John DeMont's Coal Black Heart - The Story of Coal and the Lives It Ruled was one of five books nominated for Canada's 2010 National Business Book Award. The award was established in 1985 to recognize the outstanding talent in Canadian business writing. The $20,000 prize is sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers, BMO Financial Group and media partner The Globe and Mai. Jeff Rubin's Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization won the award on June 9.
John DeMont is a Halifax-based journalist and author. Read an excerpt and listen to a reading from his book below.
Excerpt from Coal Black Heart - The Story of Coal and the Lives It Ruled by John DeMont. Published by Anchor Canada.
I'm standing where the New Waterford miners started to mass: on a field where a sharp winter wind threatens to shear flesh from bone.
My father- who played basketball for Glace Bay in the forties- hated playing the New Waterford Strands. For one thing, they were good enough to once win the Canadian juvenile championship.
Even worse, the Waterford crowd was spirit- wiltingly tough; to dribble too close to the sidelines meant risking being poked with a stick, or even stuck with a hatpin.
The last bit was surely apocryphal. But you get the drift. Hard people, not prone to taking a backward step. When Besco ignored the town's requests for an emergency pumping station, miners formed a committee to keep the local hospital- according to press reports, filled with sick children- supplied with water from nearby wells. Meantime, vandalism picked up. On June 5 Besco police arrested seven New Waterford miners and jailed them in Sydney. A day later the handcuffs were slapped on eleven miners from Reserve Mines and Caledonia for shutting down the maintenance plant at No. 10 mine.
At that point the miners had been out for fourteen weeks.
They'd been starved, frozen. Governments had abandoned them.
Their employer, Besco, had become the epitome of nineteenth century corporate villainy. And so, on June 11, the crowd at the Waterford ball field began to swell.
I'm retracing their footsteps now, walking into the wind along what was known as the Old Green Road- a path, really- which runs along the rail line that heads west from New Waterford.
Eighty- two years ago, between seven hundred and three thousand people, depending upon which source you consult, made their way through the forest. Today, the path is empty of all humanity. After twenty minutes, I emerge at a mostly-frozen lake ringed with a few institutional- looking buildings. There's one house in view, a couple of hundred yards away. I make for that, walk around back and knock.
"It's been twenty years since somebody came asking about Bill Davis," Lloyd (Muzzy) Hogan, seventy- four, says a moment later, inside his kitchen. Small, wiry and bouncing with energy, he shows little wear after a working life spent in the mines. At one time seventeen families made their homes on the north shore of Waterford Lake, working in the nearby colleries and keeping the power station going. Now he, his wife and their dog are the lone holdouts at the end of a dirt road down to the water.
He wasn't even born when the mob emerged from the woods that day in 1925. After all this time, questions remain about whether the horses bolted or the police just charged. Whatever the reason, before the union leadership even had a chance to state their demands, the police opened fire. Since many of the miners were veterans- at that time 5,352 Great War soldiers were on the Besco payroll in Cape Breton Island- they stood their ground as the police rode forward on horseback, brandishing nightsticks and firing their revolvers indiscriminately. Several miners were knocked down by horses. Others caught bullets and fell to the ground wounded.
Then, though unarmed, the miners fought back, knocking the police from their saddles and pummelling them when they hit the ground.
Within ten minutes the police, who had fired more than three hundred bullets, were in full retreat. Some of them galloped to New Victoria. The ones knocked off their horses made for the woods. Woe to those who weren't fast enough to outrun the mob: "One policeman found in the woods was severely mauled . . .bleeding from half a dozen cuts from his face," said the Sydney Post. "Some of them returned where in New Waterford they were once again visited with the fury of the mob, who . . . after beating them and manhandling them severely dragged them to the town jail and demanded they be locked up."
The riot, in the words of the Sydney Post, was the "result of five months of government inaction, corporation obstinacy, and the accumulated desperation of hungry men. . . ." But it was no coal community victory, even if they recaptured the power plant and put thirty policemen in hospital. One miner had broken his back, another was shot in the arm. Gilbert Watson caught a bullet in the stomach. William Davis, all 5'2" of him, took one through the heart.
"We used to play over at the stump where they found him lying," Hogan explains as we walk down along the lake, past the town's new generating station. "
There were three or four bullet holes in the wood.
That's how we knew it happened there." At thirty- seven, Davis left behind nine children and a wife pregnant with a tenth. Also a legacy: from then on, every miner in Nova Scotia has downed tools on June 11 to commemorate Davis's death.
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