Kathleen Flanagan Photography
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William Davis and the New Waterford Power Plant Riot in 1925

Throughout the 1920s, the Montreal-based mining company, British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) dominated the coal and steel industry in Nova Scotia.  In an effort to cope with dropping prices and its own financial mismanagement, BESCO waged an aggressive campaign to lower production costs, by proposing to cut wages.  The response from Local 26 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was a string of work slow-downs, strikes, campaigns against the company stores, and demonstrations of worker solidarity.  When the miners’ contract expired in January 1925, the company, intent on breaking the union, cut off credit at the company stores. Facing desperate conditions and the company’s ongoing refusal to negotiate despite a major concession by the union to submit the dispute to arbitration, the union declared a 100% strike on June 4, 1925. 

BESCO asserted that the miners would give up quickly because “they can’t stand the gaff”.  This attitude – and, in particular, the dismissive phrase – only increased the workers’ resolve.  Although thousands of Cape Bretoners were reported to be on the verge of starvation, they maintained solidarity. 

The company and the union became locked in a tug-of-war over the New Waterford power plant.  While the company was intent on shutting off the water and power to workers’ homes, the workers wanted to keep the town’s supply operational and especially to ensure that the hospital had water, while trying, at the same time, to shut down the mine’s water and electrical lines. 

On the morning of June 11, 1925, the New Waterford miners, joined by miners from nearby towns, marched to Waterford Lake, the site of the power plant.  The unarmed miners were met by the company police with clubs and guns.  William Davis was shot and killed at 11 am. 

Davis’ widow received a monthly sum from UMWA.  Myrtle Davis used the money to purchase a headstone for her husband’s grave.  Davis Square was built in 1985, which includes a monument that proudly states: “Standing the Gaff”.  The Davis Wilderness Trail was established in 1996; it follows the route taken by the miners on a June day in 1925 to the Waterford Lake power plant.  William Davis is remembered every June 11, celebrated in Cape Breton and the rest of Nova Scotia as Davis Day. 

William Davis, coal miner and father of 10 children (including William Davis Jr., born three months after his father’s death,) was killed on June 11, 1925, at age 37.  He was shot by company police at the New Waterford Power Plant.  His gravestone is located at Union Grove Cemetery in New Waterford.