Tragedy befalls the community

Posted on June 16, 2020 • See the rest of our news

Authored by Dawn Copeman

I walk past the No.6 mine cairn daily on my way into the forest with my dog. Back when the site was operational it wouldn’t be pleasant hearing the ventilation fan chuffing twenty four hours a day or the screech of the ore trains and the rumble of coal being dumped, sorted and transported. Houses and hotels, stores and bars surrounded the mine site in close proximity. 

The men go down into the pit (No. 6 is a shaft mine) while wives put the never ending family washing out to dry. In minutes laundry is covered with the fine dusty black coal powder that gets into everything. Lots of children running around in cramped company houses: such is life in a mining town.

Mining is noisy, dirty, dangerous backbreaking work. Did I mention that it is dangerous? You hear “damp, after damp and black damp”, words describing the effects of increased carbon dioxide and methane levels. In the No.6 mine, you can hear the creaking and groaning of rock and the hiss of gas escaping almost every time a pickaxe falls. In 1901 the miners’ headlamps are open flame, and the flame light dims from bright yellow to blue when gas is present. At the beginning of each shift the mine is inspected for air quality, but the okay to work is from instinct and experience. Luck. 

The Cumberland mines have great quality bituminous coal known the world over.  Great coal but too bad about the gases. You are four times more likely to die mining coal on Vancouver Island than mining coal in Great Britain. Wooed from the coal mines of England, experienced miners balk at working in the dangerous Dunsmuir mines. There is a general shortage of labour in British Columbia in 1901 so the Dunsmuirs hire Chinese labourers from the poverty stricken rural Guangdong provinces. The company pays their fare to Cumberland and the head tax – and then deducts those costs from the workers’ wages. It takes years to get out of debt, but even earning the low wages (half the rate of the white miners) it is a fortune compared to what they can make at home. A deadly gamble too. 

On February 15th 1901 is it Mr. Johnson the Fireboss or William Walker the Overboss who walks the workings? We don’t know, but in any case No.6 is inspected for gas at 0700 and everything looks clear. William Walker finds he is a man short when one of the drivers doesn’t show up for work so at 10am he heads back to his house and shakes his younger son George awake to cover the shift. His oldest son William Jr. is already at the mine.  Not twenty minutes after William goes down the cage for the second time there is a horrific rumbling boom, and then smoke starts pouring out of the mine entrance. The mine is on fire.

From reports of the disaster recorded at the time:

..three explosions in series – the third one muffled and at a distance from the shaft head”

“The shock made the whole village tremble and all knew that something terrible had happened.”

“Within the hour the first rescue attempt is made but gas and fire and impenetrable rubble defeated all attempts from both No.6 and No.5 which was connected underground. Flooding was decided as a last recourse.”

“That action set the seal of fidelity upon what slender chance of hope might up to then have remained that some below had reached a place of refuge from the Death walking in flame or noxious gas.”

“Since the first wild rush of pallid people to the pithead the sorrowing wives and children have been little seen about the streets, preferring to bear their sorrow silently in the desolated homes.”

Death is the great equalizer but you’d never know it from newspaper reports of the disaster.

The revision and check of the shift roll happily reduces the number of the bereaved among the whites at least.

 It is unlikely that anyone in the Japanese or Chinese communities reads the English language papers but seen through modern eyes, this statement is cold. Sadly, unequal treatment of BIPOC hasn’t changed all that much in the 119 years since this event.

The twenty dead white miners are named with newspaper stories about sorrowful widows and orphaned children. The Japanese and Chinese miners killed are a mere footnote: 9 Japanese and 35 Chinese killed. All the dead are supposed to be identified in the 1901 Detailed Statement of Accidents in B.C. Collieries, part of the Report lf the Minister of Mines but even there the names are incomplete and inaccurate and one of the Chinese deaths isn’t recorded.

Until 1920 the mines themselves report fatalities and under-reporting is common. The investigation into the cause of the explosion is inconclusive. “It is the general belief that as safety lamps were not in common use at Union- despite public opinion to the contrary – and as No.6 was spoken of as a gassy mine, that some of the men had struck a cave full of gas while working with naked lights-the explosions that followed in a series being the result.” 

In 1901 mines are only liable for direct negligence. If even slight blame can be assigned to the miner, no compensation is paid and the family has to sue for benefits. The bereaved families, many unaware of their rights or foreign born with limited English, are only successful in about 20% of the cases. Mines generally pay for funerals and headstones for white miners and allow widows and children to stay in the company houses for two months and then evict them to make room for replacement workers. There are clubs that temporarily help support widows and children but many families are left destitute. Japanese family groups pay for the funerals for their dead themselves and the Chinese Benevolent Association and various clubs pay for the funerals of the Chinese miners. 

Two of the youngest victims are George Walker and Chiyozo Alo. Both are 17. We know that all the breadwinners in the Walker family are killed that fateful morning in February and that George’s mother moves away to stay with her married daughter in Nanaimo, but we know nothing of Chiyozo’s family or even if his family is notified of his fate. Maybe he came to Cumberland alone and there is no-one to write and relay the sad news back to Japan. The majority of the Chinese miners have wives and children in China depending on the money sent home. They also wait for word that never comes. 

64 men and boys die. The worst mining disaster in Cumberland’s history.

Sue Lum Woo, 38
Robert Steele, 26
Chiyozo Alo, 17
Jou Mah, 28
Tan Chi, 29
Joseph W Allison, 21
Hae Woo, 42
Yee Hoy, 55
Bug Wing Mah, 29
Gang Choy Wong, 36
Quai Lam, 35
Ti Yong Mah, 52
Chai Won Wong, 32
Bing Yuen Chin, 36
Kee Chow Dee, 38
Nin Sing Wong, 32
Duncan Munro, 46
Cong Pan Wong, 50
Wing Chung Mah, 36
Luigi Simondi, 33
George Walker, 17
Pietro Bardessono, 28
William Walker, 18
Charlie Bono, 27
Quong Mah, 48
William Sneddon, 32
Suey Bing Chow, 39
Daniel McInnes, 52
Fook Chong Woo, 42
Chong Lung, 45
Thomas Lord, 35
Gim Mah, 36
Hoy Mah, 30
Tokusaburo Kakutani, 28
John Whyte, 36
Vincenzo Crosetti, 36
Goroku Morikawa, 25
Eiguma Minra, 29
James Halliday, 41
Antonio Maffedo, 46
Robert Fleck, 40
Gang Kee Wong, 34
Ichiziro Kinoshita, 22
Kamesaku Ikegami, 35
Sang Woo, 28
Tsung Tsan, 42
Foy Dang, 24
Gan Hong, 44
Kwong Jong Yee, 36
Chong Lim, 40
David Davis, 44
Eijiro Oketani, 32
Lee Ah, 51
Mon Jug Mah, 42
Hip Boo Wong, 42
William Bennie Walker, 44
Scitaro Kurushima, 27
Sanfei Oku, 25
Yee Hong Wong, 35
Andrew Smith, 55
Dan Ah, 21
Moo Yee, 32
Arb Jang, 27
George David Turnbull, 26

Rest in peace.

*all article excerpts in italics from February 18, 1901 edition of The Province.