Jan 24, 2024
“A mine is a mine. You go in, you never know if you gonna come out” - Pete Rotella
It cannot be said enough times and in enough places that modern coal mining’s
safety record is something to be proud of. It stands heads above most other indus-tries in Canada and the safety programs put in place at the Elk Valley mines are as rigorous and thorough as can be found anywhere in the world. There is a very con-certed and diligent effort to reduce and eliminate hazards at the mines and injuries are fairly rare. Occupational Health and Safety committees work closely with the management at all Elk Valley coal mines to ensure the modern coal miner works in a safe environment.
This was not always the case. There was a time in the Elk Valley mines and here in the Crowsnest Pass when injuries and fatalities were an accepted part of a min-er’s life. This was mostly back when pretty much all coal was mined underground. We sometimes forget the toll that was taken in injuries and fatalities. My records reveal that in the Crowsnest Pass area, which ranges from Leitch Collieries to Vi-cary Mine, that 492 men were lost from 1904 onwards.
Italian coal miner Pete Rotella summed it up simply, in 1967, after his amazing survival of the Balmer North blast at Michel that killed 15 men. Pete said: “A mine is a mine. You go in, you never know if you gonna come out”. Incredibly, Rotella was blown clear out of the Balmer Mine entry in that disaster and landed in the trees in the valley bottom below. He promptly found his way back up the hillside, with a broken ankle no less, so that he could help with the aftermath.
The most poignant evidence of how it was back then risk-wise can be found in a series of 14 inch by 22 inch ledger books in the Crows Nest Pass Coal Co. archives in the basement of Fernie City Hall. These dozen or so large ledgers are a remark-able compilation of accident records diligently kept over five decades (1898 to 1958) by the coal company. The ledgers were printed with columns specifically laid out for recording accidents and detail everything from date, location, occupation, nationality, nature of injury, cause of accident and so on. Probably the most disturb-ing column in each two-page spread is the one labelled, “Fatal or Non-Fatal”. The non-fatal’s were usually not indicated as there were so many of them, so the word Fatal in an otherwise empty column jumps out at you.
It is interesting to revisit these books and look at the nature and cause of acci-dents, as it gives you a better appreciation of the hazards these coal miners endured. The men who were charged with filling out these books faced, for the most part, an adjective challenge that would leave most medically trained types stymied. The range of injuries and severity of accidents covers almost every painful descriptor in Webster’s dictionary.
They include the likes of: severed, crushed, sprained, bruised, cut, frozen, frac-tured, twisted, ruptured, punctured and so on. Along with these descriptors went al-most every single part of the human body, be it toes, legs, arms, ribs, ankles, backs, hands, eyes, skull and on infinitum. Never in the history of Canadian labour have men faced so many hazards, as did those in our coal mines. Also never in the history of Canadian labour did working men find so many ways to get injured.
One can turn to any single page of these pain chronicles and find more ways to get hurt than one can imagine. As you run your finger down the cause column you will come across statements like:”fall of rock, squeezed by car, tripped on rail, struck with pick (ouch), thrown off trip, cut with saw and the always dreaded “cave-in”or “explosion”. The word “caught” shows up a lot as in: “caught between bumpers, caught by coupling or caught by rope. Struck was also heavily used as there are many things one can be struck with in a mine, be it a piece of roof rock, an axe, a timber or a flying wedge. Probably the most painful use of the word struck one comes across has to do with the horses or mules used underground. Miners endured bites, trampling, kicks, toes being stomped and inevitably being dragged by a creature that was really unhappy about living in the dark and being forced to work all day.
Here is one of 2,672 entries out of one of the ledgers that spans the years 1914 to 1923: “ Entry #3796- Date: May 29, 1916-Time: 7:15 PM-Name: Brown, Ben-jamin-Work #2863- Occupation Bellboy-Location #1 East-Nature of Injury: Com-pound fracture right forearm, severely lacerated hand and dislocated left shoul-der-Nationality: Welsh-Age: 16-Marital Status: Single-Cause of Accident: Found lying in center of tracks-Date Returned to Work (never did)”.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention the nationality thing. Ben was classified as Welsh, one of dozens of nationalities listed in this ledger. They included countrymen la-belled as: Galician, Austrian, Hungarian Polish, German, Slovak, Russian, Belgian, Welsh, French, Ukrainian, Slav, Canadian? and American. My own particular na-tionality is put down as Scotch (not Scottish), a mistake quite common back then. Mind you, a drink of Scotch was probably in order for a Scottish miner who had endured the viciousness of a well-directed hoof.
After a while, as you cruise through the lists, they begin to blur into one huge legacy of pain. “Pick went into knee. Nail went into foot. Timber rolled onto hand. Coal fell into eye. Fingers squeezed between props.” One finds oneself looking for anything unusual to provide some relief from the endless scroll of things that went wrong. Like Charles O’Neil, a horseshoer, who was “driving nail into hind shoe when horse kicked and nail went into thumb”. Doesn’t that one just make you wince?
I guess the most unlikely accident I was able to find was that which befell Joe Fratenna, an Italian, who just about took a finger off when “knife slipped when cutting cheese”.
Whether it was the stables, the mines, the tipple, the rail yard, the machine shop or any other part of the Elk Valley or Crowsnest Pass mine infrastructure, it seems that personal injury was always lurking just around the corner. The few miners living today that survived this endless stream of wrong place at the wrong time no doubt carry the physical marks of this legacy, battlescars of just about the toughest men ever to walk into a mine.
In the next couple weeks I am going to delve into the life of one of the most re-spected and beloved coal miners I have ever come across. Roy Lazzarotto’s journey of working in the many different coal mines in the Michel Creek Valley and here in the Crowsnest Pass are a legacy unto themselves. A legacy of always working safe and teaching those that worked with him the same. Roy took some important deci-sions throughout his career that spared him and his crews any of the above listed in-juries and in three separate occasions undoubtedly saved his life. It is quite a story.