When Coal was King But Far From Proud

The troubles started in Extension, a small mining community a few kilometres south of Nanaimo in August 1912. Two coal miners were fired when they complained to management that unacceptable levels of explosive gas existed at the coal face. One of the workers headed north seeking a job in the mines of Cumberland only to find he had been blacklisted – not just in Cumberland but throughout Vancouver Island.

When the Cumberland miners heard of his plight, they proclaimed September 16th, 1912, a study day and downed tools to discuss the challenge to already hazardous working conditions. The following day they found themselves locked out and were informed they would remain locked out until they signed contracts vowing to end job action, quit their union, return to work and never again engage in trade union activity. 

The agreements, contemptuously called “yellow dog” contracts, saw the Cumberland miners stay off the job – and every other miner at every other pit on the Island followed in support of what the history books would call Vancouver Island’s Great Coal Strike.

It was a time when coal mining was the primary industry on the Island with large and small operations digging for the vital fuel from Ladysmith to Fort Rupert (Port Hardy). For months, mine owners were content to leave their mines silent, but by August 1913 – with stockpiles depleted and demand from ships, railways, and steam-driven heavy industry growing – they needed to get back into production. But their miners, concerned for decades about safety on the job as well as poor pay, were in no mood to compromise.

Their memories of a seemingly endless stream of disasters, from single deaths to the 150 dead in the Nanaimo No.1 mine explosion and fire in 1887, kept them implacable in their demands for greater safety. The workers were not always right in their beliefs or justified in their demands, which included an irrational ban on Chinese workers. But, their cries for more excellent safety and better social conditions in the mining communities were hard to deny.

But, deny them the mine owners did and, with the tacit agreement if not outright support of government, they brought in small armies of strike-breaking miners from San Francisco and as far away as Italy. Striking miners living in mine-owned houses were ordered to vacate and were evicted by “special constables” if they refused. The strikebreakers were to be the new occupants and were encouraged to defend what they were offered and provided with sticks and clubs and told to fight back when threatened.

In Europe WW1 was raging with horrendous battle casualties. On Vancouver Island striking miners and imported strike-breakers engaged in mine-head or street corner clashes with miniscule fatalities but many broken heads and limbs.

On August 5th, a group of strikebreakers attacked and stabbed a striking miner. The assailants were subsequently arrested, but only after demands from a delegation of miners who complained of double standards in the enforcement of the law. On August 11th, a large rally virtually took over Nanaimo to protest the presence of strikebreakers, and the following day, 800 strikers and their families marched in a similar protest in South Wellington. That protest led to the expulsion of “the scabs” from the Wellington area and encouraged the protesters to march on to Ladysmith, where, as August 13th dawned, the protest turned violent.

When one protester began to sing “Hurray, hurray, we’ll drive the scabs away,” he was arrested and jailed in Ladysmith. A report published by the Simon Fraser University Labour Studies Program tells us the miner was freed by his wife, “a veritable Amazon in build, vigour and strength” who rallied a group of strikers and marched to the jail where “wielding an axe she freed her husband.”

Rioting continued through the night with homes and other mine company property destroyed. It culminated in a bundle of dynamite being thrown into the home of strikebreaker Alex McKinnon who was badly injured as he tried to protect his children from the blast. It took more than a year before two perpetrators were brought to trial, and it was revealed that they were neither strikers nor strikebreakers but two citizens “who were drunk and had allowed their participation to go too far.” They were sent to prison.

On August 20th, 2011, (when I wrote this original column) – there was a day of remembering Vancouver Island’s mining industry at the Morden Colliery Historic Park a few kilometres south of Nanaimo.

Morden had never earned a high degree of fame for production or notoriety on the mine-tragedy scale. And only the weather and time damaged head-frame at the pithead of Morden Colliery plus a few other structures remained as bleak ruined monuments of British Columbia’s coal mining industry, gaunt reminders of the men who had worked the coal seams – and all too often, in their hundreds – died in the dark.

In April 2019, the provincial government approved a grant of $1.4 million to restore and preserve the Morden Mine coal tipple, the only one surviving in Canada and one of only two remaining in North America.

It remains a work in progress but is open to visitors this summer. Google “Friends of Morden Mine” or go to Facebook or Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park for how to get there, and up to date visiting times. If you would like a fuller picture of what life was like when coal was King and coal barons brutal, find a copy of Three Dollar Dreams by Lynn Bowen – and understand why a restored coal tipple is a worthy monument.

3 comments

  1. Coal barons were brutal in pursuit of their capitalist interests and only deserve disdain. One might imagine miners getting a better deal under communism. However, in the Soviet Union, the “workers paradise,” conditions were worse in terms of fatal coalmine accidents.

    Today in communist China 5,000 miners die annually on average in coalmine disasters. Plus ça change…

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