Lists of Fatalities in Vancouver Island Coal Mines

These databases were derived using information from B.C. Ministry of Mines Annual Reports. Rick Morgan's introduction notes lack of detailed data in these reports for certain years.

Compiled by Rick Morgan

Anyone visiting Victoria is provided ample evidence of the legacies left by the Dunsmuir family, the best known and most controversial of the Vancouver Island coal mine owners. Whether following a smoke spewing double decker bus filled with tourists up Fort Street hill to Craigdarroch Castle or passing the magnificent walled grounds of Hatley Park Castle on Sooke Road, now a University, the evidence of the wealth created by the coal mines which played such a significant part in the development of the island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is obvious.

But what of the employees who toiled in the mines that created this wealth? What public legacies have they left? They came from all over Europe and Asia to the communities that sprang up along the east coast of Vancouver Island in response to the demand for coal. Nanaimo, Lantzville, Wellington, South Wellington, Extension, Harewood, Ladysmith, Cumberland, Union Bay; all of these places owe their origins to coal mining. Searching for a better life, what the new arrivals found were some of the most dangerous coal mines in the world[1], hardly an improvement on what they had left. As the railways advanced across the continent and trade between the old world and North America increased so did the demand for coal to power the steam driven trains and ocean going vessels, but at a terrible price in human life.

The attached lists are an attempt to recognize these people by providing a lasting memorial to those who paid the ultimate price in the pursuit for coal on the island. Hopefully someday their names will be suitably displayed in an interpretive centre dedicated to coal mining on Vancouver Island. Fortunately, the BC Ministry of Mines has kept detailed records of fatalities and dangerous occurrences made available in the Annual Reports which have been published every year since 1874.

Sadly to say though, names of workers are not always provided. Many of the Asian workers, especially in the earlier years are referred to only as “a Chinaman” or by badge number (e.g. Chinaman #142). Our apologies for the offensive name used in these lists but such was the social condition at the time. Reviled by employer and white employee alike, the Asian worker was only hired because he was paid half that of his white counterpart which prompted the white workers and their unions to discriminate against them and lobby for legislation to ban them from working underground as they were considered “unsafe”. Oddly enough, in many cases the Asian underground worker was employed directly by the “contract” miner so was not on the company payroll at all which probably contributed to the lack of information about them.

More recently the Annual Reports have been scanned and made available digitally online on the Ministry of Mines website. The attached lists are compiled from these and condensed to show only the fatalities although the source documents showed fatalities including serious and less serious accidents. The human suffering revealed in the non fatal accidents through lost, broken, crushed, body parts is heartbreaking. Of course this physical suffering would be compounded by the economic hardship created through the accident as more often than not there would be no compensation payment.

Although a boon to present day researchers and genealogists, these detailed accident reports, a requirement of the Coal Mines Regulation Act, were hardly conceived for this purpose. Apart from the statistical grist that the data provided[2], on reading through the causes of the fatalities, a more sinister purpose soon becomes apparent. The cause of accident seems to go to great lengths to assign fault to the worker.

Inquests into mine deaths and serious accidents almost always blamed the miners and absolved the owners of direct responsibility.[3] Legislators were notoriously always on the side of the employer. Prior to the enactment of Workers Compensation legislation regardless of cause, injured workers or families of deceased mine workers only recourse was to sue the mine owner through the courts. Even if they could summon up the resources to sue the employer their chances of winning have been estimated at between twenty and thirty percent. As most families were single income and in many cases, families of deceased workers resided overseas, very few accidents were challenged in court.

If they were, under common law, employers had three defense doctrines they could plead:

“Contributory negligence” Under this doctrine, if the worker was even slightly responsible for the accident which occurred, the employer would not be found liable.

“Assumption of risk defense” the employer could claim that there were certain unavoidable hazardous risks associated with the job and the worker accepted these risks when he entered into a contractual agreement with the employer.

“Fellow-servant doctrine” implied that if the employer could prove that a fellow employee was even slightly responsible for the injured workers’ accident, then the employer would not be liable.

Only slowly did these doctrines get overturned in spite of the superior political power of the employers at the turn of the century[4]. In 1878 the “Workman’s Protection Act was introduced in the BC Legislature. Although it didn’t get past the 1st reading, it was one of the first attempts anywhere to pass a law to help injured workers. The Employers Liability Act of 1891 followed and it did pass. This act was based on the principle that an Employer was only liable for workplace accidents that resulted directly from his negligence. It did serve to define employer’s negligence concisely and narrowly.

In 1902, the first Workman’s Compensation Act in Canada was introduced by two Nanaimo MLA’s holding the balance of power in the BC legislature. This new legislation marked a fundamental departure by providing compensation regardless of fault.

Reading through the lists, you will find the disasters which occurred, mostly through explosions, taking multiple lives. The most serious are listed in Table 1 below.

Although such disasters made headlines, they were not the principle cause of fatalities. In his report[5] Thomas Graham has this to say:

“Statistics in most coal-producing countries show that the most prolific cause of underground fatalities are falls of coal and rock at the working-face and mine haulage. Falls of coal and rock run from 50 to 60 percent of the whole, whilst mine haulage runs from 20 to 25 percent, of the whole; accidents from these causes, therefore form from 75 to 85 percent of all underground accidents, explosions, shaft, electricity, explosives, and miscellaneous accidents making up the remainder”

Of course these statistics would be skewed when one of the disasters listed below did occur however most accidents can be attributed to falls of rock and coal and these sadly occurred almost on a monthly basis in Vancouver Island Coal Mines almost going unnoticed except for an insert in the papers of the day. It seemed almost accepted as the cost of doing business.

Multiple Fatality Accidents on Vancouver Island
(Those accidents causing 5 or more fatalities)
DateCollieryCause of Accident# of Fatalities
April 17, 1879 Wellington Explosion of firedamp 11
June 30, 1884 Wellington #3 Explosion of gas on #4 level 23
May 3, 1887 Nanaimo #1 Explosion 148
Jan 24, 1888 Wellington #5 Explosion 60
Dec 11, 1899 Union #4 Explosion 8
Feb 15, 1901 Union #6 Explosion 63
Sep 30, 1901 Extension #2 Fire 16
July 15, 1903 Union #6 Explosion 16
Oct 05, 1909 Extension #2 Explosion 32
Feb 09, 1915 South Wellington Drowned by flooding 19
May 27, 1915 Reserve Explosion 22
Sept 10, 1918 Protection #1 Rope breaking on cage 16
Feb 08, 1923 Comox #4 Explosion 33
Table 1

There are some gaps in the online source lists used. Hopefully some of this can be added at a later date using other sources.

  • The first Annual Report was published in 1874 however the detailed lists providing names, location, etc do not appear until 1879. The 1879 report does indicate however, that there were 4 fatal accidents in 1876, 5 in 1877 and 3 in 1878.
  • The Annual Reports did not provide detailed accident lists for the years 1920 to 1922 as the intention was for this function to be taken over by the Workers Compensation Board. Some material is provided for 1920 based on historical newspaper reports. The annual reports started providing detailed lists again in 1923
  • No data was provided in the online source documents for the years 1936 to 1939. It appears one section of the report for each of these years was omitted entirely in the online version, that of departmental activity, which normally would contain the detailed lists. Hopefully this information can be obtained by referring to the originally hardcopy version of the reports.
  • There is no information provided on fatal accidents in coal mines on Vancouver Island after 1988. The format of the Annual Reports underwent numerous changes in later years and we were unable to find out if these lists existed at all after 1988. Coal mining on the island was pretty much over by then anyway. Apart from some smaller more recent operations such as Wolf Mountain near Nanaimo and Quinsam Coal out of Campbell River, coal mining on the island had ceased to exist.

In closing, we hope these lists will be of assistance for persons tracing their family history or doing other research. For example by determining dates it should help in finding further information about a fatality researching archived newspaper accounts. Merely browsing through the lists gives the reader today a clearer understanding of the dangers of early coal mining on the island and hopefully a greater appreciation of our coal mining heritage.

Memorial List of Fatalities in Vancouver Island Coal Mines
(click link to open document)

[1] British Columbia. Report of Commission on Coal Mines Explosions. Victoria, Kings Printer; 1903, J16
[2] Two of the more commonly used statistics were the ratio of fatal accidents per 1000 persons employed and the number of tons of coal mined per fatal accident.
[3] Chaklater, Anjan. History of Workers Compensation in BC, A Report to The Royal Commission on Workers Compensation in BC, May 1998, p 6
[4] ibed
[5] Report of Thomas Graham, Chief Inspector of Mines, BC Dept of Mines Annual Report, 1915, p. K310