Ghost town’s ‘final chapter’ written in obit

Some evenings Bill, then a young boy, would accompany his father on his rounds, with only a miner’s lamp to light their way

Some evenings Bill, then a young boy, would accompany his father on his rounds, with only a miner’s lamp to light their way through the empty streets, homes and colliery buildings.

Obituaries may not make pleasant reading but they certainly can be informative. The notice for William E. John in the April 10, 2000 Nanaimo Daily News recalled, for me, a conversation of more than 20 years earlier. One that provided a macabre but appropriate ‘ending’ for the ghost town of Granby.

Nanaimo-born on June 4, 1924, Bill retired as a petty officer in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1965. He then became a freelance photographer, and a fine one, too; many of his photographs which originally appeared in Victoria newspapers, particularly The Daily Colonist, are now in the City of Victoria Archives.

It was after the first edition of my Ghost Town Trails of Vancouver Island was published in 1975 that Bill told me of his eerie connection with the former coal town, just north of the Nanaimo International Airport at Haslam Creek.

In all of B.C.’s industrial history, Granby was unique (at least in its day): a state of the art company town built with its employees as well as production and the bottom line in mind. It had all the amenities, a provincial inspector of mines going so far as to say that the company, which also had operations at Anyox and Phoenix, “lay…down ideal conditions under which the men shall work”. (In an age of robber barons such as the Dunsmuirs, this was high praise indeed!) These amenities included, among other near-luxuries, steam-heated lockers for the miners’ clean clothes. After an underground shift in the damp and dirty mine, a shower and warm clothing must have gone a long way towards restoring a miner’s vitality and spirits.

To fully appreciate this almost-touch-of-decadence one has only to glance at the record of coal mining on Vancouver Island. Prior to Granby Consolidated’s model operation at Cassidy, begun in 1917 to produce coking coal for its copper smelter at Anyox, coal mining was among the blackest of professions in more ways than one. Island collieries were among the dirtiest and most dangerous of all, as so graphically shown by the number of lives (almost 1,000) lost in various catastrophes, including the second worst mine disaster in Canadian history.

Even a mine such as Granby was notorious (not everything could be perfect) for being extremely wet and for its gassy ‘blowouts’ and ‘bumps’ — miners’ euphemisms for hazards of the workplace. So wet, from surface water that permeated the gravel overburden, that they had to build ceilings, an almost unheard-of innovation, and so gassy that some miners could only work two to three hours at a stretch before coming to the surface to vomit and to try to recuperate before resuming work. For all that, there was always a waiting list to work in the Granby mine which suffered only eight deaths during its production career. I say “only” in the sense that this was a modest death toll when compared to the mines of Extension, Nanaimo and Cumberland.

For all these shortcomings, it was all too good to last. From beginning to end, Granby spanned a mere 15 years. When its owners shut down their Anyox smelter during the Depression, Granby, too, was doomed. The employees moved on and for several years the townsite sat vacant, protected from vandalism by a single watchman, Bill John’s father, who was kept on because of his seniority. Some evenings Bill, then a young boy, would accompany him on his rounds, with only a miner’s lamp to light their way through the empty streets, homes and colliery buildings.

Bill told me of the headframe that straddled the pithead. There, in the eerie glow of their lantern, Bill would gaze in awe at a rope suspended from above, as it blew back and forth in the wind. It ended in mid-air, where it had been hacked off years before upon the discovery of one of Granby’s former Chinese employees.

Old and failing when the mines closed, he’d had nowhere to go and had hanged himself from the headframe. His tragedy, and that of Granby, is one of those intriguing glimpses into our past one can find in the obituary columns.

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