“They never knew what hit them. Their hair burnt white and their bodies black.”—Draegerman Jock Gilmour.
Oscar Numella, tracklayer, crushed by a coal car. Oliver Kotilla and James Merner, crushed by rock-falls. Chris Mills, fireboss, James Waring and Eugene Gava, killed in an explosion. William Moore, fatally injured when he fell from a scaffold. Adolph Delmas, electrician, killed by a toppling power pole.
Such was the death toll for just one of the Island’s many lethal coal mines which claimed almost 1,000 lives over 90 years, this one Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd.’s No. 10 South Wellington. If eight deaths pale alongside some of previous disasters such as those at Wellington, Extension and Nanaimo (site of the second worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history), perhaps that’s because the No. 10 was a relative latecomer and because of its relatively short lifespan, 1937-1952.
All that showed of this mine at the south end of South Wellington village’s Beck Lake was its massive slack pile with its sweeping views of Scotchtown and (almost) as far to the west as the Nanaimo River. But no more.
As you read this, workers and heavy equipment are tearing down this man-made mountain for a housing or campsite development. Yet another of Vancouver Island’s few surviving coal mine icons, this one where I ate many a lunch while enjoying the views and poking about for fossils and miners’ tags, is rapidly disappearing.
With the provincial government’s longstanding policy of neglecting the only surviving headframe/tipple at its Morden Colliery Provincial Park, thus condemning it to inevitable collapse, there’s little left now, and likely to be less in the future, to show of greater Nanaimo region’s once booming collieries.
At South Wellington, half a mile north of the No. 10, is another man-made hill, the slack pile from the No. 5 South Wellington, also a Canadian Collieries operation which preceded the No. 10, 1917-1932. This, too, is on private property and so heavily treed that passersby have no idea of its true size or historical significance. The farmer-owner has nibbled at its base from time to time as he re-contours his land with fill, but the pile’s still there. For now, at least.
How many people (other than those who read the Chronicles) realize that, for almost a century, it was coal mining that drove Vancouver Island’s economy? Not the fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Co. days or the forest industry that followed. No fewer than 10 Island communities, including Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Cumberland, were founded on coal mining. And what have we done to date to memorialize an industry which provided jobs for tens of thousands of miners and their families and helped to lay the foundations of which we latecomers reap the benefits? Next to nothing; but for today I’ll confine myself to the No. 10.
Courtesy of South Wellington’s indefatigable historian Helen Tillie, we know how challenging it was for the rescuers who entered the mine after the pre-Christmas explosion in 1940 that killed Chris Mills, James Waring and Eugene Gava. Jock Gilmour was one of the mine’s six Draegerman Team, a professional miner who’d trained (on his own time) on this German breathing apparatus. Their training consisted of having to endure 20 hours in a smoke chamber, 16 hours of struggling through a simulated underground obstacle course, and a two-hour written test.
Other than their oxygen tanks, each of which lasted just half an hour, they had only their courage and resolve to sustain them when they entered a mine filled with gas, smoke and debris (with its threat of further cave-ins, gas or explosion) in hopes of finding and rescuing their comrades. Years later, Jock recalled for Boss Whistle author Lynne Bowen how he and three others, two of their team being unavailable, went below. For the first 1,500 feet the air was good although they could see smoke.
Proceeding ever deeper they came upon the ‘rope rider,’ Jim Waring, his body “thrown up against the rib, just like a shirt”. With sufficient oxygen and being in good physical condition, they went on, up the steep incline towards the hoist which he described as looking like a house that had been turned upside down.
Looking beyond, Gilmour saw what he thought was a sack of rock dust — until he saw the belt buckle. This was fireboss Chris Mills. On they went to where the roof had caved in and the body of Chris Gava. All were dead, “killed just like that. They never knew what hit them. Their hair burnt white and their bodies black.”
Finding the bodies, let alone recovering them, was nowhere as easy as it reads. To penetrate the collapsed and smoke-filled workings Gilmour’s four-man team had had to restore ventilation and repair timbers and brattices for hundreds of feet, a task that took them 12 excruciating hours. All the while the lost miners’ families and friends waited at the pithead and in town for news.
Such is a single story of tragedy and heroism in our Island coal mines, this one, for 60 years, memorialized in a sense by the great pile of coal waste at the foot of Beck Lake. Now even that’s gone. We owe our coal miners and their families so much more than this.