August 15th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 33
Looking Back - John Kinnear
To Be In Coal
Looking Back
Tim Spirit photo
William and Katie Agnes McInnis on their 50th wedding anniversary. They were married 61 years before Papa passed in 1969.
I am a third generation coal miner and proud of it. Both my grandfathers, my father, my brothers and one of my sisters worked in coal mines, either underground or surface. It was in my blood “to be in coal”. Despite my chosen career of architecture I soon discovered it wasn’t where I belonged.

The realization came in the late 1960’s after college when I recognized that; as the song goes: “And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same”. It just wasn’t for me. When a house catches fire in Calgary, three houses burn down. I wanted no part of that cramped cloned madness.

So it was a natural fit that as part of my 40 year coal mining career that I wound up, for many years, as a volunteer board member at the Bellevue Underground Mine. It was and still is important to me to be a part of maintaining and promoting this significant interpretive acknowledgement of our mining past.

Bellevue is near and dear to my heart. My Cape Breton grandparents lived in their Bellevue home very near the mine for over fifty years. For twenty six years my maternal grandfather, “old Pop McInnis”, walked down the hill to that mine and then deep into its massive maze of tunnels to mine the best dam steam coal CPR ever saw. Papa, as we all called him, wore the harsh scars of mining on his face. Blue streaks, like varicose veins, criss-crossed his countenance.

He said it was from touching off squibs back in his earlier Cape Breton mining days. Squibs are home-made fuses of black powder. If you don’t get out of the way in time when you set them off you can catch a piece or two of coal in the face. And if you don’t scrub that coal right out at the end of the day it leaves a blue tattoo. I have a couple of those coal tattoos hiding under the moustache I sport. A coal chute apron dam near knocked all me teeth out and pounded some Vicary Mine carbon deep into my upper lip forever.
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Recently I had a remarkable encounter with a young man also very directly connected to the mine. His name is Tim Spirit and he showed up in late June for a special tour which I was delighted to be a part of. Tim is the great grandson of Fredrick Dunn Alderson, the Hosmer draegerman who was killed in the Bellevue Mine in 1910 trying to rescue miners trapped inside after a horrific explosion. Alderson’s name can be found on the bronze plaque posted outside the mine along with thirty others that were overcome that terrible day.

Tim and his wife Lucy came all the way from Brussels, Belgium to reconnect with his great grandfathers place of passing. He came to see what it all looked like and brought with him an archive of historic material about his great grandfather that left me gob smacked.

An interesting expression is gob! “Gob” is a British term meaning mouth. Shut your gob. Its third definition, as a noun, means a sailor. Alderson’s father was a sailor, a second mate in the merchant service. He was drowned at sea which landed Fred and his three brothers in the Sunderland Sailor’s Orphanage.

Gob can mean a lump of something. Gobs of money. Or in the case of coal mining, the gob is the collapsed roof in a place where so much coal has been pulled out that the rock roof just buckles to release the pressure. The Balmer North explosion is said to have originated in the abandoned gob area where gas had built up and was touched off by a falling rock. But I digress.

Amongst the material that Tim Spirit shared with me and the mine staff was several scanned images including Alderson’s birth certificate. The February 1911 certified copy Tim brought shows that he was born in South Bishopwearmouth in North East England on the twenty eighth of October 1874. He had just turned 36 in 1910 when carbon monoxide snuffed out his life. Sadly, he left behind his wife Ellen and three children back in England. The copy was probably requested back then (1911) by Ellen for clerical purposes.
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Also among the precious scanned items were two hand-written letters from Hosmer, BC by Reverend’s Crowther and Eby to his wife Ellen after the accident. The first was penned just three days after he died and probably was the only way to inform Ellen of her loss. It is written on the letterhead of the Royal Hotel in Hosmer and dated Dec 13th. It opens with: “Dear Mrs. Alderson – I have just buried today your dear husband Fredrick Dunn Alderson. Quiet, kind and gentle, I know full well that you have lost in him a good husband.” It goes on to say: “He gave his life to rescue others and did bring two out of the mine who are now living. In this he was like our dear Lord Jesus Christ who gave his life for us.”

I have this mental image of Ellen standing in her kitchen, reading this letter, and being overwhelmed with grief. So it was in those days that many women endured this same heart breaking message of their man lost in the mine.

The second eight page letter is equally profound and to reassure Ellen Reverend Eby says that:”… by His grace that you shall some day meet your dear husband again in the homeland. He quotes Revelation 21:4 which he writes as: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there by any more pain.”

Amongst the assortment of time worn family images, marriage, birth and death certificates is a detailed list entitled “The Alderson Relief Fund.” It contains dozens of donations from all across Western Canada towards support for his widow and children. It is a heart-warming list that speaks to the camaraderie and support that existed amongst mining companies, unions and all those who understood the harsh realities of losing the breadwinner of the family.
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Especially for one so respected and one who gave his life for his fellow man.

The inventory includes monies from such groups as the Western Fuel Company in Nanaimo ($500), the Nelson News Public Subscription ($241.50), Michel, B.C. business men and citizens ($102), Bankhead Mine (Banff) employees ($250) and so on. From Fernie to Canmore to Calgary to Lille to the Nicola Valley and even Taber, came support for Alderson. Support for the family of a man who had persevered though so many twists and turns in his life, trying to improve his station for himself and his family. The final total came to an astonishing $4,795.91 which equates to just over $100,000 in today's funds"

Another chapter in the story of my family’s connection to the Bellevue Underground Mine is unfolding this summer as mine interpreter Christian Wadstien helps guide tours large and small in and out of that thousand foot fascinating probe into the over 240 kilometers of mine tunnels. Christian is the great grandson of old Pop McInnis and loves his job. It reconnects him to his past and allows him to share, along with the other amazing interpreters there, an engaging 45 minute tour of what it was like and how it was done deep inside a coal mine.

Author’s Note: I have studied the Alderson story since 1983 and was somewhat overwhelmed, as was Tim Spirit, as we shared stories on his life. It was more than fitting that his beautiful rose coloured marble monument is inscribed with the moving tribute of the 13th verse from the 15th chapter of the gospel according to St. John which reads:
"Greater love hath no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends."

For more on the story of Fredrick Dunn Alderson check out my archived story on-line that ran in the Pass Herald on July 27, 2010. And be sure you check out the on-line for this article as I will post a lot more pictures connected to the storyline.
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August 15th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 33
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