Mining was a perilous job and many miners perished in the search for coal on Vancouver Island. (Ladysmith Archives/Ladysmith & District Historical Society)

Mining was a perilous job and many miners perished in the search for coal on Vancouver Island. (Ladysmith Archives/Ladysmith & District Historical Society)

T.W. Paterson column: Extension Colliery disaster defies the imagination

“We decided to remain to wait for relief or death.”—Miner Tom Hislop.

“The fire damp came so thick that it couldn’t be faced, and we had to run back from it…We decided to remain to wait for relief or death.”—Miner Tom Hislop.

I’ve said before that it takes more, much more, than knowledge of dates, names and events to know, understand and appreciate history.

It takes imagination — real imagination.

How many times I’ve stood at the portal to the Extension No. 2 Mine and tried to recreate — to picture in my mind — the men and the events that have been enacted at this roadside slope and grassland in today’s “downtown” Extension.

I know many of the stories well enough, having researched them for much of my lifetime, and I know the immediate ground, too, having scratched for bottles and artifacts since the 1960s. But, still, to stand before this concrete arch that more than anything resembles a large culvert, and know of the dramas that have been enacted on and beneath the ground upon which I’m standing, strains my imagination.

There’s finally a signboard identifying the portal; up until recent years I’m sure most visitors took it, the seasonal creek that runs from it, and the pervasive smell of rotten eggs, to be a sewage outlet.

If only they’d known the stories this site, now part of a mini-historical park, can tell!

For almost 40 years this was the entrance to the Extension Nos. 2 and 3 Mines. Now all but surrounded by modern homes, the portal was the entry point to miles of underground workings, the workplace of up to 700 men at any given time. And the site of some of the most violent and tragic events of the Island’s coal mining past.

Here, I’ve unearthed century-old electrical parts, many of them showing signs of being charred by fire. How did they get burned? Well, during the Great Strike of 1912-13, rioting miners set the mine’s electric motors (locomotives used to haul the coal to the surface) afire. Right where I’m standing.

Here, too, inside the entrance to the No. 2, is where mine officials and strikebreakers took cover from snipers. That’s when some strikers, pushed beyond the breaking point after months of being stonewalled by Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd., which was aided by the imposition of virtual martial law by the provincial government, vented their frustration with human target practice.

I know the story, I’ve read reams of newspaper accounts, journals and seen photos of the damaged company houses that were wrecked by rioters. But to stand at the concrete ruin that’s the No. 2 portal, trying to picture these dramatic events is still a reach.

There’s so much more to tell. Members of the Ladysmith & District Historical Society know the story. This past Saturday, they staged an early morning ceremony to mark the 110th anniversary of Extensions’ worst colliery disaster that claimed 32 lines. Should you visit the Ladysmith cemetery you’ll notice that this disaster is the epochal event in Ladysmith’s history. Again and again and again you’ll see the same date on headstones: Oct. 5, 1909.

That’s the day an explosion in No. 2W killed 35 men of the morning shift, most of whom died from the resulting afterdamp (gas) rather than from the blast itself.

“MINERS DIE AT EXTENSION; Gas explosion in two levels claims 32 victims — 18 Bodies Recovered up to Last Midnight — Many In Ladysmith Mourn Dead Relatives.” Such was the grim headline of the Victoria Colonist, the following morning.

Extension, I should explain, the site of the mining operations, is several miles west of Ladysmith, which is where most of the miners and their families lived. The miners commuted to work by company train, the same train that carried the coal to the town’s seaside docks for loading aboard ships. The same train that, in October 1909, rushed medical aid and rescuers to the mine site then brought 32 dead miners back to town for burial.

In the hours immediately following the blast, Ladysmith was in a state of shock and grief. Said the Colonist: “Ladysmith is waiting tonight for its dead, a sad, grief-stricken community. From the time the telephone message gave the first brief bulletin of the disaster this morning, and the train came down the hill from the mine to take doctors and rescuers, sorrow has followed upon sorrow. The bereaved women and relatives are being kept back from the mines, and the officials are keeping silent. But at intervals news comes that causes agonizing shrieks in a miner’s home…”

The names given in the initial news account are those you’ll see today in the cemetery: Thomas O’Connell, William Robertson, Andrew Moffatt, James Ewart, the Kesserichs, William and James, Thomas Thomas, Charles Scuff…32 in total including “two Finlanders whose names are unknown,” three unnamed loaders and two drivers.

Of several nationalities, many of the men were young and single but Andrew Moffatt had three children and William Kesserich left a widow and 10 kids. (In an age without any form of social assistance.)

Of the 700 miners and assistants who were at work that morning, survivor Thomas Hislop was one of the last to make it to safety through the maze of mine levels after a harrowing experience with gas while working with six others in No. 4 west level. His graphic account of escape really does defy the imagination.

“Bob White, he drops his pick and shouts, ‘My God, she’s blasted!’

“We stood for a second in the darkness. The rush of wind put our lamps out until someone comes with a safety lamp and 15 or 17 of us…hurried along, holding the lamp to see the glistening of the rail, but were driven back. A great cloud of smoke blew into our faces and we got a whiff of afterdamp and knew we must go back.

“Through into the counter level we went, but we couldn’t get through. The damp drives us out into the level again. We tried to clamber up into No. 10 stall across to the crosscut, but were driven out. In No. 3 counter level we left five men… When we last saw them we did not know the damp had got them. We knew nothing then except that the smoke and damp was chasing us whichever way we went. We struggled on through after a while being most lost.

“Finally we sat down to figure what could be done. We were tired and beaten back. The fire damp came so thick that it couldn’t be faced, and we had to run back from it…We decided to remain to wait for relief or death. We had not waited long when we heard a shout, and Alex Shaw the foreman, and Davidson, him as lost his son in the mine, came. When we heard their shouts instructing us we smashed through a stopping and crawled over to safety. Then, fatigued and worn out, we clambered out up the slope. Clinging to each other’s coattails, helped by men who met us with safety lanterns.

“We waited at the slope head, but the five never came out, and I’m still waiting for them. They must have been dead a long while now, though.”

Six more miners died on the job in the Extension mines that year. Four years earlier, a fire in the same mines had claimed 17 lives. As I’ve written before, coal mining on Vancouver Island was a brutal business, almost 1,000 miners being killed during the industry’s 90-year heyday.

Which brings me back to the entrance to the No. 2, 3, that curve of concrete that looks so much like a culvert. That offending septic smell isn’t sewage but sulphur that yet creeps out from the underground workings which once extended westerly for miles in a bee-hive maze of levels and crosscuts. No wonder that Tom Hislop and his comrades had so much difficulty in finding their way to safety with only the limited glow of a single safety lamp to light their way by following the railway track during their flight.

It’s peaceful here in Extension on a summer afternoon — nothing at all like during the frenzied dramas of the so-called good old days, when disaster struck the men who risked and lost their lives under the very ground beneath our feet.

Did I say it takes imagination, real imagination, to know and to appreciate our history? Try it some time.