Miners head to work in the mine at Extension during the days when coal was king. (Ladysmith Archive photo)

Column T.W. Paterson: When coal was king on Vancouver Island

Could this be the residue from smoke — smoke from the fire of Sept. 20, 1901?

The reality comes with a rush. Could this be the residue from smoke — smoke from the fire of Sept. 20, 1901?

For a split second it was like seeing a ghost. There, freshly-minted in the muddy trail, a hoofprint. It was small, likely that of a pony. A pony? This trail, on a ridge back of Extension, was originally a narrow gauge railway. Just over the bank is an abandoned fan-house. A pit pony?

It wasn’t, of course, just the track of some horseback rider enjoying a country ramble, perhaps even oblivious to the history of coal that surrounds them in this area of second growth forest that, judging by the cruiser’s tapes, was about to be logged again. But, for an instant at least, for the three of us poking about this historic area with its many middens of coal slack, there was a sense of deja vu. It was much more fleeting than the Extenesion Colliery which operated between the late 1890s and the early ’30s, although that, too, is but a nano-second in terms of historical timekeeping.

At the base of this ridge, one of four or five running north-south and more or less parallelling each other from here to the Island Highway to the east, numerous sinkholes indicate a collapsing adit. One after another, they pucker the earth for hundreds of yards. Some, perhaps, were created intentionally, as many of these old mines were reactivated during the hungry ’30s by gyppo operators who, using colliery charts, tapped into the old seams to extract pillars of coal left by the original Dunsmuir miners.

There’s something almost pathetic in the few surviving reminders of their work, so evident is their poorman’s approach to the job. Standing above the bracken, a home-made fan rusts and rots away; nearby stand its power source, a car engine from the ’20s. These worked, but they’re a far cry from the neighbouring, original fan-house built for the Dunsmuirs. Even in its ruin, it was impressive, with its rusting steel spokes that still encircled a six-inch axle. Bolted together on the spot, it resembled a giant mecchano set. Some of the woodwork was of oak, perhaps even ironwood — no gyppo operation, this. Likely the Dunsmuirs had it built at Victoria’s Albion Ironworks then hauled in by horse and wagon on a road that, by the time of our visit, was just wide enough for a ride-around lawnmower.

Much of the interior woodwork was blackened; this might have been creosote but second thought told us that preserving wood by this means isn’t common to old minesites, an indication that creosoting came later. Was the wood blackened by almost a century’s exposure to the elements? No, because only the inside walls showed darkening. Charring from fire? That didn’t appear to be the case, either.

The reality came with a rush. Was this the residue from smoke — smoke from the fire of Sept. 20, 1901? The mine itself is another rocky ridge over but this must have been the fan-house for the original Extension No. 1 which suffered a devastating fire that claimed the lives of 17 men. Of those on shift in the No. 1, only rope rider John Thomas made it to safety; because of his youth and physical fitness, he was able to outrun the flames. News reports of the tragedy mention how great volumes of smoke soared skyward through the fan-house. You’d never know it, as you stand in this silence of ferns and trees, that such human drama was enacted here…

Some of the freelance miners who broke through into these old workings in the ’30s found that they still had to contend with the blackdamp (a deadly mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in the air). Unlike their predecessors, however, they didn’t have to trust their lives to a canary, using safety lamps which, by the colour of their flame, indicate the composition of the air.

Scattered about were bits and pieces of galvanized roofing and at least two ore carts. One was all-metal; of the other, only its iron strapping and a trailer hitch remained, the wooden floorboards and sides having long rotted away. As always, there was no sign of the trucks (wheels), these likely having been recycled for marine railways or some such usage. There were the bones of at least four other carts scattered about the area, but no wheels.

Little else remained in the way of metal, perhaps the result of Second World War scrap metal drives when many abandoned mining and logging sites were cleaned up in the name of national defence. But of the scraps that remained — if only they could talk!

Well, they do talk if you know how to listen. The stories they tell are of mining in the black bowels of the earth for pitiful wages, of having to brave afterdamp, blackdamp, firedamp, black lung, fire, explosion and flood to make a living for your family — back in the “good old days” when, for almost 90 years on Vancouver Island, coal was king.


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