This is the Life: Seeing the light about working in the mines

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Whenever I hear about another mining accident — or learn that B.C. miners are not protected by WorkSafeBC, as I did this week — I am transported back to my youth. I think especially of Canada’s centennial, 1967, when the news came late in the afternoon that an explosion had rocked the Balmer North Mine near Sparwood. We had relatives, many of them, who were miners, and some of them worked in the Balmer mine.

Both of my grandfathers were coal miners, having come from England, where their fathers had done the same work. It’s all my maternal grandpa ever did. And when he was struck by a teacher in junior high, my dad quit school, never to return, and got a job at the Coal Creek mine, just outside of Fernie. As a young teen he was put to work driving horses up and down the incline as they hauled carts.

Later, he would go to work in the mineshafts. His mining career came to an end after he was caught in a bump, an incident where the tunnel floor was pushed up by gases and he broke an arm as he was crushed against the ceiling. (When he recovered he got work in a sawmill. Safer, he thought, until a stack of lumber fell on him, breaking an arm and a leg.)

My paternal grandfather had a few goes at mining, running small sawmills in between, but his last few years before retirement were spent in a mine. It must have been a tough way to make a living for a 65-year-old. I can remember Pop Eckersley walking out of the yard in Fernie and over to the highway to wait with a group of men for the bus that would take them to work near Sparwood.

Many years earlier, his family had lived in Natal, one of two little side-by-side towns in the Crowsnest Pass where so many immigrants had arrived earlier in the century, looking for work in the only field of endeavor they knew. My mom grew up in Michel, which was separated from Natal by Middletown but she didn’t meet dad, at least formally, until years later.

In the 1960s, Michel and Natal were dreary little towns, the soot-covered houses creating a grey visage. I was surprised when we visited one of my many aunts and uncles in the area and found the house interiors to be just like houses in the city. Clean and cheery, those house interiors formed a dramatic contrast to the grubbiness of the exterior environment. As kids, if we happened to be sleeping as we entered those towns on the drive from Calgary, we would wake up instantly. The smell from the coking process was overwhelming.

I think I was probably 17 when we were sitting at our dinner table in Calgary. It was springtime and I wanted to find a summer job. Maybe I’ll see if I can find work in the mines, I mused. My dad exploded in anger, not his usual response. “No son of mine will ever work in a mine,” he yelled. Case closed.

Even as a young man I loved visiting Fernie to see my grandparents, and Angela and I visited as often as we could in our early years together. When we learned my Grandpa Bath was dying we drove down to visit him in the hospital, where we found him unable to talk through his oxygen mask. He squeezed our hands and drifted in and out of consciousness as his ability to breathe was choking the life out of him. He had emphysema, of a form one of his doctors had years earlier diagnosed as black lung. Too many years spent in coal-dust filled air. He died a few hours after we left him.

That news of the 1967 Balmer mine disaster gripped our family. We sat by the radio and TV waiting for news, and long distance phone calls — usually reserved for our Sunday night chats with grandparents — flew back and forth. Was Uncle Alfie in the mine when the cave-in occurred? What about Uncle Paul? Was that the mine he was working in now? In the end, no family members were among the 15 who died in that fateful event. But the incident served as a reminder of why we lived in Calgary, where my dad had escaped a life in mines and sawmills, finding employment with the telephone company. We considered ourselves lucky.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.