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.