Chronicles: Monuments to the fallen: not all are remembered equally

Friday, April 28, was National Day of Mourning for workplace fatalities.

Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001 — It’s quiet on Mount Prevost as a small crowd gathers in threatening rain to re-dedicate the Cowichan Valley’s landmark war memorial and to unveil two new plaques honouring Canadian peacekeepers and those killed in the Korean conflict. Resplendent in new paint, the 72-year-old lighthouse gleams as the sun breaks through, highlighting the flags of the Royal Canadian Legion honour guard…

Friday, July 27, 2001 — It’s quiet on the ridge overlooking Extension Valley as a hawk circles lazily before landing in a tall alder ignored by loggers. Because of an un-summer-like overcast, Bickerton Mountain, Extension Colliery’s unintentional monument of coal waste, is almost invisible in the near distance.

The ridge on which I’m standing runs out at a 90-degree angle to the cliffside that looks down upon the former coal town. Seen from a distance, this rocky reach, now overgrown with trees and a salal underskirt, looks to be a natural part of the landscape. It isn’t. Man-made of rock rubble and coal waste, it’s all that shows of the old No. 1, forerunner to what became Extension’s richest producers, the No.’s 2 and 3 Mines.

Extension Colliery was young in 1901 (Ladysmith, its shipping terminal, wouldn’t be incorporated as a town for three more years) when, on Sept. 30, fire broke out in the No. 1. Its underground connection to the No. 2 and 3 provided escape for some although No. 3 had a casualty of its own when driver George Cripps’ mule panicked and crushed him between two coal cars. Of those who attempted to make it out via the No. 1, only rope rider John Thomas, because of his youth and physical condition, was able to run up the slope ahead of the fire.

Behind him, engulfed by flames or overcome by smoke, were his workmates, timbermen George Southcombe and David Griffiths; miners Michael Dolan, E. Lynd, J. Blakly, J. Patterson, James Watson, William Pollock, J. McCallum and Anthony Pescetelli; drivers Frederick Mottishaw and A. Reeves; and pushers William Hamilton, E. Hazel, Charles Noye and A. Boyd.

It took five months to recover their bodies, and only after the fire was extinguished by flooding the mine. Another month was consumed in pumping it out and repairing cave-ins. A coroner’s jury empanelled to inquire into the death of George Southcombe ruled that he (and, by extension, his companions) “met his death by suffocation… Cause of the fire we are unable to determine by the evidence. We are…of the opinion that the management are free from any blame, according to the evidence…”

Saturday, Nov. 10, 2001 — The last strains of bugle and pipes have trailed away. As the crowd begins trudging down the mountainside, I pause with the memorial at my back to take in the sweeping views from the Chemainus Estuary to Saltspring Island to the southern Malahat Ridge and ponder the meaning of remembrance.

We honour those who gave their lives in the service of our country, each Nov. 11. It’s right that we remember them, not just for their sacrifices, but in the hope that, someday, we will put an end to war and there will be peace in the world. 

But as I peer off into the distance I think of that nondescript hill back of Extension where there’s no marker for the No. 1’s 16 dead, or for George Cripps of No. 3 Mine. There’s no stone monument, no bronze plaque to note that, here, 100 years ago, these men died while trying to wrest a living from underground. The loggers who came and went in recent years probably didn’t even notice the old winch, last of the mine’s machinery abandoned on-site, or that this small ridge is too straight and too level to be the work of nature. They wouldn’t have known of the human drama once enacted here. It seems a shame.

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