BY T.W. PATERSON
If I hadn’t known it for what it was the instant I saw it — the very thing I was looking for — I’d have dismissed it as just an aluminum bottle cap. Indeed, so it looked, blackened as it was by years of exposure and coated with coal particles by water action.
But aluminum milk bottle caps weren’t in use when this Wellington coal mine operated, so its slack pile, chewed up by weekend dirt bikers, held promise of something much, much better for a die-hard treasure hunter.
I’ve often joked with friends, even in print, that finding a miner’s tag is worth more to me than finding a $20 gold piece. Indeed it is. A miner’s tag, the equivalent of a soldier’s dog tag, was a miner’s ID.
He didn’t go by name when he went to work; he was a number assigned to him by the company. It was stamped on a small brass plate soldered to his lamp, stamped on his pick and other tools, and, best of all, for me, stamped on the toonie-sized tag, aka tally or check, of which he was issued several. When checking out his lamp, he’d leave one hanging from a numbered hook board, and do the same when checking out tools or powder. Underground, he’d attach a larger tag to the car he’d filled with coal; this was how he was accredited for his work. (Or, God forbid, docked from his pay if he sent too much non-coal material topside.)
In short, a tag, to me, represents one of the thousands of men who risked their lives (almost 1,000 of them were killed on the job or died of related injuries and illness) to work underground in Vancouver Island’s coal mines. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing who they were at any of the collieries other than for a surviving ledger from the Extension coal mines. Rescued years ago by the late Ray Knight it’s now in possession of the Ladysmith Historical Society and, for a two-year period, lists miners by name, national origin, age, marital status — and number.
But that’s it. The rest are anonymous and I can’t tell you the names of the men assigned any of the 100-plus tags in my possession which I’ve painstakingly dug up at various mines. But I treasure them all. And here’s why…
I’ve been writing for decades of the underground disasters which plagued the South Wellington, Nanaimo, Extension, Lantzville and Cumberland collieries. Explosion, fire, flood, cave-in, elevator collapse, the list goes on and on as does the list of casualties, immediate and ultimate.
My passion for tags set me to thinking one day of the immediate aftermath of an accident or a disaster. How did the community come to terms with such tragedies which often claimed members from the same families?
Old news accounts, rich in heartbreaking detail of the actual event, give us only a slight sense of what was involved as the days and weeks went on. For example, on Sept. 30, 1901, 16 men were killed when fire erupted in No. 2 Slope of the new Extension colliery. The usual antidote to fire, of course, is water and the entire warren of slopes and crosscuts in Nos. 2 and 3 slopes were flooded. Not until February 1902 — five months later — could the work of reactivating the mine begin.
Throughout those five months, a funereal silence hung over Extension like a black cloud as two 14-man shifts laboured to de-water the shafts with steam pump, reactivate the ventilation system and, only then, recover the bodies of their comrades who’d been sealed in when the decision was made to flood the fire.
All the while, as the pumps had laboured to remove untold volumes of water at the rate of 1,000 gallons per minute, “the worst feelings of uncertainty had characterized the place,” wrote a visiting reporter. Each passing day, as the work of reclamation neared its climax, he noticed a slight lifting of the town’s spirits.
When the first crews entered No. 2 Slope they found it to be in good working order without serious signs of fire damage although it was still partially flooded. With air again circulating through it and No. 3, work could finally begin on clearing away the rubble and the first bodies, those of David Griffiths and George Southcomb, were retrieved. Their particular tragedy was compounded by the fact they’d made it to within 30 feet of safety when overcome by smoke.
By the following day, miners were thought to be nearing the level where most of the victims would be found although unavoidable repairs to the ventilation system likely would delay this by a day. As it happened, the body of Antoine Pescatello was recovered. His remains, and those of Griffiths and Southcomb, were shipped by the coal train to Ladysmith then on to Nanaimo for burial as inquests into their deaths were begun by Coroner Davis.
Days later, but for William Blakely, all dead had been removed. No mention was made of the state of those later recoveries and it defies our imagination to conceive what it must have been like for the miners engaged in reactivating the mine to come upon and to have to deal with the removal of the bodies of friends and fellow miners. Above ground, Extension and Ladysmith mourned. For those labouring below to de-water and to clear away the debris and re-timber, there was the greater trauma of coming face to face with death.
As Extension and Ladysmith were new communities, the funerals and burials took place in Nanaimo. James Watson’s remains were shipped to his family in Vancouver for interment, Michael Dolan was interred in the Catholic cemetery, and services for John McCallum and 20-year-old F.R. Mottishaw were conducted separately, the latter’s numerous floral tributes said to be “of a character to attest to the esteem in which he was held”. Also interred were A. Reeves, J.T. Patterson, Charles Noye, E. Lynn, William Hamilton, James Pollock, Angus Boyd and H. Hazel. Two special trains, one carrying the deceased and immediate families, a second carrying more mourners, were required for the occasion. They were joined by the funeral procession along Comox Road by several hundred Nanaimo residents, the ceremonies taking an entire afternoon to complete.
“To all parties concerned,” noted the Free Press, “it is a matter of gratification that the bodies have been found. The friends of those who have been the victims of the accident have in a certain measure had the suspense which has hung over them for [five] months removed in the finding of the bodies and the laying of them away in the cemetery.”
A full week later, the last body, that of William Blakely, was recovered and taken to town. For his family, however, closure came a little harder when it was discovered that the body actually was that of J. Pollock whose funeral had already been held, but obviously with Blakely’s remains. Formal identification was made by finding Pollock’s tag in his pocket. Rather than simply switch grave markers, poor Blakely, so recently laid to rest, was disinterred and re-buried alongside J. McCallum.
This is why, for me, not even finding a $20 gold piece could compete with turning up a miner’s tag.