On this day 61 years ago, Illa Mailman was home with her young son, when her sister-in-law rushed over.
Illa believes it was about 1:30 p.m., but that was long ago. Forgive her if the time isn’t quite right. What she remembers clearly is the news wasn’t good. There was an explosion at the McGregor mine where her husband John worked. Time and the shock of it, prevent her from remembering what exactly her sister-in-law said, but the general message conveyed had little hope.
“There was not much chance of John coming home,” Illa recalls.
Twenty-two men had been working 1,400 feet underground in the Acadia Coal Company owned mine that Jan. 14 day in 1952. Three crawled to safety; 19 died. Of the three who escaped, two were injured and treated at the Aberdeen in New Glasgow. Unlike the Westray mine, which would open decades later and had men from across the province and even beyond, it was almost entirely local men from Westville and Stellarton who worked at the McGregor.
Anxious relatives of men known to be in the mine gathered at the top of the shaft, some weeping, others kneeling on the snow-covered ground praying, read one wire news article of the day.
But the miracle they prayed for didn’t come. Despite daring re-entry into the mine by draegermen, they found only bodies and no hope in the ground.
Among those deceased was John Mailman, age 36.
More than six decades later, Illa still thinks of that tragedy.
“Never a day goes by when you don’t think of something,” she said. “It was such a shock.”
Illa remembers there were several funerals held each day.
“The day John was buried, I think they did four.”
Her husband’s was held first and he was buried in the Anglican cemetery in the town.
For the wife of a miner in those days, there were few support systems to help. Since the men had only worked half a day before the explosion, the mine company only paid the wives their husband’s salary for half a day. There was no such thing as worker’s compensation for the family left to mourn.
“I was just devastated,” Illa says. “After all, I had a 15-month-old child to look after. There weren’t the things around then that there are today.”
Given about enough money to survive a week from one organization, it was her sole responsibility to care for herself and her son after that. There was little time to mourn.
Illa’s time with John had been far too short. John had served overseas in the war, while she worked in a factory that built planes in Amherst. When he returned from the war, he was anxious to return to the mines in his hometown.
The saying, once a miner, always a miner, was true of her husband, Illa says.
“He came home and went down to the pit,” she said. “He couldn’t leave Stellarton.”
Not from the area, Illa had little background in mining until she met John at the Anglican Church in Stellarton. They had only been married for two years and four months when the explosion happened. She would never marry another man.
“I figured if God wanted me to raise my son by myself, that was what I was supposed to do and that’s what I did,” Illa says. “I never had any interest in getting remarried.
Illa was thankful, though, that she had been a hairdresser before and had even owned her own shop. Unfortunately she had sold it before the mine accident.
“If I had of known what was going to happen I certainly wouldn’t have,” she said.
She started cutting hair again though and raised her son Fred by herself.
In a county that is well acquainted with mines and disaster, the McGregor explosion is one often overlooked in light of more recent tragedies such as the Westray explosion. Illa sometimes wonders why more isn’t mentioned about the McGregor, but she can understand why it’s not.
“It’s so long ago now that there’s so few people left,” she said. “All the young people now they weren’t even around. They wouldn’t know about it.”
She herself is 94 and one of the few remaining with any clear connection to the mine disaster.
She may not have known much about the mining process or even the disaster itself, but she’ll not forget the man. She hopes that no one does.
19 Men Killed