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Worst mining disaster in B.C. history took place 125 years ago today in Nanaimo

Darrell Bellaart, Nanaimo Daily News, May 03, 2012

It was a tragedy on such a scale, today it's difficult to imagine.

The worst mining disaster in British Columbia history happened in the heart of Nanaimo, 125 years ago today. It was shortly after 6 p.m. on May 3, 1887, when two explosions rushed through the works of the sprawling No. 1 Esplanade coal mine in quick succession, so deep underground the explosions were barely perceptible on the surface.

Miners knew the long blast on the mine's whistle could only mean bad news. When the full extent of it was known, 150 men were counted among the dead, leaving numerous young families without husbands and fathers.

The disaster was on such a massive scale it drew an outpouring of grief, drawing donations from as far away as Montreal, and especially San Francisco, where tonnes of Nanaimo's high quality coal was exported each year.

The explosion caused some damage to the mines, but most miners died of asphyxiation in the hours afterward, waiting for help that never arrived as those topside worried about more explosions.

No one knew then the airborne coal dust was already burned, meaning the risk of explosions was past.

Only seven men walked out of the mine's extensive workings, which then reached deep beneath the harbour as far out as Protection Island.

Seven bodies remain buried near where the blast occurred.

It scarred the community forever, leaving a grief that was a shared bond in an already close community.

"I felt it as a child, everyone there was helping one another," said Muriel Mackay-Ross, 90.

"Whether it was food, or clothing, or helping in the garden. I wish we had that feeling today."

She remembers annual miners reunions held early each May, drawing miners from around the Island. It always featured a two minute silence, for those lost in the mines.

"There were tears running down the faces of the men," Muriel said. "It was very heart wrenching to watch, and it was very sombre."

She was among the organizers of the centennial memorial event, in 1987. Today a similar event is planned. Fittingly, the South End neighbourhood will remember those who were its neighbourhood's earliest citizens.

"I think an event of this magnitude on some levels defines the city in its history," said Douglas Hardie, South End Community Association president.

In those days, miners were paid piecemeal, and sometimes they took shortcuts to boost productivity, and pay.

To extract the coal from the rock miners drilled into the rock, stuffed in some black powder, then the fuse would be tamped into the hole with a plug of moistened, crushed coal, to direct the concussion of the blast inward.

Charges sometimes blew out, and when that happened, safety required that a new hole be drilled. Men working the Diagonal Slope, running south beneath the harbour almost perpendicular to Nicol Street, likely ignored that precaution and re-shot the same hole.

"Men had probably done this before, and probably nothing happened," said David Hill-Turner, Nanaimo Museum curator, who spent three months poring over hand-written testimony mining inquest testimony while researching a month-long display that starts at the museum today.

Investigators believe the concussion of the first blast kicked coal dust into the air, and likely released some trapped methane, making the flammable air-coal mix even more explosive.

The miners lit the fuse. The blast triggered a dust explosion that encompassed the entire mine workings, reaching hundreds of metres back to the main No. 1 shaft before shooting upward and branching out into the larger, main slope, where men were digging coal near Protection Island. Only seven men came out alive.

It wasn't the force of the explosion that killed most men. The blast sealed many miners off in side shafts, where they spent hours waiting, until their oxygen ran out. Men were found with messages etched into the dirt in their shovels, some marking off the hours they'd spent waiting for rescue. For those miners responsible, it likely ended swiftly after they lit the fuse.

Miners were learning what flour mill and grain elevator workers know today - dust is explosive. Until then, cave-ins and blasts from gases like methane were miners' biggest worries.

They knew fresh air could flush out a methane pocket, preventing an explosion. The massive No. 1 mine, which reached down 250 metres below sea level, had an air exchange system that moved 2,100 cubic metres of air every minute. That system likely helped circulate the airborne coal dust, enhancing its explosive properties.

It was a huge loss for the new city, which had a population of 6,500. It was late 1889 by the time the bodies were recovered, an investigation was completed and the mine was cleaned out enough to start again. Some people left. Forty-six women became widows and three times that number of children lost their fathers. Back then, men were the breadwinners, so many families were plunged into poverty.

"Everybody was involved in the relief effort, looking after women and children, and getting this mine back into production, because it was a big mine," Hill-Turner said.

News of the tragedy spread fast by telegraph onto newspaper pages around the world.

Relief started flooding in from Victoria, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, from mining towns in Nevada and as far east as Montreal. A pool of more than $100,000 was amassed.

The resulting trust fund continued to pay widows pensions into the mid-20th century. Those who re-married lost entitlement to payments.

When the mine re-opened, that section was abandoned with new activity focused on seams around Newcastle Island. The mine closed permanently in 1937 and 13 years later the wooden Canadian Collieries No. 1 tipple was removed for safety reasons. The mine shaft was sealed, entombing seven bodies never recovered.

The memory of that disaster lingered like a ghost in Nanaimo, even as the ranks of veterans from that era thinned.

About a decade ago the last of regular annual "reunions" was held in the community each year in early May, to coincide closely with the anniversary of the event.

The South End Community Association will have a moment of silence, plant a rose bush and say some words to remember those lost at a ceremony at Milton and Esplanade, starting at 5: 30 p.m.

THE ESPLANADE MINING DISASTER

150: Miners killed, including 53 Chinese men whose names were considered too difficult to pronounce, so were known only by their employee numbers.

7: Men who walked out of the disaster, including mayor Richard Gibson. Seven bodies were never recovered.

189: Killed in Hillcrest, Alta., the worst mining disaster in Canadian history in 1914. The Esplanade explosion was second worst.

18 million: Total tonnage of coal produced from the rich No. 1 Esplanade mine before its final closure in 1937.

$4: Approximate daily pay for a miner a the time. Because they were paid according to coal productivity, miners sometimes took shortcuts.

6,500: Nanaimo's population in 1887.

DBellaart@nanaimodailynews.com 250-729-4235

© The Daily News (Nanaimo) 2012

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