No. 1 Mine Remembered

By Stonebanks, Roger | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

No. 1 Mine Remembered


Stonebanks, Roger, Labour/Le Travail


OLD NO. 1 MINE, near downtown Nanaimo, is back on the map. Once the city's biggest employer with as many as 1,000 miners and 150 horses and mules, it was also the biggest producing pit on Vancouver Island. No. 1 closed for good in 1938. It had not run out of coal in the miles of tunnels and workings underneath Nanaimo harbour, but it had run out of markets, as oil relentlessly replaced it as a source for power and heating. The big Extension mines seven miles southwest of Nanaimo, once owned by the Dunsmuirs, and the smaller coal mines around Nanaimo suffered a similar fate; they closed down in the 1930s and 1940s. Everyone got on with life and work. The forest industry grew. So too did wholesale goods distribution to Island points and the retail trade, exploding in the 1950s with a string of shopping centres from one side of the city to another. The local economy, like the economy of North America in general, was undergoing a significant transformation. And the city that coal built in the 19th century, starting with Dunsmuirs original Wellington mine, forgot its working-class past.

The miners at No. 1 raised eighteen million tons of coal from 1883 to 1938. Millions of tons of rock rubble went to fill in part of downtown Nanaimo by the harbour. Miners opened up No. 1 in the employment of the British-owned Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, reorganized a few years later into New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company and known for its enlightened manager, Samuel Robins. Robins recognized the Miners and Mine Labourers Protective Association, in contrast to his successors, who kept the mine non-union. Sold in 1903 to Western Fuel Company of San Francisco, it was bought in 1927 by Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Limited.

No. 1 Mine was the scene of the worst mining disaster in British Columbia, then or since, on 3 May 1887 when 148 men were killed in a double explosion, the first caused by an unprepared and badly placed charge of explosive, the second by exploding accumulated gas and coal dust that was plentiful throughout the mine, followed by fire and after-damp (carbon monoxide). Only seven miners on the evening shift emerged alive: The explosions blew the top off the mine, sending flames and debris hundreds of feet into the air. It took days to bring the fire under control. In the wake of the disaster, the BC government, long in the back pocket of the province's industrialists, added new protections in the Coal Mines Regulation Act for controlling coal dust in the mines. Rather than the mine owners, Chinese miners, who were paid a third to a half the wages of white miners, were unfairly held responsible for the disaster by white workers; because of their foreign ways, whites argued, Chinese workers were unsafe to work with. But the fatal explosive charge was set by a white miner, the Chinese worked in a different part of the mine, and no fault was found against Chinese workers by the coroner's jury. In the end, the company responded to the anti-Asian demands of the white miners--a popular cry among all levels of society--by excluding Chinese from underground work. …

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