South end remembers victims of No. 1 Esplanade Mine

125 years have passed, but the effects of the disaster still echo through the city today.

The calmness of a pleasant spring evening on May 3, 1887 in Nanaimo was shattered by two percussive thumps in quick succession, followed by the throaty pitch of the steam whistle at the No. 1 Esplanade Mine.

The first thump, a massive explosion 260 metres below sea level in what was known as the diagonal shaft in the city’s largest mine, was the result of a poorly placed charge that ignited a pocket of coal bed gas released from a previous charge just minutes before. That pocket of gas served as the ignition to a massive amount of coal dust that was also released from the first charge.

The second blast was coal dust igniting on other slopes as the explosion rocketed through the underground shafts for almost a kilometre, swallowing coal dust as it went, and the pressure blew burning timbers and rock out adjacent hoisting and venting shafts above ground. The wooden head frame, built high above the pit, caught fire and burned to the ground.

It took seconds for men on the surface to realize the massive mine had caught fire, and at 5:55 p.m., the eerie wail of the mine’s steam whistle echoed through the community, sounding the alert to families just sitting down to dinner.

At the time of the explosion, 156 men were working in the massive network of underground slopes.

The 149 men who didn’t die directly from the fire or shockwave slowly succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, some lasting as long as several hours, writing messages in the floor dust with their shovels before dying.

One victim, John Stevens, scratched out ’13 hours after explosion, in deepest misery’ in white chalk. Samuel Myers, who organized Nanaimo’s first union – the Calvin Ewing Local Assembly 3017 of the Knights of Labour – was also among the dead.

Fifty-three of the dead were Chinese labourers, many of whose names were unknown because Chinese workers weren’t employed directly by the mine, but outsourced from subcontractors who didn’t keep records. All workers in the mine were referred to by a number when they were in the pits.

Only seven men, all of them working in the mine’s engine room, escaped the inferno safely.

One survivor, Jules Michael, later recalled, “I heard a sound like a heavy fall of rock … and then I felt the wind coming from it up the slope. I said ‘My god! Boys! What is coming on us now?'” One rescuer, Samuel Hudson, was later overcome by afterdamp and died from its effects while looking for the bodies of his colleagues.

Men fought the fire back from the engine room in an effort to save the pumps that fed the shafts with 75,000 cubic feet of fresh air per minute in hopes some men would be found alive.

After two weeks, the underground fire was finally extinguished, but search parties had given up any hope of finding survivors.

It took until July before the last of the bodies could be recovered, though seven men — Jonathan Blundell, Robert Nicholson, George Biggs, Thomas Dawson, Thomas Hughes and two Chinese labourers – remain somewhere beneath Nanaimo Harbour today.

The diagonal slope was flooded that summer and never used again.

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The tragedy remained the country’s worst industrial accident for 27 years, until an Alberta mine explosion killed 189 people in 1914. The death toll at Nanaimo’s No. 1 Esplanade Mine continues to be Canada’s second-worst industrial accident.

“I think that is something that is sometimes overlooked,” said David Hill-Turner, curator at the Nanaimo Museum. “It had a significant impact on the industry and its practices. It’s common perception perhaps to believe that adequate safety standards weren’t established at the time, or that working conditions were terrible, but the truth is, it was considered one of the safest mines. It had extensive ventilation, routine inspections, and modern safety equipment like rebreathers for the time. It was difficult work, but it was good work.”

Hill-Turner added that many men took night courses in chemistry and math to keep their skills sharp.

“They weren’t uneducated,” he said.

A witness report from an inquiry held May 27, 1887 by the province’s Ministry of Mines indicates the diagonal slope, 700 metres long with coal seven to fifteen feet thick, was just inspected for gas prior to the explosion and was considered safe.

An inspector testified the slope was gas-free a short time before the blast.

“Everything about this mine, previous to the 3rd of May last, seemed to be in good order,” said the inspector according to minutes of the inquisition. “No expense whatever being spared to make things safe. Ventilation was good … In this part of the mine a considerable quantity of gas was given off, but the ventilation was so good there was no opportunity for it to collect, and at no time previous to the 3rd May did I see any gas there.”

At the time, while the dangers of coal bed gas were known, the combustive ability of coal dust was just beginning to be understood. That knowledge came too late for the men in the No. 1 mine, as well as others in Nanaimo’s 57 mines, many of which experienced one tragedy or another.

“Senior managers were probably just becoming aware of coal dust, but at that time they weren’t familiar with it,” said Hill-Turner.

Some of the victims are buried at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Machleary Street.

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The mine, owned by the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, opened in 1883 and closed in 1937 after producing more than 18 million tonnes of coal, the most of any of Nanaimo mine.

After the explosion, it took until 1889 to get back to full production, as a “rabbit’s warren” of complicated tunnels stretched south to the Nanaimo River, north to what is now downtown Nanaimo, and east to Protection Island.

In total, 46 women lost their husbands and 126 children lost their fathers. The mine lost almost 25 per cent of its employees.

With an immediate population of about 4,000 people in Nanaimo in 1887, the deaths had a significant impact on the city’s families and economy.

“It was a dramatic blow to the community,” said Ron Blank, president of the Nanaimo Family History Society. “The men would have been considered to be good wage earners and an important part of the community. Geneologically, it also had a huge impact. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for a women to marry two or three times because often she’d lose her husband, as these ones had, in various mine disasters.”

With virtually no financial support systems beyond fundraising for the widows, they were forced to either leave or remarry, said Blank.

“Some local societies existed for giving support in such a case, but it would have been very minimal support, maybe a few dollars a month, which is what a miner would have made in a day,” he said. “I would think many of the women would have stayed because they had no financial wherewithal, and because we were a male-dominated town because of the mining, you could be rest assured that the women could find a suitable partner very quickly.”

Women received a $12 monthly allowance for the rest of their lives, or until they remarried, and children under 14 also received an allowance, according to Nanaimo Museum records. More than $100,000 was collected for the Nanaimo Relief Fund from across Canada and the United States.

Neighbourly support in 1887 for all families was vital, and it was that support that allowed many widows to stay in Nanaimo to continue raising their children.

Joan Carruthers, a director of the South End Neighbourhood Association, says the philosophy of that community support can still be felt in the city’s south end today.

“From the south end’s point of view we have a real neighbourhood here, everybody is so supportive. Sometimes we get a bad rap because of the poverty issues and drug issues and things … but those aren’t reflective of the whole population of the south end. We get together and we stay together and it’s to improve the neighbourhood and deal with whatever issues come up. Going back to when neighbours had to help neighbours, and all of a sudden people had this common loss, they had to stick together. There has always been that feeling here.”

To memorialize those lost and the Nanaimo families that lost their loved ones, the Nanaimo Museum will feature an exhibit from May 3 to June 1, while the South End Community Association will host a vigil and rose planting Thursday (May 3) at the memorial kiosk, built last year, at Milton Street and Esplanade. All are welcome.

At 5:30 p.m., a reading on the mine disaster will take place followed by a moment of silence at 5:55 p.m., the exact moment the tragedy shook Nanaimo a century and a quarter earlier.

That will be followed by a ceremonial planting of roses – something many of the miners would have had in their yard – and a dogwood tree by citizens Pamela Mar and Muriel Mackay-Ross. Members of SECA will then plant the rest of the rose garden to commemorate Nanaimo’s history, the lives lost who helped build it, and the legacy of heritage and community that continue today in Nanaimo’s south end.

reporter2@nanaimobulletin.com

 

Other major mine disasters in Nanaimo

 

• June 30, 1884. Gas explosion kills 23 men at Wellington No. 3

• Jan. 24, 1888 Explosion kills 60 men and several mules at Wellington No. 5

• Oct. 5, 1909 Explosion at Extension No. 2, killing 32 men

• Feb. 9, 1915 19 men drown after South Wellington mine floods

• May 27, 1915 Explosion kills 22 men at the Reserve mine

– Source: Friends of the Morden Mine