During Nanaimo’s earliest days coal really was king. But the black richness that opened up the community and helped to power the Victorian era didn’t come without cost – in some cases that currency was the lives of the miners themselves. On May 3, 1887 a massive explosion, believed caused by improperly placed charges, tore through the Number One Coal Mine (Esplanade) taking with it approximately 150 miners – making it the city’s (and the province’s) largest and costliest industrial accident in terms of lives lost.
The Number One Coal Mine, located at the foot of present day Milton Street (where a marker describing the tragedy currently exists) was a vast labyrinth of tunnels spreading out in a jagged network that even extended beneath the growing community’s harbor. In fact it is said that miners working in those more remote branches of the claim could actually hear vessels as they sailed over their heads.
Operated by the Vancouver Coal Company (VCC) the project was originally started in 1884 and was one of the largest operations of its type in the town at the time. No one will ever know with real certainty what happened to trigger the blast, but when the underground darkness of the mine’s galleries lit up in that fiery detonation dozens of men perished instantly, while many others lingered trapped and dying in the choking fumes of that unimaginable Hell for an extended period.
When rescuers finally reached those trapped souls they found that in some cases farewell messages had been scrawled on their shovels, a tragic testament to the loneliness and desperation they must have felt as their lives slowly ebbed away. Only seven of the dozens of men working that day managed to make it to the surface alive – leaving the community with more than 150 fatherless children and nearly 50 widows facing an uncertain future alone.
The rescue effort, while heroic, was slowed as a fire that blazed beneath the ground for more than a day prevented crews from reaching the more remote corners of the operation. Had the blaze not erupted it was believed that many more workers would have survived.
Industry in 19th Century Nanaimo was much less safety-conscious that it is today, so a full tally of the destruction or even an accurate layout of the mine itself is very much open to debate. What is known is that documents of the day put the death toll at 148 workers, but subsequent research has pegged the carnage at 150 or even more, including approximately 53 workers of Chinese origin. During the Provincial Government inquest that took place after the tragedy the Minister of Mines of the day, in his annual report, listed the names of the perished, and the insensitive notation: “Chinamen, names unknown”, followed by an employee tag number – a continuing sore spot for many of the current descendants of those lost workers.
Seven of the lost miners never made it to the surface and have remained entombed to this day, a somber reminder of the dangers and the uncertainties that went into opening up the community.
Despite the cost in terms of lives and money, the VCC went on to reopen at least part of the mine, keeping it in operation until 1938 when it was shuttered and sealed for the last time. During more than 50 years of operation Nanaimo’s Number One Mine is said to have produced more than 18 million tons of coal, the black fuel that was ultimately shipped to customers around the world.
A tragedy on a scale unprecedented in the community, the great Nanaimo mine disaster is a poignant reminder of the dangers present during the city’s earliest days, and an important part of the region’s history – a lesson that needs to be remembered and shared.