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A warning sign? New Minas woman sees forerunner just as father passes away


Published on July 18, 2017

Long-time New Minas resident Glenda Bishop looks out to Commercial Street, where she saw a forerunner prior to her father’s death in 1975.

©Wendy Elliott

NEW MINAS, NS - If you stand in Inverness, Cape Breton, and look out to the ocean, you will see on the left the steep cliffs that rise to the community of Broad Cove Banks. That’s where the coal mines were.

Glenda Bishop’s father was born there on Dec. 28, 1906 and grew up in a home that overlooked the ocean.

“In 1917, when my father, Joseph Alonzo Ross, was 11 years old, his father, George, left the family and went to Alberta to seek a better life. My grandfather never returned for his family,” she says.

That left Bishop’s grandmother with six children.

“Being the eldest, my father instantly ‘became the man of the house’,” she says.

It fell on his shoulders to leave school and seek employment for the family’s survival.

These were the days before welfare. Poor like many of their neighbours, the only place to seek work was in the coalmines of Inverness.

Based on the circumstances of a family, either through illness or the father being killed in a mine explosion or, in this case, abandoning the family, it was granted that boys who had reached 11 years of age were allowed to work in the mine.

So, of necessity, her father picked up his lunch pail and lantern and joined the other men and boys, before the light of day, in the two-mile walk down to the mines.

“He told me how the tunnels in the mine stretched for miles in all directions and at different levels out under the ocean,” she recalled. “The tunnels were dark, damp and cold. The ceilings were very low, held up by logs, with the only light coming from a miner’s lantern.”

This was an era before the electricity was introduced that would eventually operate the coal carts in the mine. Due to the low ceilings in the tunnels, ponies, short in stature, were needed. Wild ponies were shipped in from Sable Island, broken and trained for the job of hauling the carts. They were called ‘pit ponies’.

Driver and pony worked all day, taking the loaded carts to the surface to be emptied and then hitching the traces to an empty cart for the return trip, rattling along the steel rails deep to whatever level and rock surface the miners were working at.

The shrill sound of the whistle at the colliery signaling the end of a shift. Often, the miners went in the mine while it was dark and returned to the surface at dark. Sometimes, a miner could work for weeks without ever seeing the sunshine.

The pay was approximately $2.50 a week. Along with the pay envelope, they received a ‘bob-tail sheet’ that stated all the many deductions for what they owed: for rent, for the company store, for school, for church, for coal – and on and on.

“Sometimes, there was no pay left in the envelope after deductions,” Bishop said.

“All I know is that he went into the mine at 11 years of age and worked with the ponies.  Like many of us, I did not ask questions to get more details at the time he told the story,” she said. “Was he the driver of a pit pony or perhaps a trapper? That is the person deep in the tunnel who opened and closed the door keeping good air in and bad air out. Perhaps he was a stable boy.”

Bishop has always assumed that whatever his job was, her father would have created a bond with a little shaggy pit pony, coated with coal dust.

“They probably both felt sadness. Having to leave school and go to work, he did not know what his future would entail,” she said.

Flash forward many decades to June 18, 1975.

“I had raised my bedroom window facing Commercial Street in New Minas before getting into bed,” she said. “Later, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the unusual sound of horse’s hoofs on pavement – getting closer and closer.

“I jumped out of bed and as I looked out of the window a beautiful, chestnut-colored horse galloped at great speed past the house, following the centre line of the street, toward Kentville. I watched it leave my view.”

Shaking her sleepy head, Bishop glanced at the clock. It was 3 a.m.

“I crawled back into bed. My thoughts were swirling around after what had just happened. I kept thinking how strange it was to see a horse racing down the street,” she said.

Eventually, she fell asleep. Before long, she was startled by the ringing of the telephone.

“I cautiously answered it and heard my mother’s voice. She said, ‘Your father passed away early this morning.’ I asked her, ‘What time did he die?’”

Her reply was 3 a.m.

“Thinking back, I like to imagine that the beautiful horse that raced past my window was the ‘spirit’ of a little, shaggy coated pit pony racing to join the spirit of a man who had shown him kindness so long ago,” Bishop says.

 

Did you know?

Something that precedes and indicates the approach of something or someone can be called a forerunner.
The late Nova Scotia folklorist Helen Creighton began collecting ghost stories, along with folksongs, in 1957.

Creighton had her own experience with the supernatural. To warn humans of impending death, many tales of forerunners involve knocks on the door, church bells ringing when no one else can hear them, an owl hooting during the day, or the sight of apparitions.