Jan 31, 2024
For a few years I sat on the Bellevue Underground Mine board, working with a wonderful team to volunteers to promote and enhance the mine tour experience there.
For a few years I sat on the Bellevue Underground Mine board, working with a wonderful team to volunteers to promote and enhance the mine tour experience there. The Executive Director back then was the indefatigable Diane Peterson, captain of that ship and the one who kept it sailing in tip top shape. Often Diane would reference her acquired knowledge and understanding of a coal mine and its interpretation to a man that she spoke so highly of that he appeared almost mythical to us. And when she mentioned his name a huge smile would sweep across her face and she would say unabashedly, in her inimitable way, “I just love that guy”.
That guy was Roy Lazzarotto, whom I mentioned in my comments at the end of last week’s column about mine safety and knowing what is right. We lost Roy in 2015 at the age of 84 but the stories that come with his many decades of working in the underground coal mines here at the Bellevue Mine and Vicary Mine, north of Coleman, and also in the Michel Creek mines in BC, are legendary.
I am going to draw on several sources about Roy to tell this amazing history, including one that I found recently is a 1991 local newspaper article that goes back to when the Ecomuseum Trust was working hard to make a mine tour part of their overall programs.
The article states the following, “In 1990, after years of neglect, seven months and $500,000 of expenditures, a section of the Bellevue Mine was reopened for tours. Retired miner, Roy Lazzarotto, goes to the mine to do safety checks (every day!) to ensure a healthy environment for daily visitors. “In fact,” he states with pride, “the air in the mine is cleaner than outside, where there’s pollution from traffic”.
The reopening of the Bellevue Mineas an interpretive site was achieved through a federal job creation program and the volunteers that worked tirelessly on this effort were overseen by Roy. Thousands of hours of rebuild and stabilization were needed. It was his dream and he was a master of his trade. One of those volunteers, prior to its reopening, was himself a wonderful mining character that we lost recently. His name was David (Choppy) Cole. So I want to acknowledge that Choppy, an experienced coal miner, was part of the group that worked tirelessly, in rugged conditions, to bring the underground tour opportunity to fruition.
Roy was interviewed several times, once by a heritage planning consultant in Sparwood in the year 2000 and again in 2005 here in Coleman, by representatives of the Alberta Labour History Institute. Those ALHI inter-views are available on-line, in video and in transcript, and include the likes Clara Marconi, Bill Skura, Betty Walmsley, John Yeliga, Remo Quarin, Clarence Morrow and a whole host of people connected to mining. These are important captures of commentaries by people who were allowed to share, amongst other things, their take on unions and safety in mining.
But I digress. To go back to the beginnings of Roy’s life story I will quote from that amazing ALHI interview with him. Be forewarned, the transcript is an exact translation of what Roy had to say in his wonderfully enig-matic broken English accent. This pure unedited content helps connect one better to this charismatic man, one who was a storyteller’s storyteller. You will find yourself reading the lines with the same fractured accent.
Let’s start from its beginning. Roy started out in the interview by saying, “Born in Italy, around the border of old Austria”. He was in fact born in the town of Valstagna, in the province of Vicenza, Veneto. He goes on to say, “But when I come in Canada, you wanna know why I come in Canada? When I come in Canada, it wasn’t to come for working. My father was here in 1921. He was four years in Lethbridge, all them mines in there. Then he had a sister in California, and he went there. When he was here he had lots of friends.
In 1949 I decide I gonna come and visit the people that my father was here in Lethbridge. So I come over. I got to Lethbridge 8 o’clock in the morning Christmas Day. You go from one family to the other. You don’t want to be a cheapskate, you buy and pay. I spent all my money. I never thought to get a ticket to go home. So first thing I know I tried to go home, and I had no money.
I worked one month and no break. That was a good mine. At that time the mines were still working, in 1950. (Lethbridge). But they find out I wasn’t 18, so they kicked me out. So March 22nd I come on this mine. (Bellevue). I guess they know I wasn’t 18, but they give me the job. I work in 1952, ‘53, make money like I was saying. I have enough money to go home. But you know what happened? I meet this girl, I got married, and I decide to stay in Canada” Later on in the interview he mentions that, “we have a couple of tobacco farm (back in Italy). I smoked since I was this big. But I hate the tobacco farm. That’s the one thing that make me stay in Canada.”
Valstagna had tobacco plants imported to the area in the 17th century by the monks of Campese. This required some modification of the steep topography there into smooth layers of narrow flat fields. The monks also in-stalled water mills and a sawmill to facilitate the tobacco plantation. The view on Google earth reveals spec-tacular stacked stone terraces several layers high.
That girl that Roy met was Eda Besenhofer, who was born in Wayne, Alberta in 1931. Roy was also born the same year to Antonio and Savena Lazzarotto. He grew up in the middle of World War II in Italy and at the age of 13 eventually enlisted into the Italian Army. The war in Italy was absolutely brutal and must have been a terrible time there. In the early 1950’s there was a huge movement from parts of Italy to Canada to escape the poverty there or to seek a better opportunity. But for Roy, given his statement in the ALHI interview that they were not poor with those tobacco farms, it seems it was more about opportunity and family.
So it was that Roy came from Lethbridge to Bellevue with already some important mining safety training in hand from seasoned miners. At Bellevue he was, for a time, part of a five man crew (bull gang) that did various jobs like track laying, pipe fitting and cable splicing, something he was good at. He seemed to be well liked and so even with reduced workdays and the mines moving inexorably towards shut down, he was alternated between the mine and the tipple (coal processing plant) and had mostly steady work.
It appears that, in my research as to wherever Roy’s journey took him, it all seemed to always work out. He often spoke about how things unfolded and claimed to have no regrets. He always reasserted that the decisions he took always were the right ones at the right time and kept him safe.
With Bellevue’s closing imminent in 1956, Roy moved on to coal mines in the Elk Valley where he was to spend the next 13 or so years. I was astounded to learn that he was sent from Bellevue to Coal Creek #3 Mine in 1956 for a month’s training before he went to Michel. Coal Creek is just south of Fernie and operated from 1898 to 1958. While many improvements had been made at # 3 Mine, it was there, in 1902, that 130 men died in one single catastrophic disaster on May 22nd.
Roy’s career at Michel spanned from 1957 to 1970 and he was involved in many transitions into modern mining techniques and equipment. Roy ran the first Joy continuous (mechanical) miner to operate in Michel, in 1960 and operated newer versions of mechanical miners including the Lee Norse. In his Year 2000 interview he de-scribed accurately all manner of auxiliary equipment that was used to assist these miners. His knowledge base by the time of the interview was huge and extremely important to the consultant’s documentation of how it all worked. There were a dozen different coal mines that operated back in the valley back then, each with its own unique approach. Roy also started the driveage (entry ways) for what would ultimately be the hydraulic mine, a system that used a high pressure water nozzle (monitor) to cut coal.
Having researched every one of the 181 names that are on the Miner’s Memorial in Sparwood, I deduced that, during Roy’s time at Michel, 42 men died in underground mine accidents. It went through my mind then that he was in the middle of all this and therein lays more profound stories that I share next week about rescues and decisions taken by Roy in light of all that he saw that was wrong.