RUSSELL, ARCHIBALD (Archie), labourer; b. c. 1874 at Conception Bay, Nfld; d. 8 June 1901 in Sydney, N.S.
Archie Russell was one of the first of hundreds to be killed in the steel industry of Cape Breton. In mid afternoon on 8 June 1901 he was working in the open-hearth department of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company in Sydney when some improperly fastened block and tackle gear let go and fractured his skull, killing him instantly. A poignant feature of his death was that his father, who had just arrived from Newfoundland, was waiting at the plant gate to greet his son when the body was carried out. The usual verdict after such occurrences was “accidental death,” but the coroner’s inquest blamed “the carelessness of the officials.”
Another unusual aspect of this tragedy was that Russell had been a member of the Salvation Army, and before his remains were sent home aboard the Bruce on 12 July, North Sydney had witnessed its first Salvation Army funeral. What was not out of the ordinary, however, was that Russell was a Newfoundlander. A local newspaper commented that “almost every week a coffin is forwarded to some point of Newfoundland by the ‘Bruce’ containing the remains of some unfortunate laborer whose life was cut short in some terrible manner.” Still, Newfoundlanders kept coming. In the weeks before Russell was killed “hundreds of men from Conception Bay and points north” had travelled to Sydney in an unsuccessful search for work. In 1901 Newfoundlanders outnumbered all other foreign-born combined in Cape Breton County.
In spite of the harsh verdict of the inquest and a newspaper report that Russell’s father “would seek legal advice and in all probability begin action against the company,” nothing appears to have happened. As a St John’s paper noted months later, Archie Russell was “only a codman.” Fatalities continued at a significant rate.
In the mid 1980s Local 1064 of the United Steelworkers of America erected a monument in front of the union hall in Sydney listing the names of 304 individuals who had lost their lives at the steel plant. Impressive in its simplicity, the monument is far from complete. Russell’s name is there, the fifth of six for 1901. At least six other names are missing for that year: Kenneth Moore from Trinity Bay, Nfld, and Angus MacDonald from Grand Narrows, Cape Breton, killed in an explosion; Ralph Marriatt, a Haligonian, who broke his neck at the blast furnace; John Haley, an 18-year-old from Conception Bay, buried by a load of iron ore; William Morgan, from Birmingham, Ala, who died after an explosion of gas at the blast furnace; and Placide Chaisson, an Acadian from Margaree, Cape Breton, killed by a train at the coke ovens. Working in the steel industry in Cape Breton, as elsewhere, was extremely dangerous. Men frequently died from being burned, gassed, crushed, asphyxiated, or electrocuted, from falling, or – as in Archie Russell’s case – from having something fall on them. An inordinate number of fatalities involved engines and railway cars; three days before Russell died, Thomas C. Moxham, son of the general manager of the Sydney plant, was killed by a train.
Eighty-five years after Russell’s death, in June 1986, a play, The legacy of Moxham’s Castle, was performed in Sydney. One of the memorable points was a song with this chorus:
A young man from Conception Bay left his friends to find a new way
A promised future in a new found land to work like hell in a steel plant
He wrote his father when he settled down said Sydney is a booming town
The news went out to Conception Bay that Archie Russell died today
Many have been less remembered. Archie Russell at least has his name in granite and in a haunting tune which lingers in the minds of many in industrial Cape Breton.
Daily Record (Sydney, N.S.), 20, 22 Jan., 19 Feb., 10 June, 12, 17 Dec. 1901. Sydney Daily Post, 10, 15 June, 31 Dec. 1901. Ron Crawley, “Off to Sydney: Newfoundlanders emigrate to industrial Cape Breton, 1890–1914,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 17 (1987–88), no.2: 27–51. Craig Heron, Working in steel: the early years in Canada, 1883–1935 (Toronto, 1988), 49–50. George MacEachern, George MacEachern: an autobiography; the story of a Cape Breton labour radical, ed. David Frank and Donald MacGillivray (Sydney, 1987), 20–21.