We Don't Do Our Pioneers Justice

by T.W. Paterson - May 7, 2012

In 1930 a Nanaimo coal miner risked life and limb for 92.5 cents-$1.08 per ton of coal he wrested from the deep.

Thursday, May 3rd, marked the 125th anniversary of the explosion in Nanaimo's No. 1 Mine that claimed 149 lives. It's the second worst mining disaster in Canadian history.

Both Nanaimo newspapers, to their credit, ran extensive front-page coverage of this sad event and the residents of the South End, who live in the immediate area of this mine that was the city's longest operating and largest producing of area collieries, remembered with roses and, I'm sure, reflection.

Not so City Hall, so far as I'm aware. I couldn't find mention of the anniversary on the City's website and I seriously doubt that it occurred to anyone to, say, lower the flags to half-mast or to do something-anything-in recognition of a tragedy that shook the community to its roots. A catastrophe that, in a single day, created scores of widows and hundreds of fatherless children, and deprived parents of their sons, brothers and sisters of their siblings. It took generations for a disaster of this scale to even begin to heal.

But that was long ago, ancient history, right? We have far greater things to occupy our thoughts: Politics, sports, what's on TV.

I'm coming to believe that this lack of knowledge, this lack of respect and understanding of our biological and cultural roots is one of our greatest sins and omissions. We Canadians just don't seem to want to honour our pioneers-the countless unsung men and women who built this country with their blood (literally), sweat and tears that we Johnnies-and Jennies-come-lately take as our right. For starters, that would require that we learn something about our collective past. But Canadian history of the kind that I have in mind isn't in school curriculums.

This past Sunday, on behalf of the Friends of the Morden Mine, I led another Black Track Tour of South Wellington coal mines. We do this to raise awareness of the need to save the 100-year-old headframe/tipple that is the centrepiece of Morden Colliery Provincial Heritage Park from collapsing. It has survived this long because it is of concrete, the only one of its kind in the province and one of only two that survive in North America. The fact that it's a Heritage Park hasn't generated a dime's worth of maintenance from successive provincial governments over the past 40 years and, because it was cutting-edge technology in 1913, it's rapidly failing. Unless we can find the support to save it, as we did the Kinsol Trestle, and for less than half the cost.

On this tour, in recognition of Thursday's anniversary, I decided to take a different tack. Instead of citing the lost miners at each mine visited numerically, i.e. three men killed here, I researched each miner's name and the circumstances of his death. This doesn't quite put a face to these men but it helps to give us some appreciation of the dangers they faced in the deep.

Today, for many people, coal mining is a dirty 'word.' That doesn't change the fact that, for 80 years, coal mining was the Vancouver Island's economic backbone, that 10 Island communities which exist today got their start with coal mining. To rewrite our history is to deny our DNA, even when it fails modern-day standards and sensibilities. We can and should learn from our history but we can't change it and shouldn't even try.

But to back to Sunday when we followed in the footsteps of hundreds of anonymous miners, of whom 42 died at the various sites we visited. The death toll at Morden is smaller simply because it operated for fewer years. (To put this in context, 640-odd miners were killed on the job in Nanaimo-area mines that we know of.) On April 23, 1920 Bart Galitsky was killed by a 'fall of coal.' Six months later, Tony Sabala, miner's helper, fell from a scaffold when a brace broke. South Wellington No. 5 Mine has one of the best safety records, two fatalities in 15 years: Peter Cameron and Harry A. Meickle, both killed by rock-falls in separate mishaps.

It's a different story at the Pacific Coast Coal Mines operation where flood waters from an adjacent abandoned mine broke through on the morning of Feb. 9, 1915 and drowned 19 men: Joseph Foy, manager; David Nellish, fireboss; John and Frank Hunter, father and son; Thomas Watson and William Anderson who made it to safety but returned to help their mates and died; Robert Miller; brothers Peter and Joseph Fearon; Ollie Legrion; William Gibson who'd survived the 1909 Extension explosion; G.H. Marvos; James Hronis; John Stewart; Joseph Cadr; Frank Marvella; V. Finn; Olaf Lingren. Six men survived that disaster and Alexander Thompson and Yuong Sung Lung were killed at PCCM in separate accidents.

At the South Wellington No. 10, Oscar Numella, tracklayer, was crushed by a coal car; Christopher Mills, fireboss, and James Waring and Eugene Gava died in a single explosion; Oliver Kotilla, in a rock-fall; William J. Moore fell from a scaffold; James Murder, in a rock-fall; Adolph Jack Delmas, electrician, killed by a toppling power pole.

At Granby, known for its benevolent management but gassy, wet and dangerous working conditions, Alphonse Clark, switcher, was struck by a coal car; Robert H. Banford, was crushed by a rock-fall; Joseph Lavin, shift boss, was run down by a car; William Logan, in a rock-fall; David Alton, in a blow-out of gas and coal; Thomas C. Wales, rope-rider, run down by a car; Nestor Allen, in 50-ton rock-fall; Hugh McReynolds, by trip of cars; Charles Belt, switcher, crushed between car and post; Thomas Radford, winch driver, caught in the gears of the hoist.

I've just listed 43 men. That's 43 men who died, terribly, on the job-the job of hauling coal from the earth to power industry, to forge steel, to power machines and to heat homes and hospitals. Just as we now rely on petroleum products, coal was the life-force of industry and of individuals.

And, as I've just shown, that coal didn't come free. We can and must do better by our coal miners hence FOMM's ongoing efforts to save the Morden headframe/tipple as an interpretation centre four our coal mining past and as a memorial to the thousands of miners who gave their lives for poor pay and in unnecessarily poor and unsafe working conditions.