Book excerpt: Nanaimo mayor a witness to disaster

The Vancouver Coal Company dock was usually a busy place with ships loading coal. This was the case on July 29, 1886, when the Queen of the Pacific took on a shipment. As the coal slid down the chute, it pushed forward a draught of air heavy with coal dust, which ignited in an immense sheet of flame. The forward section of the boat exploded. Twelve men were severely burned. They were taken to the Nanaimo Hospital where doctors fought to save their lives. Eight died from extensive burns and shock. The subsequent inquest concluded that coal dust was explosive and was the cause of the explosion.

At this time in British Columbia, the mining industry seemed unaware of the explosive potential of coal dust. Archibald Dick’s annual mining reports warned about the danger of noxious gas in the mines; he reported eight explosions of gas in 1886. Dick always checked on the ventilation in a particular mine, but made no references to coal dust or its explosive nature, for that subject had only recently been raised in the coal-mining industry in Europe and the United States.

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However, Bate knew about this issue, having kept up with the industry literature. Since his earliest days in Nanaimo, friends sent him mining journals from England and the United States, and he also read the periodical magazines available at the Literary Institute. In one, he read about an explosion in France that occurred in 1875, and he conveyed a summary of this incident to Norris at the Nanaimo Free Press, which appeared in an editorial about coal-dust explosions in the Campagnac Colliery in France.

A year later, another coal-dust explosion, the worst mining disaster in B.C. history, devastated the Island. On the afternoon of Tuesday, May 3, 1887, about 154 men, both white and Chinese, were working on the No. 1 Esplanade mine, deep beneath the city and about a mile out under the harbour. A fireman on each shift examined all the workings and everything seemed to be in good order, and all apparently safe.

About 5:55 p.m., just as people were sitting down for dinner, a tremor shook the entire city. Everyone realized immediately an explosion had occurred in the mine. A second blast, caused by coal dust igniting on other slopes, quickly followed, shooting through the underground shafts for almost a kilometre. The pressure blew burning debris hundreds of feet into the air. The mine’s steam whistle sounded the alert and sent fear into the heart of every mining family.

Nanaimo was in shock, as wives with children, brothers, fathers, friends and off-duty miners went to the mine site, anxious to hear if loved ones were safe. Crews from ships in the harbour and shopkeepers who closed their doors rushed to the scene to help combat flames pouring from the mine face, rising high into the sky.

Men bore buckets of water to keep the fire back until the fire engine from the city arrived. Ship crews helped work the fire engine. The fire had spread throughout the mine. After a day, the flames near the main shaft were finally extinguished sufficiently so that rescuers could proceed a short distance into the mine.

Many of the town’s early pioneers and prominent citizens died in the explosion. Only seven men who were in the mine when the explosion occurred escaped with their lives. The foreman and mayor of the city, Richard Gibson, was at work that day on the afternoon shift. Somehow he managed to make his way through an airshaft to the stables where the mules were kept, where he and six companions were found by one of the first rescue parties. William McGregor, Archibald Dick and Sam Robins all worked tirelessly, and were joined by miners and managers from Dunsmuir’s Wellington mine, including John Bryden, who knew most of the men. Edward G. Prior, who was a member of the legislature, also helped in the rescue attempt.

There is no record of where Bate was during this nightmare in the mine. He would have heard the alarm, and he knew most of the miners trapped inside, many of them friends, so it is unlikely he sat idly by while others risked their lives to reach the trapped men. There would have been a need to co-ordinate with the community for places to bring the injured men and the bodies that eventually emerged. Schools were closed for two weeks, and the Crace Street School became a temporary morgue.

The headlines in the Nanaimo Free Press on May 7, 1887, told of the drama unfolding in the community: “Our Great Disaster! Total Loss of Life in the Mine Will Reach 148! 96 White and 52 Chinamen: 46 Widows and 126 Orphaned Children.” Flags were lowered to half-mast. A special train with medical supplies and mining experts arrived from Victoria to assist.

A relief committee was established to raise funds for the families left behind. Mayor Gibson chaired the committee that included Sam Robins as treasurer, Dr. Emil Arnold Praeger as secretary, Mark Bate and Robert Dunsmuir. Donations came from across Canada and the United States. Victoria’s city council sent $1,000, as did John Rosenfeld in San Francisco. The money helped sustain widows and children.

Many of the victims were buried at a mass funeral in the new cemetery, though local churches held funerals as well, one at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on May 15, followed by another at the Methodist church on May 22. The bodies were carried to the cemetery by horse drawn wagons. As the drivers approached the cemetery, a man on horseback met them; each driver gave the rider a list of names, which he carried back to the mourners waiting by their final resting place.

The coroner’s inquest, conducted by Dr. William W. Walkem, lasted two weeks. Its deliberations filled pages of the Nanaimo Free Press. The jury blamed the explosion on the firing of an unprepared and badly planted charge that ignited accumulated gas fuelled by coal dust. No criminal negligence was attributed to anyone. The inquest recommended “all firemen, or shot-firers, pass a qualifying examination.” Amendments were subsequently made to the Coal Mines Regulation Act.

McGregor eventually got the No. 1 Esplanade mine back into working order. However, not all miners returned to their jobs. Some left for good, and others took time to return, due to the trauma and shock. The town tried to get back to normal, if there could be anything normal about losing so many men in a town with only 4,000 residents.

Early the next year, Bate let it be known he would again seek the mayoral office. The newspaper report judged this municipal election as “very exciting” and a hard-fought one, as Gibson was reluctant to give up the position. He and Bate had fought a previous election in 1886 in which Bate edged out Gibson by 33 votes. In this election, initially Gibson took the lead and gained a majority of 24 votes; then Bate took the lead. “During the counting the candidates tied no less than five times, the highest majority was attained by Bate, and at the close Bate held a majority of 16.” The final vote count was Bate 167, Gibson 151.

Bate thanked the electors for their confidence in him and said he would do all in his power to advance the best interests of the city. “I have lived here for many, many years in this city and all my interest is here. It is only natural that I feel a keen interest in all that appertains to the welfare of Nanaimo.”

On Jan. 18, 1888, Justice of the Peace Joseph P. Planta administered the oath of office as he had so many times before. Bate gave a short speech saying he hoped the business of the council “would be conducted harmoniously and that all questions could be brought to a ready and proper result.” He trusted “that expenditures would be kept within proper bounds, and be distributed equitably and economically,” and he hoped “there would be no reflections on past actions, and that each councillor would drop all personal feelings and act in all matters for the benefit of the public and the city.”

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