'Grief Unbounded' Replaced Stoic Silence

by T.W. Paterson

There is no downtown South Wellington today. Much of what there was of it was lost in the fire of 1914 and, with closure of its mines, many pioneer residents moved on.

There's little to be seen of the Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd.'s No. 1 Mine, either, beyond a large concrete ruin, resembling a section of a Roman aqueduct, in a farmer's field, some abandoned railway grade, concrete footings and slack piles. Thus it takes real imagination to picture this tiny community in its heyday, before the triple-whammy of destructive rioting during the Great Strike and the fire were followed, Feb. 9, 1915, by disaster underground.

Of the 24 men at work in No. 3 north slope that morning, only three escaped after they inadvertently broached the flooded workings of the old Southfield Mine and were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of water, coal, collapsed timbers and heavily-laden coal cars that were propelled before it 'as if they were so many matchboxes'. Although one of numerous Island colliery disasters, this tragedy has the distinction of being the first recorded fatal flooding.

Only then was it publicly revealed that, four months before, water had burst into No. 4 west level without doing any damage. Although the No.1 had been skirting the Southfield workings of 20 years before, no concern had been felt for the safety of the men as, according to the PCCM's calculations, 450 feet of coal separated No. 3 slope from the deserted workings. A barrier of 50 feet was considered a safe enough margin.

Also hindering investigators was the fact that Manager Joseph Foy and fire boss David Nellish, who'd fired the fatal shot, were among those lost.

In Nanaimo, company president J.H. Tonkin defended his firm’s method of operation in a prepared statement to the press: 'I deeply regret the heavy loss of life which attended this disaster, and cannot account for the Southfield work(ings). Our maps show that we were not within 200...feet of registered workings of the old mine. Every precaution had been taken to allow plenty of barrier space between the two workings and where the Southfield mine had been worked to the boundary, we had left a solid wall of 170 feet of coal, to prevent exactly what happened yesterday.'

Mines inspector John Newton explained that he'd examined the No's. 1 and 2 just a week before, finding everything 'in the best of condition'. In fact, he'd commented favourably upon the complete absence of gas and said that he hadn't detected seepage in No. 3 level or any other indication of impending disaster.

Speaking for the United Mine Workers' Association, President Robert Foster demanded a thorough investigation by the provincial government and suggested that there had been warnings of impending danger. 'I feel sure that there has been some terrible mistake made in either the measurements of the workings, or else the usual (test) boring for safety has not been carried out,' he said.

'I have been talking to several of the miners who worked in No. 3 level, and they state that the conditions were not altogether of the best of late weeks. Men have emerged from the mine with vomiting fits, caused by the stagnant water which they were approaching... If the men complain of the conditions in the mine they are invariably discharged, so that it is hard for us to secure someone to appear against the mine inspectors.'

Four and a-half hours after the first flood, a second rush of water dashed hopes that any of the men could have made their way to dry ground and ended rescue attempts. Throughout those agonizing hours, small groups of mothers and children had huddled together in silence at the pithead as smaller children, unaware of the unfolding tragedy, had amused themselves in a bright February sun. With the realization that those still below were lost, the little groups turned sadly homeward. It took 48 hours for the horror to sink in, when 'grief unbounded' replaced the stoic silence.

The ill-fated Fearon brothers, relatives of manager Foy, had worked in the mine for only two weeks. New Zealander Ollie Legrion had arrived in South Wellington that Sunday, his second day in the No. 1 being his last. Fellow victim William Gibson had survived the infamous Extension mine disaster of six years before.

Pacific Coast Coal Mine Co. announced special compensation of $1500 for the victims' families—$71 for each man lost.

How had it happened that the miners tapped into the Southfield Mine when it was believed that a sufficiently large buffer remained between the new and old workings? It turned out that PCCM management had worked with underground plans of both mines, but that they were of different scales and thus out by almost a third—indicating the Southfield workings to be almost 800 feet farther west than they really were.

For that oversight, on Feb. 9, 1915, 21 men paid with their lives.