Tuesday,March 1, 2011  
   Volume 81 - Issue 9 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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Quote of the Week
“We are not asking for anything more than other employees at Teck mines already enjoy.”
- Chris Nand  
- Local 9346   
Steelworkers Union President   

 

Looking Back - John Kinnear

Twelve years ago book editor Wayne Norton held a formal launch in Fernie, BC for a special compendium of historic stories about the Crowsnest Pass and the Elk Valley entitled: “The Forgotten Side of the Border.”   Wayne stated, to a gathered group of the contributing writers which included yours truly, the following words: “In May of 1902 over two hundred miners died in the Coal Creek mine disaster.” I raised my hand to correct him that day as I knew as a mining historian the correct number was 128 but before I could speak he added that he was referring to Coal Creek, Tennessee not Coal Creek, BC.
My jaw dropped and for the first time in my narrow little world of research into Canadian coal mining history I contemplated a harsh reality. That reality was that our neighbours to the south had suffered an even worse disaster than we had here. The fact that there was yet another Coal Creek catastrophe in the US and that it had happened on the same weekend in the same year as Fernie’s Coal Creek left me dumfounded.
The Coal Creek, Tennessee story has all the elements we have come to know with a disaster of this type. What stands out is the scale of the loss there. Most of the Coal Creek miners worked in the Fraterville Mine about a half hour north of Knoxville.  After May 19, 1902 there were only three men left alive in that town. Hundreds of women were widowed and almost a thousand children were left without fathers. One mother lost all five of her sons and two of her daughters lost their husbands. I know how devastated my own mother was when she lost her first-born son. I cannot imagine the depth of pain that comes with losing five sons.
The description of the cause and aftermath is literally a page out of British Columbia’s Coal Creek story (Canada’s third worst ever mining disaster). Accumulated gases because of inadequate ventilation were ignited by open lights and caused an even more powerful dust explosion. In some areas miners were literally torn apart by the explosion. In others they were found untouched by the blast, lost to suffocation by that silent killer afterdamp (CO & CO2). Hundreds gathered outside awaiting word of the rescue.
Unlike Fernie’s Coal  Creek there were some miners who survived underground for several hours by barricading a main heading to try and keep the afterdamp away. The 26 men found later in that area had written notes to their loved ones before they were overcome. One of those sad notes is posted on a website and is a father’s message to his wife and children. The heartbreaking message in two pages came from miner Jacob Vowell and reads in part: “We are all Praying for air to support us but it is getting so bad without any air. Horace, Elbert said for  you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now half past one. Powell Harmon, watch is in Andy Woods hands. Ellen I want you to live right and come to heaven.
Raise the children the best you can. Oh, how I wish to be with you. Goodbye all of you. Goodbye. Burry me and Elbert (his 14 year old son) in the same grave by Little Eddie.

 
Goodbye Ellen, Goodbye Lillie, Goodbye Jimmie, Goodbye Minnie, Goodbye Horace. We are together”.
Another miner named Powell Harmon wrote: “My boys, Henry and Condy, never work in the mines.” On the website is a picture of school children cleaning the headstones of Powell and Condy Harmon.  Condy it seems did not heed his father’s warning and died nine years later in another Coal Creek disaster at the adjoining Cross Mountain Mine. That disaster took yet another 84 lives.
The Cross Mountain Mine disaster was one of the first to receive help by the newly formed US Federal Bureau of Mines. Their rescue members carried gas masks, oxygen tanks and caged canaries. That’s right, canaries. Birds is seems are extremely sensitive to atmospheric changes and it was not uncommon to use them in this fashion. One can only wonder how many thousands of canaries died in the service of the coal miner.
Work n Play
John Kinnear photo
As with any underground disaster crews there set about restoring ventilation, recovering bodies and looking for survivors. This time there were five men found alive, barricaded into an area with a chalk note written on one side of the barricade advising rescuers not to shut them in. They also found in another area of the mine a chalk message scrawled on some planks that read: “Dear Mother and Brothers, I guess I have come to die, be good all of you.”
Some of you may remember that in July 2002, 18 men were trapped at the Quecreek Coal Mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania and that some of those men also wrote notes to loved ones. It is hard to imagine oneself being caught in the situation of ones inevitable death and having to write your last words to family and friends. 
The Cross Mountain Mine was the first successful rescue operation by the Bureau of Mines and led to much improved and safer working conditions for future generations of miners. In the year 2000 the US produced 1.1 billion tons of coal and lost 34 miners in the process. China produced the same amount of coal and had access to the same 21st century technology yet killed over 7,000 miners that year.
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   Volume 81 - Issue 9 Website:www.passherald.ca   email: passherald@shaw.ca   $1.00   
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