Here is the story that was recently included in our island’s publication. It was selected as top story out of all the submissions, (toot-toot, me blowing my own horn) but I think it placed because its subject is about our historical Protection Island event. It’s just over 2000 words so a bit of a commitment for a blog read and I thank you in advance if you read it through. The piece is a creative non fiction; a real event that took place in a real location and with names of the real people involved. I simply built a story around it.
I hope you enjoy it.
The dawn of September 10,1918 began like many within the home of Nanaimo coal miner Robert McArthur. A golden light filled one window of his small home as his wife carried out a well practiced routine of lighting the stove, preparing some breakfast, and assembling some food to pack into her husband’s metal lunch pail. The two sat together for a brief time at the table, speaking to each other in hushed voices to not wake their children still sleeping deep in their beds. Then he got up and left for work gently closing the door behind him, and stepped out into the soft breeze of a clear twilight warm with the remains of summers’ end.
His home was within the large land parcel of Harewood Estates, purchased by Samuel Robbins, the Superintendent for the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company. Samuel had cleared acres of forest between the Nanaimo waterfront and the foot of Mount Benson to sell or lease affordable five acre sections to miner families to farm. It meant Robert could have a large vegetable garden and keep some livestock to tide his family over during lean employment periods, or if another mine strike should occur. Samuel was well respected and liked in town, known as the People’s Friend, and some called him the Godfather of Nanaimo. He treated the miners with humanity, dignity, and fairness; a stark contrast to the coal barons of the Dunsmuir family and their brutal labour abuses.
Robert made his way down to the harbour front and then waited with the other miners for the tug and scow that would take them one kilometre across the bay to the mining worksite on Douglas Island, a small reef of land one and a half kilometres in length and half that in width. The tall Head Frame of the mine’s main shaft towered over the island’s south end and could easily be seen from town.
Once across the men disembarked and trudged past Gallows Point that earned its name after two native men were hanged in 1853 for the murder of Peter Brown, a Hudson Bay Company Shepard. The men passed the tiny Lamp House on the left, and then gathered around the Head Frame to wait their turn to descend below ground. Occasionally a chuckle was heard above the din and hum of cables and machinery but a somber atmosphere prevailed as the men prepared for their shift.
The elevator cage appeared up out of the blackness. Its metal gate shuttered open and released a surge of sixteen tired men, looking like charcoal drawings come to life. The whites of their eyes flickered, and blinked into the bright new day, the pores on their faces plugged with black coal dust and sweat. All of them wearing the relief of being done their night shift and eager to go to their homes and beds.
As soon as the cage emptied, a fresh exchange of men filled it again. Shoulder to shoulder, their clean scrubbed faces looked forward through the bars of the gate as it closed them in. With a quick jolt and hum the thick wire cable lowered the men down. Those standing above could glimpse the yellow glow of headlamps being flicked on one by one, the only visible trace left of them as the shaft swallowed the men down the hole of its dark throat seven hundred and fifty feet into a black web of tunnels that extended out under the sea bed.
Working deep below the ocean floor they could feel the rumble of CP ships plying the waters above, regular enough to set a watch by.
The waiting men appeared bone tired from the endless repetition of stooping, hard work. Some stood silent, still groggy from sleep, or lack of it. Robert’s gaze was transfixed on the sun crowning the bluffs of Gabriola and lifted his face to the glow that would soon be replaced by the inferior, dim halo of his headlamp lighting the long hours of hewing and clawing at the black seams; for the hope and promise of a better life, a future.
The cage came up again and as it unloaded Robert remembered he hadn’t wound his watch that morning and fished it out of his pocket. The gold plated time piece was a gift from his wife and children on his fortieth birthday, scrapping together what money they could, and he laughed to himself thinking of his daughter Emma at age six being so proud to have contributed ten cents earned from picking beans for Mrs Crenshaw. Now she’s grown and married. As he stood turning the winder till it was tight he thought of that morning’s conversation with his wife about their son Billy and he being anxious about starting his first class at High School that day. His wife said, he’ll do fine, he’s bright and can navigate his way through any challenge that comes his way, and then when she smiled Robert saw Billy’s face in hers and he said, thank goodness he takes after you.
He held the firm hope that his boys would be saved from a future of the back breaking, dangerous labour of a miner. He was fifty-five and felt worn and ancient.
Men skirted around Robert as someone called out to him in jest that he’s fallen asleep standing up like a horse, then the gate shut and the cage descended without him on its sixth drop of the morning. Robert, and fifteen others got the next one. He jockeyed his body into a tight space between Caleb and Angelo, two men, like many of the miners there, who left their homelands behind. Some brought their families with them to the new country, others married after settling in Nanaimo. Robert knew that fourteen of these men with him were married with children. He had the biggest brood with seven, another was a struggling widower with five children to tend to. Robert often saw a look of worry in that man’s eyes. He couldn’t imagine losing his wife, he’d be lost.
The cage gate jarred shut with a clash. Two men behind Robert continued their conversation about the war and boasted over the new British tanks used against the Germans. Someone else interjected and said, they should’ve let the flu settle the conflict and spared the artillery. Robert tensed with worry. The conscription act that was enforced two years ago took his two oldest boys; he and his wife prayed daily for their safe return. Another said, this is a time a man needs a stiff shot of whiskey, and lamented over the prohibition in Nanaimo.
The cage jerked once and then began its steady descent into the darkness, and conversation hushed. Robert reached up to turn on his headlamp. The cold, moist air pressed in around him smelling of salt water and mineral. The shadowed faces of the men surrounding him were held in routine repose as the minutes of their long descent passed, and then, Robert startled when his feet lifted off the cage floor as gravity released its hold.
A free fall rush of wind became filled with the screams of sixteen weightless souls, and then after the first of several timber beams were breached the only sound that filled the long dark chasm was splintering wood and crashing, bending metal.
Men standing above ground watched in horror when the cable broke. Powerless in their shock, reaching out but nothing to hold, nothing to be done except to listen and not wanting to hear the crashing, clattering sound. Distant hollers rose up from the hole in the ground as if it were the very tunnels wailing.
The working miners below had scattered out of the way thinking the mine was collapsing, barely making it clear of the plummeting remains of the cage, and the sixteen men, as it struck ground. The shouts and cries from those in the mine who ran to help realized there was no one there to help. They saw only a horror that would cause them to wake abruptly from sleep for many, many nights after.
It took until late that night to recover the bodies of Robert McArthur and the other fifteen men. It took longer to accurately identify them, having to rely on pieces of clothing and any personal items that could be found and returned to their family members.
Upon investigation it was noted that the corrosive salt air was to blame for compromising the integrity of the three year old cable. Perhaps an inferior, cheaper cable had been purchased to cut costs, perhaps inspections had lapsed.
The town of Nanaimo mourned the men, and poured condolences over their widows. They shook sad faces for the forty-two fatherless children. When Robert’s wife came forward several days later to claim her husband’s pocket watch she was told gently by a supervisor that it was the only item that came from the wreckage intact.
She looked down at the watch in her hand and read out the time on its face: seven-ten, and then clasped it tight to keep from shaking.
Today, one hundred and two years after that September morning, Douglas Island, renamed Protection Island in 1960, is my neighbourhood and where I’ve lived for thirty years. I walk down Colvilleton Trail that leads towards Gallows Point, and the old mine site that ran here from 1890 to 1938, to the place where Robert and the fifteen men with him fell to their death. There is little sign of the toil, hardship and sorrow that had once been here. The mining scars are masked by the thick growth of grand fir, arbutus, Garry oak, cedar, and blackberry. Large manicured homes and gardens now line the still unpaved road, muting the island’s tragic history. Protection Island has over the years become a tight knit community of serenity and charm with over two hundred and fifty residents.
Visibly what remains from the mine site is the lamp house, the date of 1911 still visible on the front of the small concrete building and has since been transformed into a private home. There is the shore line around Gallows Point that is made of small, sharp cinder rock, like lava rock, and what I think might be from the old Mine’s boilers. There are still large amounts of coal strewn on the beach, and the odd length of track rail pokes out from under massive logs that many years ago had been placed along the beach to stop the shore’s erosion. Then there are the pieces of thick, rusted, broken cable breaching the cinder shore like subterranean snakes, as if resurfacing at last from those old black tunnels and that once violent wreckage.
There is a large mural at the residence next door to the lamp house that commemorates the Douglas Island mine. Artist commissioned, it’s painted on the wall of a small secondary building that now sits on top of the original capped main shaft. Copied from an archival black and white photograph, it depicts the image of the towering Head Frame that once stood there. Near the road way the property owner has placed a coal cart, filled with flowers.
I regard this place with some reverence, remembering that sixteen men died right here all at once, under this ground I walk upon daily. I think about the two native men hanged at Gallows Point, a short distance away from the lamp house, and it seems all these men met death at the end of a line, be it cable or rope. And I wonder that I can hear the hollow cries, echoing the grieving wails of their widows, their children. So much suffering within this small plot of ground.
Colvilleton Road vanishes into the ocean at the place where the big wharf once stood and rumbled with coal carts that rolled down railway tracks to empty their loads into waiting boats. From here I can look out towards Nanaimo while deep beneath me the now flooded mine shafts still thread out under the harbour’s sea bed, still linking the old Douglas mine to the big Number One mine at Esplanade just over there in town, a kilometre across the water. A mine that had its own tragedy of 1887 as the second worst mine explosion in Canada. But that is another story. So goes the legacy of coal.