Cover image for Last man out the story of the Springhill Mine Disaster
Last man out the story of the Springhill Mine Disaster
Greene, Melissa Fay.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
9 audio discs (10 hr.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
General Note:

Compact discs.

Includes an interview with the author.
Added Author:
Format :
Audiobook on CD


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TN806.C2 G74 2003D Adult Audiobook on CD Audiobooks

On Order


Author Notes

Melissa Fay Greene was a paralegal with Legal Services in McIntosh County, Georgia, when the events that make up her award-winning book Praying for Sheetrock (1991) took place. A recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a National Book Award finalist, Praying for Sheetrock is set in the early 1970s, when the struggle for civil rights that had been going on for years in other parts of the U.S. finally came to McIntosh County.

Greene's next book, The Temple Bombing (1996) was the winner of the 1996 Southern Book Critics Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book, and was also a National Book Award finalist. It concerns the 1958 bombing of the Temple, the oldest synagogue in Atlanta.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Using historical records, news reports, and interviews with survivors and their families, Greene offers a riveting account of the 1958 mine collapse in Springhill, Nova Scotia. The poorly constructed Number 2 mine trapped 174 men following a gas explosion. Greene details the lives of 19 of the trapped miners, their personalities, families, and camaraderie with fellow miners. Some were trapped 13,000 feet under the earth for as long as nine days before being rescued, enduring physical injury and mental anguish as they struggled to stay alive. They emerged to celebrity, exploited by the media and the governor of the state of Georgia, who was looking to boost tourism by treating the miners and their families to a vacation. One problem: among the miners was a black man, known as the "singing miner" for his genial music making. Coverage of how this family was segregated and forced to use separate facilities while in Georgia and imbalances in press reports of the mine disaster eventually eroded goodwill among the miners and the small town of Springhill. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

The mining disaster that killed 75 men in Nova Scotia in 1958 is rich terrain for a good yarn, but Greene's book about the miners who survived and those who didn't comes up short. Her research is adequate, but surprisingly, NBA finalist Greene fails to bring this tale to life. In re-creating the events leading up to and following the catastrophe, imagined dialogue rings inauthentic: that miners gathered around a colleague with a mile of rock pinning his arm down exclaim, Oh my God, oh my God, and Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, seems a tad polite, even for 1950s Canada. Similarly, the author's overreliance on exclamation points in dialogue forces tension and excitement. As well, the miner subculture isn't effectively captured, and the buildup to the explosion, known as the Bump, is bereft of suspense. The story gets interesting after the rescue of 19 men, who are subsequently exploited by various factions, including the media and the public relations aide to a segregationist U.S. governor, who arranges to fly the survivors and their families to a beach resort the governor's state is looking to promote. The presumed PR goes horribly awry when it's learned that one miner is black, as are his 12 children. Greene (Praying for Sheetrock; Temple Bombing) does prove successful in her fascinating narrative on this miner an amateur musician known as the Singing Miner and Canada's Citizen of the Year in 1958. But sadly, his is the only head that Greene succeeds in getting into. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Perpetual National Book Award finalist Greene examines the mining disaster on October 23, 1958 that left 75 men dead. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Thunder of Baritones In the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia, in 1958, coal-mining men dropped through the crust of the earth to a few of the deepest roads on the planet. All day and all night they chiseled toward the earth's core, carving an architecture like the downward-coiling tunnels of a child's plastic ant farm. In helmets, coveralls, and pit boots, they shuffled along pebbly paths a vertical mile underground, to the sound of infernal dripping. At that distance above ground, planes crossed the clouds. The darkness was like that of deep space. With his headlamp turned off, a man couldn't see his fingers in front of his eyes. Pit ponies once labored in these mines in permanent midnight, tugging the coal cars back and forth on subterranean avenues, and all went blind. In that era of oil lamps, miners risked their lives for the hiss of flame, never knowing when an invisible cloud of gas might ignite. By 1958, the ponies had been displaced by an underground rail system, and the gas lanterns had been swapped for battery-powered headlamps. The black tunnels gleamed briefly as the men tramped along, looking like cumbersome fireflies; drapes of pure darkness swung down behind them the moment they passed by. "The No. 2 mine is like an underground city, eh?" said an impish fellow named Gorley Kempt. "It's a maze of streets and alleys down there. And all the work is done in darkness." "When I am all the way down," observed a miner they called Pep, "you know that's the farthest away from home I ever been?" At the end of each shift, the men toppled into the trolley of coal cars for a ride up the dark twelve-foot-wide funnel known as the Back Slope. The 13,000-foot commute was steep, like the sheer nauseating ascent of a roller coaster toward its greatest peak. At a stopping place at the top of the Back Slope, the workers disembarked, walked through a tunnel to the Main Slope, and seated themselves in a second trolley. Fifty filthy men unwound together, gossiping and grousing, wheezing and napping, while the hoist at the pithead cranked them up through the chute. When Maurice Ruddick was among them, he led songs for the hour. He was forty-six years old and rather vain of his trim build, pencil-thin mustache, and pomaded, middle-parted hair, though all were buried under the grit of the day's work. He blew the coal dust from his throat with a few warm-up notes, then launched a popular radio song, a song from a Hollywood musical, or an off-color blues or jazz ditty. He nudged his comrades to practice a song they'd mangled the day before. Some snoozed and some ignored him, but many threw in their voices from out of their coal-blackened faces. "Dem Bones," they laughingly sang, and "Don't Be Cruel" and "Bye Bye Love," combining their voices in harmonies and arrangements of Ruddick's invention. Light-eyed, olive-skinned Ruddick represented the third generation of a Negro Nova Scotia coal-mining family. "Both Mother and Father had colored blood in them," is how Ruddick put it. He was neither particularly liked nor disliked by his fellows as a result; it was, in a way, just one more peculiar thing about Ruddick, who was a bit of an odd duck. You could run into Ruddick off shift strolling down Main Street in a pastel-colored shirt unbuttoned to the chest and a felt fedora tilted back on his head, with a cigar in a cigar holder clenched in a grin or grimace as he greeted you. On this windy northern peninsula, in this utilitarian town, Ruddick offered a bright bit of elegance, a dash of the Hollywood look. In the coal car riding up out of the pit, Maurice Ruddick, with muscles burning from hard labor, moving stiffly in his crusty outerwear and helmet, turned around to see whom he had to work with before trying to assemble a bit of harmony. He whacked the side of the trolley with his lunch pail for percussion as the other men howled along, their mouths moist red Os in the blackness. The company men who worked on the surface could hear the miners coming from a long way off, the thunder of their baritones echoing up through the caverns. When the miners ducked, squinting, out of the aluminum sheds that covered the pitheads of the Cumberland Railway and Coal Company's No. 2 and No. 4 mines, coal dust coated their faces and the cracks in their necks and hands. From under the shade of soot-covered helmets glowed the whites of their eyes and the red of their gums. What the world wanted lay deeply hidden, had to be exhumed. When the men brought it up, they were the pride of the Canadian government. It was soft coal, the finest in Canada. Black it was, too-so black it looked like the miners had chipped and pried apart chunks of the subterranean darkness in which they grappled. Of such pure, primeval blackness was this rock, of the earth's first order of blackness, that it had become one of the names of the color black: coal black. The stuff had last seen the light of day in the Paleozoic Era, three hundred million years ago, when it fanned its fingers in the sunlight as ferns. At the redbrick lamp cabin, each miner returned his headlamp and battery for recharging when he was finished for the day, and received in exchange, like a hat-check token, a brass tag with his identification number. His battery was engraved with the same number. A plywood board full of hooks, like the board on which keys are hung in a parking garage, displayed the brass tags of the men currently on shift, wearing their headlamps. In a time of mishap or disaster, the board glittered with tags for too long, describing, at a glance, the number of men still underground. If the worst came to pass, the identity of a man killed in the pit could be confirmed by the identification number on his battery. In the washhouse, the miners shucked off their stiff coveralls like football players unbuckling their protective gear in a locker room and suddenly they seemed to diminish in size by half. Odd little wormy creatures they looked then, with their sun-deprived, coal-speckled bodies and blackened, earthy heads and hands. Vigorous scrub downs in the shower only dulled the charcoal black of the men's skin to blue, but their wives were tolerant. The women knew that nothing in this town, least of all their husbands, would ever truly be clean. Like sailors and their ships, the miners called the No. 2 mine "she." "She's taking on water in the sinking," they'd say of the mine's deepest level, or "She's a bit warm this evening." Most of them loved the mine, the work, the fellowship. "Why, I am just as comfortable in the mine," said old-timer Bill James, "as sitting in my chair at home." "I really do enjoy the mine," said Cecil Colwell, who had worked it since 1930. "I haven't got a bone in my body that has not been broken." But unhappily, and with increasing frequency, in the late summer and fall of 1958, they heard themselves saying, "She's restless today." Springhill was a hilly, shady, comfortable town sitting atop a vault of coal, an "underground palace of coal," it used to be said. "The mines consist of entire mountains of coal," enthused a letter writer in 1765, "and are sufficient to supply all the British plantations in North America for ten centuries." "There was a time when men got coal out of their backyards," according to a local historian. "Shallow pits were found everywhere....There have been instances when a homeowner would step out of his door only to find a big gaping hole where his driveway had been." A couple of churches and schools, a dusty baseball field, and a few pubs and shops on Main Street all brightened and faded under the moving shadows of the bottom-heavy clouds of a maritime peninsula. Pine and birch trees lined the streets. Sugar maples were festooned with buckets, which clattered as sap drained out of the trees every spring, and men in the sugarhouses fired up the stoves. History was measured like time in a whaling village: There were years of good haul and high prices for coal, which meant new shoes for the children; new winter coats for the women; and record players, hunting rifles, magazine subscriptions, or retreaded car tires for the men. And there were years of catastrophe, when tents were erected to shelter the bodies pending identification; undertakers from nearby towns drove in to assist; and newly widowed mothers wailed at the bedsides of their sleeping children, mourning, anew, their own fatherless childhoods. There was a growling of discontent, which the men were keeping amongst themselves that fall, two years after the 1956 Explosion in the No. 4 mine had killed thirty-nine of their buddies. It was part of an unwritten miners' code not to show weakness or admit fear. But a sense of alarm was rising over engineer-designed renovations in the No. 2 mine. Under the rearrangement, the mine was shaped like an italicized letter E. The backbone of the E was the Back Slope, the two-and-a-half-mile tunnel poking at a thirty-three-degree angle into the earth, up and down which the men rode in the coal cars, or trolley. The arms of the E were the three working tunnels, called levels. Three different teams of men extracted coal simultaneously at three different distances from the earth's surface. There were work sites at the 13,000 level (13,000 feet of trolley track from the pithead), the 13,400 level (13,400 feet of rail), and the 13,800 level. The workers knocked coal from the coal face at each level and shoveled it into troughlike pans. The coal jiggled inside the engine-driven pans toward a conveyor belt, dropped onto the conveyor belt, rolled to a loading machine, was tipped into the coal cars of the trolley, and was hauled by the ton to the surface. The miners were unhappy with their 1958 levels. For efficiency's sake, they'd been asked to set up the walls in parallel lines rather than in a staggered arrangement. The old-timers feared the three-pronged attack was thinning out the deep rock surrounding and cushioning the workers. "The old-timers know, they know it's coming," said Doug Jewkes in the washhouse. In the showers, the men could let their guard down, along with their coveralls. A young man with a long face and some blackened teeth, Doug Jewkes looked somewhat off kilter. He had been pegged as an awfully chatty fellow among men who would as soon grunt as give an intelligible response to anything, so he wasn't keenly attended to. "But the company pays no heed a'tall. Joey Tabor told me it's coming. Did you hear he quit? Said, 'I ain't working in that place.' He knows it's coming. All the old-timers know. But what can we do? Either work or be out of a job." The men lowered buckets, in which their street clothes were stored, from the ceiling of the washhouse. "Well, none of us are too proud of the way we've set the walls up, lining them up straight," Harold Brine would say. "I have never liked No. 2 like I did No. 4, and it's worse now," Frank Hunter always said. "Since the Explosion, there is always some little thing to keep your nerves on edge," Joe Holloway would agree. "Oh, we have always been scared of her," said Percy McCormick, who had worked in No. 2 for twenty-two years. He was one of the old-timers admired by the rookies for his uncanny instinct and the finesse with which he could pry off a chunk of rock and provoke a cascade of glistening coal. Like all the old-timers, he hinted at secret exits, and he knew survival tricks like ducking his face close to a rivulet of water on the floor-if gas was loose in the mine-to capture rising molecules of oxygen. "We all know what she can do," he said. "She bumps and, sooner or later, someone gets it. You just got to hope that she'll bump between shifts. She has, many a time, bumped between shifts and no one got caught." "If I had the education some fellows has got, I'd be gone," said Doug Jewkes. "So go already, Jewkes," someone would snap. They were all fed up with him. "What the devil's the use of me going?" he'd protest. "What could I get?" "The engineers must know more about it than us," Joe Holloway would say. "So we had better keep still about it." "If there's a big one," an old guy muttered almost inaudibly low, with his gaunt blue backside turned toward the group, "she'll take all three levels when she goes." Copyright (c) 2003 by Melissa Fay Greene All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777. Excerpted from Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Fay Greene All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.