McLay puts mine disaster on paper

It’s one of those incongruities that grab your attention simply by being there. There, on page 194 of the classic Cowichan My Valley, are four short paragraphs so out of keeping with the main text that they seem to jump the rails.

Nathan Dougan was writing of Robert McLay, patriarch of the Scottish pioneering family that settled at Koksilah in 1874, even though from time to time Robert went off to follow his trade as a miner. This meant that wife Elizabeth was stuck with having to manage a homestead with five young children. Not that he hadn’t left her before with sole family responsibility, she having had to run a small shop in Airdrie after he’d quit the mines to sail for new opportunities in America.

After two years in California he returned home to collect his family, only to have Elizabeth refuse to uproot her life and that of the children. So back to California went Bob and it was the accidental drowning of their young son Willie that prompted a grieving Elizabeth to agree to a fresh start, halfway round the world.

For Elizabeth, however, the Sacramento Valley was too arid and too American; she wanted a damper environment, under the Union Jack. So off went Bob once more, to Vancouver Island and Koksilah, to establish Willow Brook Farm. The McLay house, built of lumber rafted up from Sayward’s mill at Mill Bay, was one of the first in the area to be of frame construction.

With hard work – the girls sharing the gruelling toil of clearing the land with their older brother – Willow Brook Farm steadily beat back the forest. But Bob again became restless, and he and Elizabeth separated, he re-establishing at Glenora (hence McLay Road).

It was there, in his cabin beside Beaver Creek, in the spring of 1887, that Robert McLay, likely recalling his own experiences as a young miner in the Scottish collieries and California gold mines, was moved by tragedy to set pen to paper.

This is where the incongruity of text comes in as Dougan suddenly mentions a "lovely May morning" when the children of Cowichan Station were in class in the South Cowichan Bench School. They and their teacher were suddenly interrupted by George Fielding, who’d come to inform them that "a terrific explosion" in the No. 5 Mine at Wellington had claimed 190 lives. As it happens, Dougan has the right time frame but the wrong mine. May 3, 1887 marks the Island’s worst coal mine disaster (second worst in Canadian history) in the No. 1 Esplanade Mine, Nanaimo.

How George Fielding heard of the distant disaster without a local newspaper, we don’t know. Nor do we know what possessed him to interrupt class to inform teachers and students at Cowichan Station of the Nanaimo catastrophe. Did he travel the neighbourhood, a la Paul Revere, informing all and sundry? We only know, thanks to Nathan Dougan (and son Bob who published his many newspaper articles in book form in the early ’70s), that he did so on that "lovely" morning in May. Did any of the children have relatives at work in the Island collieries, perhaps in Nanaimo? Again, we aren’t told. We know only that which is stated above.

And that Robert McLay, former coal miner and devoted fan of the great Robbie Burns, living apart from his wife and children in a tiny cabin beside Beaver Creek in Glenora, took up his pen in tribute to his peers. We can only wonder at his thoughts as, alone in the soft glow of kerosene, the former miner who understood better than most the hardships and dangers of working underground, laboured with pen and ink to set down in words his thoughts on the horrors of a mine disaster.

Robert McLay’s earthly travels finally came to a close in 1915. After their lengthy separation he and Elizabeth are together again for eternity, side by side in Mountain View Cemetery.

Just Posted

Controlled burns near Mill Bay raise health concerns

Province says new regulations should help deal with problem

Editorial: Full ban on backyard burning a must for Cowichan

Last week we had our first air quality advisory of the fall/winter season.

Duncan Christian Chargers third at Islands

The Duncan Christian School Chargers senior boys volleyball team wrapped up their… Continue reading

Lake Flashback: Tragedy strikes the Lake, RCMP call in Sikorsky chopper, and thieves leave their tools behind

Three accidental deaths in one grim week, and air crane required to save fish from wrecked truck

VIDEO: Lake Cowichan fire department celebrates long service

The annual event sees several earn awards as well as the retirement of Ray Bourassa after 30 years

VIDEO: B.C. to restrict nicotine content, bring in 20% tax on vaping products

Province will also restrict candy and fruit flavoured vaping products to adult-only stores

Seguin lifts surging Stars to 4-2 win over Canucks

Dallas is 6-0-1 in last seven outings

‘City that protects rapists’: Sexual assault survivor slams Kelowna mayor for defending RCMP

Heather Friesen spent the morning handing out flyers around city hall calling out the mayor

Batten down the hatches: Wet and windy weekend on the way for coastal B.C.

Environment Canada issues special weather warning for Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island

BC Liquor Stores to move fully to paper bags by March

Vancouver Island to be the first to convert to paper bags in November

Tolko shuts B.C. divisions for two weeks over holidays

Head office to close from Dec. 23-27; two weeks’ downtime runs Dec. 21-Jan. 6

B.C. government working with RCMP to address $10 million in budget cuts

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth issues statement following report of RCMP cost-cutting

Port Moody mayor says stayed sex assault charge related to ‘awkward date’

Rob Vagramov said charge was related to a string of dates in 2015

UBC conference draws fire over speaker from Chinese tech company blacklisted in U.S.

The company that has been blacklisted by the U.S. over links to the repression of China’s Muslim minority

Most Read