|Coal Creek Mine Disaster—May 22, 1902|
by Wayne Norton and Tom Langford
On 22 May 1902, an explosion in Number 2 mine at Coal Creek took the lives of at least 128 miners. The mines at Coal Creek had been in operation for less than four years—long enough, however, to attract men from elsewhere in British Columbia, the prairie provinces, eastern Canada, the British Isles, the United States, and continental Europe. The list of the dead clearly shows that the victims came from diverse backgrounds. It does not so clearly indicate how many were new immigrants, how many were related to each other, and how many were boys of twelve or thirteen years of age. The funerals lasted for several days. There was a shortage of wood for coffins. Most of the dead were interred in rows seventeen and eighteen at Fernie's St. Margaret's Cemetery, where few of their names are visible today.
For many years, miners and their families in Coal Creek and Fernie marked the date of 22 May with ceremonies.1 A major commemorative service was held in Fernie in 1952 to mark the half-centenary. Taking the lead in organizing the service was the Fernie chapter of the Slovak League of Canada since, according to the editor of the Canadian Slovak who was the featured speaker at the service, "a great percentage" of the dead "was of Slovak origin." As this fiftieth anniversary meeting occurred during the Korean War, it is not surprising that two of the speakers used the occasion to speak on Cold War themes. After Fernie mayor Tom Uphill welcomed visiting officials from the Slovak League, the Reverend Father J. Cheevers, pastor of Holy Family Church, "pointed out to those present that it was their duty to see to it that new immigrants were kept away from Communistic influences. He urged his listeners to encourage the newcomers to learn the English language as quickly as possible and to attend church regularly."
These were much more than idle thoughts since Mayor Uphill's leftist sympathies were well known, and more than a few of those in the Crowsnest's Slovakian community had shared such sympathies in the recent past. Later in the meeting, the editor of the Canadian Slovak presented the victims of the disaster not as working-class martyrs, but rather as martyrs for the cause of Canada's development as a free nation of immigrants. He said: "Upon the graves of these victims we humbly thank our new fatherland for having accepted us and for giving us what we have lost—liberty and freedom." Following the service, the crowd of approximately one hundred travelled to St. Margaret's Cemetery where they placed wreaths on the graves of miners who had died fifty years previous.
Another fifty years and the centenary of the disaster have now passed. A century is a long time. Successive coal companies have created no memorial. City, provincial and federal governments have chosen not to act. Appropriately, the tenth anniversary of the Westray disaster was recently marked with ceremonies and a moment of silence in the House of Commons. Yet, the boys and men who died at Coal Creek have no memorial. How much more time is required? The names of the victims presented here in these pages will be seen by few. A mention in a book is not a substitute for a more permanent commemoration.
It will be to the very great credit of those who finally see the need to correct this situation. Like the miners of 1902, they, too, will deserve to be remembered.
It may well be impossible to arrive at a list of names that is entirely accurate. The various lists compiled after the disaster differ on the number killed (perhaps as many as 134), and on the spelling of names of the known dead. The Fernie Free Press (FFP) was campaigning at the beginning of the century to encourage the displacement of non-British miners with "a better class of wage earner." (FFP, 19 Oct 2020) The attitude that "a Slav with an unspellable name" deserved little consideration was widespread. (FFP, 28 Sept 2020) As a result, the accuracy of names as spelled in contemporary newspapers and reports of the Ministry of Mines is questionable. Though an attempt has been made here to use proper spellings, the editors are the first to admit that this list too is questionable. Thanks to Ella Verkerk and Mike Pennock for essential advice and assistance in compiling the list of those killed on 22 May 1902.
The article titled "In Memoriam: Coal Creek, 22 May 1902" is
reprinted from A World Apart (Kamloops, BC: Plateau
Press, 2002). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year
of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank the authors Wayne Norton
and Tom Langford and the publisher for permission to
reprint this material.