers. And I had eight or ten of those on my belt one day, when I went to go underground I remembered that I had to get something out of the storeroom, so Iwalked in with all these sticks that looked like dynamite. The storekeeper took a weave one way and a weave the other, and he shot out the back door and that was it. He left the scene altogether, he thought I was going to blow the place up!
So did you make a special belt to carry those?
CIL had them; they were using them for carrying dynamite.
So you said it was better when they wrapped the paper around, how did that, it didn't break off such chunks?
Instead of filling the drill hole full of dynamite, we'd put a stick of dynamite, a stick of salt, a stick of dynamite, and a stick of salt and that would cut it in half. And then we changed that to one stick of dynamite, two sticks of salt, different measurements in the hole to see what we could do to make it work. And after a while we got it to work.
And that was pretty successful?

They called it rock salt and you could buy fine, two mesh and three mesh. Two mesh and three mesh that means that in one inch square in a screen there's two squares to the inch and three mesh there would be three squares to the square inch. They gauge right down to finer than a screen door.
So what grade, what mesh that mostly was sold?
A lot of it was two mesh, and fish salt they take and mix the different sizes together to make up whatever. They still do the same thing today, whatever somebody orders is what they want.
So what was the quality like of the salt?
Oh, 99.99.

So basically it was like a lot of places today, you know they lay off and hire on again, was it seasonal for a fair bit of the time, or would you become full time there after you had been there after a few years?
It became full time after? er?they hired me on the core drill to go around Nova Scotia looking for salt, because the seam here of salt we had to follow it; and after so many years of mining it had become very costly to bring the salt to surface. They had to have different hoists and everything underground. We couldn't take any big equipment underground, the seams were so crooked, drifts went in different directions, down hill and up hill. And after a while, about 1954, it cost pretty near as much to get the salt up as you could get for it. That and the railroad prices were going up all the time.

So where else did they ship to? You said they shipped to Newfoundland with the fish salt; did they ship to Ontario or other parts of Canada?
They started to ship to Ontario because one of our salesmen encouraged the Ontario government to start to use salt on the highway, to take ice off the highway; and it was quite was successful.
Do you remember his name?
Don't remember his name, no. Actually we have his picture downstairs.
So when did they start doing that, do you remember; was that middle fifties?
Yes, that would be about 1953, or something like that.
So did other areas start doing that besides Ontario?
Yes. Once they found out it worked. The one difference about Malagash salt even today, some of the seams of salt we had here in Malagash had a little bit of potash in it; and just a little bit of potash and salt would actually melt ice at a lower temperature. That would be on the old Fahrenheit scale that would melt ice at 5 below zero, and of course the salt they use today doesn't do that?.. But salt and potash with a little bit of water when you mix you see start boiling; the reaction of the two chemicals.

So we have got to the middle fifties, and you said you were starting to travel around Nova Scotia looking for more salt.

I did that for just a short time. We had discovered, the other drill had discovered salt all the way from Mabou, Cape Breton right up to the French coast of New Brunswick. They had discovered salt in many places, some of it the purity not so good, or contaminated with something else. But in Pugwash they found a dome of salt. Not a seam, a dome is just a big body of salt.
And salt is always protected in gypsum, that's the reason it doesn't wash away under the ground, it's protected by gypsum. And they found a big body of it in Pugwash and they decided to sink a shaft there, so they transferred me to Pugwash in 1955, about March 1955. The sinking of the shaft was only supposed to take us about six months and we ran into all kinds of troubles, quick sand, pressure, no bed rock there and it took us a little over four years. And at that time it was over a million dollars which was a lot of money.
So what was the main reason that everything closed, because everything shifted to Pugwash, because there was this big concentration of salt there?
Because it was cheaper to mine that than what it was to mine in Malagash?
Oh yes, absolutely.
So how is the mining different than in Pugwash than in Malagash?
The mine in Pugwash is what you call a "checkerboard" system, that's the simplest word for it. We went underground, down the shaft and then broke out; they call it, started moving material out of the way, shipping it to deck. You make a drift which is just a highway about thirty feet wide and sixty feet high, and that undercutter makes a smooth floor in a certain way and you dynamite a certain way and it makes a pretty square highway. And down in Pugwash of course you can use 'cat-haulers', trucks, front-end loaders, lots of room you see whatever size you want the drift to be.
Which they couldn't use here in Malagash?
No. The production is way above what you could do in Malagash.
So for that reason I suppose it was cheaper to mine there as well?
So when did the mine close in Malagash then?
And it opened up in Pugwash or it had opened up in Pugwash?
No it didn't open up in Pugwash until 1960, officially. We had a little down-time between the two mines there, but most people were still working because they were still building the mine; had to build the mill, the hoist house.
This was in Pugwash?
Yes. And the storeroom, everything had to be built same as they did in Malagash originally.
So did most of the workers move to Pugwash from here?
Yes they did. Some retired, but most of them moved to Pugwash.
So what was the impact on Malagash when the mine closed operations here?
I think everyone thought it was going to be a ghost town, but of course over a period of time the grand-children moved back and everything else.
But it must have had a pretty big impact because you said there were 120 people when you started in 1950, and that's quite a few jobs in a small area. Were most of the workers from the immediate area or from farther away?
When they sunk the shaft, I always think of the history of it, in 1918, they always say that the miners sunk the shaft in Malagash. It was the farmers who sunk the shaft in Malagash. They became miners afterwards.

So you know the story about the mine got started don't you? Do you want to tell us that one as well?
Peter Murray was a farmer and the dug well that he had was not producing enough water for him to water his cattle. So he decided to hire a gentleman down the highway, I never knew his name, but was capable of boring a well. And the gentleman came, he just lived down the road about a mile, and he came up to Peter Murray's farm here where the mine was and he drilled, started drilling. Well after he struck water Peter Murray's hired hand, more or less, was Herb Wilson, a young fella. And the next day; this was in the winter time; and the next day when young Herb came up the road to go to work (he was about 14 years old Herb told me at the time), he noticed that the snow had melted all over the place away from the water where they had drilled, more than usual. Well he thought he'd just, that's a new well I must have a little drink of water, and he took a swig of this stuff and it was 100% brine. They had drilled right into the salt. He said he blew it all over the field too!
Melted some snow then I bet you!
And Peter Murray didn't do anything with it; he didn't know what to do. It was a dead well to him a terrible thing to happen really.
He found out that his pork that he had, if he took water and put his pork in it in a barrel it was perfect, pickling. Right for pickling, right out of the ground. I remember one story he had taken a half a pig or something over to Tatamagouche to sell. A lot of the farmers did that, they raised so many pigs and they'd sell some to pay for the ones that they had, the ones they kept for themselves. And he offered it to I think it was Bill Langille, the fella who ran the meat market in Tatamagouche. And they asked Peter how did you get the pig so perfectly salted, so even. He said "Oh just the water out of my well". And the story got around after a while that he was telling the truth, you see. And MacKay and Chambers, two gentlemen from New Glasgow; one was an engineer and the other was an industrial type person. They heard about it and they came to Malagash to see what this was all about. And they were the founders of the salt mine. So they were the ones that sank the first shaft.
So was that 1918 or 1919?
Er? 1918 they sunk the first shaft, from then it would be the next 1919, no wait a minute 1918 that's right. The first lump of salt came up on Labour Day, 1918.
So how deep did they go down, do you know how deep they went?
About 80 feet the first shaft.

So when the railway opened in I think late 20's, 1920's or whatever, so how far did you say that track went, that actually shipped from the mine to the wharf?
No it went down to the wharf and there was what you call a 'spur' line into the wharf, so you could take salt box cars and load salt over at the wharf; but it went right out to Malagash Station and about 8 miles.
Where did they ship from there? You said it was going to Newfoundland?
Oh yes it would go to Newfoundland, yes and New England. Some of the New England states started buying salt and some of it went down by ship, and some of it went by ship to Newfoundland to.
So you had the two ways of shipping the railway and the shipping?
Ok. Where there any passenger trains at all used on the railway or was it just for the salt?
No just for the salt. But in the wintertime, when the roads was all blocked, messed up; back in those days you didn't have all these snow ploughs and then in the spring of the year, even when I started working in the mine, it was axel deep and for weeks you couldn't get out over it. I've seen a tractor get stuck in the middle of the road lots of times. But they used the train. If somebody had to go, we had a doctor here to, which was a mine doctor, just up the highway a little bit. So we had our own doctor. But if somebody had to go get groceries they could give the engineer the grocery list and whatever you needed, and the train would make a special trip out for a lot of people, to get their groceries.

What were conditions like in the mine?
In Malagash?
Oh not that bad.
So you said you worked 8 hour shifts, any 12 hours shifts at all?
Occasionally if there was overtime, yes. At one time we worked 8 hours shifts, 6 days a week. But about 1951 the union negotiated, trying to get a five day week but we got a 5 and a half day a week and that didn't work too good. It only worked for one year. Because we only worked 4 hours on Saturday morning and 4 hours on Saturday afternoon, the afternoon shift. And we spent more time cleaning up than we did working. So they changed that system to a five day week.
Now were there any accidents at the mine at all?
Oh yes.
Do you remember any stories about those?
Yes. A Patriquin fella got killed at the shaft one time. He went?. He thought that the skip was coming up, apparently it had gone up past the opening at the underground, at the loading station, and he went to look down to see if the skip was coming and of course it came down and hit him. And another fella made a mistake, one of the bosses actually Anderson was his name. He had dynamite on his belt and they think he might have made the mistake of having dynamite caps to.
The caps, that's what you used to?.
That's what you used to light the dynamite. And he had an accident and blew himself up.
Were there any explosions down the mine or anything apart from the guy??
No. There wasn't any natural gas or anything at the mine.

So what was that like you spent some of the time underground, that must have been quite hard being underground especially during the winter months for 8 hours?
Well most of the miners were very happy to go underground in the wintertime. It was 51 degrees down there all the time.
Yes I suppose.
And in the summertime, er? I spent a lot of time underground in Pugwash of course on maintenance. And I became the maintenance superintendent after a few years. On a real hot day when you come up the shaft, come up in the skip and you first step out on the collar of the mine, the heat hits you. It's something like coming out of a department store after you've been in there for a while. People working in department stores have a hard time; it's an awful quick change. It seems a lot hotter than it is but you know what it feels like. But if you're down there for 8 hours at 51 degrees and you come up into that you're quite happy. The main thing, even in the summertime it's nice and cool and in the wintertime it's nice and warm.
And you said conditions were good down there?
Oh yes. In Pugwash you had electric lights; you had some in Malagash too of course. And every miner has a lamp on his belt, a battery on his belt and a lamp on his hat anyway. And when you're working on machines and crawling underneath and stuff, you can take that off. And there's emergency lights that automatically come on the same as they do everywhere else underground.

Yes. There was a fella that worked at the mine named Ed Matheson and he was quite a sharp wit anyway. There wasn't anything you could say to him that he wouldn't have an answer to. One day a couple of tourists came in, I assume they were Americans. And they walked in the mine yard, like there were no gates around the yard or anything, people could walk right in those days. And these Americans came in, shall we say, and they had the misfortune of coming across Ed in the mine yard. And they started asking about the mill, the building, the salt, how they got it up from underground and what they did with it, and all that stuff. After a while they said, "How many men work here?" Well Ed stuttered a little bit and he thought for a minute and then he said, "Dear Lord, about half of them".
Quite the character!
So was that the only job that they did in that area?
No they was the same as me, they worked seasonal quite a few worked seasonal. There would only be about maybe 40 men that worked all year round.

That was above ground and underground?
And underground to, yes. They worked steady twelve months of the year.
So that was about half of the work force then was it?
Roughly half the work force yes. So the rest of us that were only part-time we had to have other employment.

So why do you think now if you had the chance you would work for the salt mine again, because of the atmosphere, the community atmosphere?
Yes, that's probably right. Like a lot of people now that have retired, do you miss the mine? I don't really miss the mine, I miss the people.
Now why do you say that?
It's a way of life. You know everybody, everybody knows you, everybody looks out for everybody especially underground. But in Pugwash we never had any deaths underground, we had two on surface. That's the funny thing, it's something like you hear people worrying about there're going to die of a heart attack, or die of cancer and end up getting hit by a truck. You never know what's going to happen and its no use worrying about it.
Do you think that you know the conditions back there, you know you worked without insurance at one point, and the pays were not too bad. I mean nowadays you think how working conditions are you think you would still do it over again?

Oh yes, yes. We were there to?. That's my thinking anyway and everyone else must have thought the same thing. We were there to do a job and the job turned out much more difficult than we ever dreamed of, but its something like anything, like yourself, when you go to do something you like to get to the other end to finish it, to complete it.
And it's the same thing. We wanted to do what we were sent to there to do. John MacQuarrie wrote a book. It has never been printed I don't think. They called it "These Men of Malagash" and that's what the book was about the determination to finish the job.
Well they were certainly like you said they were very innovative, you couldn't ship parts in you made them, you fixed them right here. I mean making the bagging machine, very innovative. You think back to that time ago and like you said having to have box cars filled, you had box cars filled; you can't take off and wait for the other shift to come in and do it and a big difference from today.

Yes. And we kind of disciplined ourselves to a certain extent. If somebody was just a little bit lazy they usually had a problem. Not verbally but buckets of water would land on them and you know that type of thing, or an air hose would come through the wall and blow his hat off his head, whatever it took to wake him up sort of thing. You know some of the best workers came out of that.

Isabel (Murray) McNeil.  daughter of Peter Murray

Interview with Isabel (Murray) McNeil, by Helen Sims

- Good morning. I'm interviewing Isabell McNeil of Malagash. Good morning Isabell.
- Good morning.
- I wonder if you could please tell me your full name, and where you were born?
- Well as far as I know I was born in Malagash. Isabell Murray McNeil or Isabell Christina Murray McNeil.
- And what year were you born?
- 1911.
- And what your parents names?
- My father was Peter William Murray. My mother was Dorothy Jessie Sutherland.
- And what did your parents do for a living?
- My father was a farmer and my mother had been a school teacher.
- Now when your dad was farming, I know there's a lot of salt in this area, did the salt ever affect the farming at all?
- Oh mercy no! He discovered the salt mine, but he discovered that because he had hired a man to bore a well because in those days the only wells they had on the farm over there when he bought it were a dug well. There was a dug well out in between the house and the road, where we got our drinking water; and there was a dug well, another dug well at the end of the barn, they watered the cattle. And on dry years when there wasn't a lot of rain, the wells would go dry, especially the barn well, would go dry. So they hired a man to come to bore a well near the barn for the cattle. So he he'd be able to get a good of flow of water for the cattle, and that's where they struck the salt, while he was boring the well there.
- So what did he do about it when they struck salt?
- Well they didn't do, he didn't do too much about it. He er.. in those days they didn't know anything about it except it was salt water. They didn't even know why the water was so salt. But the man come and bored wells in different places on the farm, and they bored in twenty some places and they got salt in most places. And there was one well right across the road from the farm that they put a pump on, and I remember they used to have a little tin mug hanging on the pump so the people coming along, going along the road, would stop and have a drink and try a drink of the stuff and test it. Actually when it was tested it was 98% salt.

- In what year did it finally become a salt mine in this area?
- Well it was about 1917, 1918, that they got the people interested in New Glasgow, the Department of Mines, I suppose. Chambers and MacKay. Mr. MacKay people called it around here but he called it MacKay, the Scottish way of saying it I guess. He was a man of, I don't why, but he was a wealthy man and Chambers was a man that was interested in it and had the education to know about the mine. And between the two of them they got the mine started in about 1917, 1918.
- So do you remember that when the mine first started?
- Oh yes, I remember that.
- And was it on your dad's land?
- Yes... well.... Just where the line fence where he and the next property, and the next property was owned by a Mrs. McKenzie, and there were no buildings on it. It was just a piece of land that she owned. And so the shaft, or the hole into the mine; my dad for some reason or other, didn't want it to go down on his property because it meant that the dump, or where they dumped all of the stuff that took out of the hole, he didn't want that on his property. It went the other way onto the other. So they bought a piece of property from the other lady, and that's where they made the shaft, joining the fence.
Isabell (Murray) McNeil

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