NANAIMO — The 130th anniversary of a pair of devastating explosions that killed 148 men working in a Nanaimo coal mine is raising memories of the vibrant and extremely dangerous industry. The No. 1 Esplanade Mine, near the current cruise ship terminal, exploded after gas or dust was ignited on May 3, 1887.
The tragedy was the second worst mining disaster in Canada’s history. Vancouver Island coal historian and author T.W. Paterson told NanaimoNewsNOW the tragedy had a massive ripple-effect on Nanaimo, which he said was home to a little more than 2,000 people at that time.
“I liken it to a small nuclear device on a city,” Paterson said. “There would have been not one living soul in Nanaimo at the time who didn’t lose a family member, in-law, workmate or a friend.” Only seven men survived the carnage at the mine, which Paterson said was the largest and longest running operation on Vancouver Island. About 50 of the killed miners were Chinese men who were idenfifed only by numbers.
Paterson said coal mining was an extremely dangerous profession, estimating 640 men in the greater Nanaimo area were killed directly from the industry over 80-years. He said in the case of the Esplanade Mine a maze of tunnels extended under the harbour’s ocean floor to the Newcastle and Protection Island areas.
“As anyone can appreciate, going underground was dark, it was wet and it was dangerous.” That being said, Paterson said the coal industry provided decent pay and enticed thousands of immigrants to Vancouver Island. Paterson didn’t believe Nanaimo would be the size it is today if it weren’t for the local coal industry.
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