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  • Writer's pictureNicola Kapron

Scratching in the Dark: The No 1 Esplanade Mine Disaster

I've always been interested in local history, so when I realized I was living at the site of one of Canada's largest mining disasters, I knew I had to write about it.

The first time I went to the Nanaimo Museum, I nearly missed the exhibit on coal mining. Near a large, attention-grabbing display on the Snuneymuxw people, on whose unceded territory the mines were built, were two plaques, a thick white curtain, and a sign – located far above my head – which read: SAFETY FIRST. BE CAREFUL.

My initial assumption was that the curtain marked an employees-only area. I made to avoid it. Then I began to hear a scratching sound. At first, I thought the noise was a gift from my over-active imagination, or worse, a rat. But as I drew closer to the source of the sound, I realized it was being caused by some kind of tool scraping against rock. Finally, I looked up, and there it was: the Coal Mine.

The Coal Mine is a permanent, three-dimensional exhibit built with assistance from professional film artists. It contains a mine cart track, an 'open shaft', antique gas masks, and a huge number of informational plaques. Unlike the real mines it was based on, the exhibit is not a dangerous place, but it certainly felt like one. Shivers ran down my spine with each step I took into the cool darkness, each scratch of the phantom pickaxe. It felt like a place that could swallow people whole. Just over a hundred years ago, a very similar mine did exactly that.

The No. 1 Esplanade coal mine stretched out deep under the Nanaimo Harbour, its tunnels reaching all the way to Protection Island. According to Tourism Nanaimo, miners at work would be able to hear ships passing above them. This was still the days of oil wick lamps, before carbide gas lamps were introduced. Imagine being on a diagonal slope so deep in the ground that you can hear the ocean, spending each day chipping away at the walls of rock separating you from the water with only flickering oil lamps for light. Now imagine that those walls give way.

Just past 6 pm on May 3rd, 1887, two explosions rocked the town of Nanaimo. Nanaimo News Bulletin reports that the first blast occurred when a poorly placed demolition charge in No. 1 Esplanade Mine ignited a pocket of gas released by a previous charge, setting fire to the coal dust in the air. The second blast was caused by the ignition of coal dust throughout the rest of the mine. Those on the surface saw rock and burning timber blown out of the mine shafts. 156 men were working underground at the time of the explosions. Only the seven men who had been in the mine's engine room escaped. Of the dead, a handful died in the fire and the blasts. The rest were trapped in the dark for hours as carbon monoxide filled their lungs. The air quality was so poor that one of the would-be rescuers succumbed and perished while searching for bodies.

Some of the trapped miners wrote messages on the floor with their shovels – messages like '13 hours after explosion, in deepest misery'. The man who wrote this was named John Stevens. I know nothing about him but his name and his last words. I still feel like I know him far too intimately for comfort. It's easy to imagine him crouched in the dark, breathing poison while he scratches out his message in white chalk. The fire kept burning underground for two weeks. I wonder if John Stevens could hear it crackling the way he could hear ships sailing overhead.

I spent more time in the Coal Mine than I did with any other exhibit. The image of all those men dying in the dark stuck with me through the rest of the visit. A month later, I still hadn't stopped thinking about it. Now that I know about the Esplanade mine disaster, it seems like I see traces of it everywhere. Monuments dedicated to the miners. Plaques espousing the importance of coal in our town's history. Newspaper articles reporting on the anniversary of the explosion. Times Colonist calls the Esplanade mine explosion the worst mining disaster in B.C. History. NanaimoNewsNow goes one further and describes it as the second worst mining disaster in all of Canadian history, second only to Alberta's Hillcrest mine disaster in 1914. But these are just words. They don't carry the same weight as those moments in the museum, staring down into a pitch-black replica mine shaft, listening to the scratch of metal on rock.

When interviewed by NanaimoNewsNOW, Vancouver Island coal historian T.W. Paterson had this to say about the disaster: “I liken it to a small nuclear device on a city. There would have been not one living soul in Nanaimo at the time who didn't lose a family member, in-law, workmate or a friend.”

An entire workforce, decimated. An entire town, grieving. Paterson also said the law allowed for 14-year-old boys to work in the mines if their fathers couldn't. How kind of those mine-owners, to let children do the work that regularly killed grown men – that had already taken their families away from them. I wonder how many of those who died in the Esplanade explosion were children. Is it written down somewhere? You'd think it must be, but fifty-three of the men who died in the Esplanade mine disaster were identified only by numbers. They were Chinese, explains CoalWatch Comox Valley Society's website. Their employers considered their names too difficult to pronounce.

Once the fire was extinguished, search parties began recovering the bodies. Retrieval efforts continued until July, when all but seven of the victims were accounted for. The bodies were buried, the widows compensated, the children presumably put to work. It took until 1889 for No. 1 Esplanade Mine to return to full production. The slope that so many men had died in was flooded and never used again.

No. 1 Esplanade Mine finally closed in 1937 as the most productive of any Nanaimo coal mine, having yielded over 18 tons of coal. But some things it refuses to give up, even now. There are still bodies down there in the network of flooded tunnels, somewhere under the Nanaimo Harbour. I've walked down the harbourfront countless times before, breathing nothing brine, thinking only of street artists and ice cream. Those days are gone now. Now, when I look at the sea from downtown Nanaimo, I remember the sound of pickaxes scratching away at stone, and I wonder how many lives are still scarred by the disaster at No. 1 Esplanade Mine.

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