March 25th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. ###
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Tragedy at south Blairmore Mine
Looking Back
courtesy of Drain Brothers
As a mining historian I can attest to the fact that old coal mines of the Crowsnest Pass kept very little, if any, of their records and memorabilia. Also, unlike today, where strict reclamation standards apply, back then coal companies merely walked away from their operations. In the case of West Canadian Collieries (WCC), who operated Blairmore, Bellevue, Adanac and Lille Mines, this apparently was not the case, record wise. The Glenbow has 68 meters of records, over 2,000 mine plans and 218 photographs that were turned over to them by Scurry Rainbow Oil and Gas and Consolidated Coal who took over their holdings and passed the records on to the museum in 1976.

But as we all know many extant mine buildings were left to the elements and vandalism. Most structures were eventually knocked down and the evidence of where they all stood is very scant. Recently I came across a linen drawing that shows some of the surface detail of a not-so-well known mine that was called Blairmore South Mine. Blairmore South ran from 1906 until 1913 when WCC chose to move their operations to the north side of the valley and call it Greenhills.
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The drawing shows the outline of a boiler house, a power house, tipple, lamp house, mine car tracks running along the toe of the hill and over a trestle that crosses Lyon Creek, a forge, an office and a wash house with a 22 foot high roof. All this infrastructure was at the south end of 130th street, in and around the cul-de-sac that the Herald’s owner/publisher Lisa Sygutek lives. All of it is gone. Pass author Rick Gillis commented to me that; “As kids we played in the area often. There was an old concrete, roofless mine building there that disappeared when the pipeline went through.”

So a little background on the Blairmore South and how it came to be. At the center of WCC’s evolvement is a man by the name of Mr. Fleutot, a French investor and visionary. Fleutot acquired the Grassy Mountain and French Camp (Lille) properties in 1901 and then formed WCC in 1903 after acquiring the Byron and Bellevue properties. They also picked up the Fishburn and Proctor property in Blairmore, site of the South Mine. Work started at that mine around 1904 but it was a couple of years before serious production occurred. In all South Mine produced over 400,000 tons of coal until its closure in 1913. It also produced four fatalities. Jno (John) Jenkins in 1906, C. Phillipps in 1910, Martin Rsetz in 1911 and Steve Roveluck in 1912.
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While I suspect a lot of the South Mine infrastructure may have been repurposed there was obviously some of it left behind. And that brings me to the following suggestion and it is this. I believe there were two more fatalities as a result of the South Coal Mine operation but they did not occur until July 30, 1966, 53 years after the mine had closed. The story behind this tragic loss of life was very thoroughly covered by the media, especially the Lethbridge Herald. The Herald’s Pass Bureau reporter back then was the one and only Vern Decoux and he and Herald staff writer Jim Merriam not only documented the initial story but went back a month later to revisit it.

As I said most of South Mine was probably repurposed but there surely were smaller and/or immoveable structures left behind. I would suggest then that perhaps a small powder magazine would have been one of those abandoned buildings. It was common practice for coal mines to store their black powder, used for blasting underground, in one building and the detonator caps used to set off the powder in another, well away from each other. It was probably mandated by regulation as it still is today. The cap storage could have been a small shed that you would imagine was somewhat secured.

So what happened on that fateful day is a mother’s worst nightmare. It was a warm summer Saturday and the Rinke and Knight brothers had returned to a favourite hangout near f Blairmore South’s abandoned mine entry. There they were busy rebuilding a small roofless log cabin, or what we used to call a fort, that had been there for years. A special retreat where we as kids to go to hang out. I built a few of those in my day, growing up.
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There were five boys there that day. Three of them were brothers from the Knight family; Myles aged 13, Peter aged 10 and little Louis aged 7. The other two were from the Rinke family; Warren aged 11 and Larry aged 9. Initially the paper reports spoke of a rusted tin box containing old detonator caps that had been found by the boys and that they were trying to open. Detonator caps create miniature explosions and are used to detonate black powder or dynamite. Underground they were used in conjunction with powder to break up the coal. Detonators back then were usually about the size of half of an ink pen with two wires coming out of them. They were usually stored in tin boxes.

Around 11 am that day the oldest boy Myles Knight was attempting to get into one of three round tin boxes they had found lying near the fort. Two of the boxes the boys described as follows; “they looked like they had been lying around for a long time”. The two that they managed to get open they claimed contained what; “looked like 22 shells with the ends gone out of them.” They then turned their attention to the third one that they claimed, in a later interview, was similar but not rusty.

The box had the words “Detonator Caps” on it which apparently meant nothing to the boys. It was hard to open and the lid would not come off like the others did. The oldest boy Myles took the hatchet they were using on the fort and proceeded to drive a nail into the box. Old detonators are even more unstable that new ones and the box exploded with catastrophic results. On seeing the terrible consequences of this unfold and injured himself, young Louis Knight ran down the hill screaming for help.

When help eventually arrived Myles was dead and Warren died a short time later after being taken to the Crowsnest Pass Municipal Hospital. Peter and Larry spent weeks in St. Michael’s Hospital in Lethbridge where they were treated for serious eye injuries. The Lethbridge Herald reported that; “a doctor described the boy’s wounds as similar to those that would be received in a grenade explosion.” I cannot for the life of me imagine what it must have been like for the surviving boys and their parents.

Besides his two injured brothers, Myles Knight had six sisters, one of which was a twin to little Louie. Warren Rinke had two other brothers besides Larry, and also had six sisters. Peter and Larry Rinke both spent a lot of time in hospital recovering from surgeries. Larry Rinke never did regain his eyesight.
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The August 1st Herald article on the accident stated that; “about 185 similar detonators were found in the area after the explosion.’ An RCMP investigation was conducted into this awful event but reached a dead end when it came to verifying where the caps came from. They were, however, able to determine that the caps were: “of a type used at least thirty years ago.”

For me the answer is clear. The caps were left behind by West Canadian Collieries when they moved across the valley. My research into the local newspapers back then reveals all kinds of incidents where explosives were mishandled. Case in point. This comes from the Bellevue Times- May 26, 1911. “Narrow Escape – What came near resulting in a very serious accident occurred at the west end of Blairmore on Saturday morning last. Several men were at work clearing land for the West Canadian Collieries when a fire which they had made for the purposes of burning up the rubbish, reached a stump of a tree under which were between thirty five and forty sticks of dynamite. The fire ignited that large compound of nitro-glycerine and siliceous earth. There was a big explosion, the report of which was heard all over town. Three men who were working nearby and who were totally ignorant of the fact that near their feet were dangerous explosives of sufficient quantity to hurl more than a score of men into regions unknown, were slightly injured; some of the houses nearby received a severe shaking, smashing eleven windows and effecting a few minor damages. It is a great wonder that more serious damage had not occurred. The dynamite was left there a week or so ago by some careless Italians.”

My heart broke for the Knight and Rinke families when I first learned of this story. Then I was dumfounded to find a clipping, in Mrs. Mundie’s scrapbooks, that told of fifteen year old Beverley Rinke being lost to carbon monoxide poisoning in a tragedy out north of Burmis less than two years after her brother Warren was lost at South Blairmore Mine.

I am angry now, as no doubt the Rinke and Knight families were back then. The negligence that led to this disaster went unpunished. Please be careful if you choose to wander around old mine sites.
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March 25th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. ###
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