We went to Glace Bay last weekend to attend a wedding, with a full day before the ceremony to play tourist & get a feel for the town. There are a number of museums there, but we skipped those and even Chicken Shack to go see the Miner’s Museum – stark and quiet at the edge of the water – and signed on for a tour in a real mineshaft 80 feet under the earth.
I was excited, but here’s the thing: mining is not in any way a heart-warming topic. It’s actually pretty depressing, and I didn’t even know how difficult the life was in any intimate way until effusive storyteller Abby Michalik opened his mouth to speak and my blood stood at attention and the fatigue fell from my head and the story of mining – the real story of a man born into it like his father and uncles before him and still living it as a tour guide now – unfolded before me. I’m not gonna try to impress upon you the coolness of the experience, actually, I just realized. It wouldn’t work. Suffice to say, I’m glad we got this guy to walk us around. He was in Pit Pony and Margaret’s Museum, too, though he assured us he was no celebrity.
Turns out, back in 1903 the town of Glace Bay used to hold 30,000 residents, and 1,200 miners all under the exploitive thumb of the Dominion Coal Company (DOSCO) that received a 100 year lease from the Canadian government in 1894 on the sprawling veins of coal that extend out in eight layers under the Atlantic ocean. They sent men down there to work and die in unstable shafts of blackness and gouged them for every possible scrap – all the town was owned by the Company and once hopeful immigrants landed looking for this promised equitable working man’s dream job, the hammer dropped down and they were trapped siphoning their paycheque off back to their employer just to get the basic amenities to survive. It was, at it’s worse, more unfair than slavery, since they essentially worked solely on commission earning only 68c per tonne of coal sent eight miles up to the surface, and some like Abby’s family never seemed to make quite enough to eat properly or indeed live in a real house.
Yeah… Abby lived in a house made of outhouse planks. For true! His grandpa was super enterprising and bought all the lumber from the leftover loos in Glace Bay when the Company decided to install indoor plumbing in the sponsored houses and he built himself his own home – albeit one with huge gaps between the slats in the floor and no insulation and a funny smell. Makes for a good story later, but essentially this is depressing stuff, no? Oh, and is this when I tell you that the very coastline itself – in this town and others – is also crumbling into the sea, slowly but surely and taking houses with it in the landslides? Jeez, this waterfront living stuff is pretty intense sometimes, not just ice cream shacks and wildflowers.
After a dank & dark (and yet awesome) tour like that we needed some cozy lunch like crazy, and thankfully there’s this uber-quaint restaurant that’s right on the museum grounds. We warmed our bones with streams of black tea, some hot clam chowder, turkey, french fries, gravy, and fresh steamed mussels that were lyrical as mussels always are when they’re simply prepared, and felt really lucky for everything we had. Got dressed up for a wedding. Celebrated. Reception-danced! (congrats M & M!)