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British Columbia history that informs readers while entertaining them.

Idyllic Protection Island belies a violent past

Idyllic Protection Island belies a violent past

Its Gallows Point (originally Execution Point) takes its name from the fact that two native murderers were hanged there in 1853. Sixty years later, just offshore in the same immediate area, the ill-fated dynamite carrier S.S. Oscar ruptured her innards in an explosion that damaged much of downtown Nanaimo. Miraculously, there was neither loss of life nor serious injury.

And it was at Gallows Point, near today’s lighthouse museum, that the New Vancouver Coal Co. (later the Western Fuel Co.) had its Protection Island shaft, 1890-1938. Linked underground (and underwater) to the No. 1 Esplanade Mine and an airshaft on neighbouring Newcastle Island, its miners could hear steamships as they passed overhead.

Miners could tell the time by ships passing overhead

Years ago, one of them told me that it was just like in the movies, when a destroyer passed over a hiding U-boat, its churning propellers chilling the hearts of those who waited for the depth charges that were sure to follow. Such may have been the case for submariners; for Nanaimo coal miners it was almost a reassuring sound, one by which they could tell the time without a watch, by identifying the regular sailings of the CPR’s Princess boats.

The two mines and their air shaft straddled an amazing subterranean network that extended for miles beneath the harbour and tapped both the shallower Douglas and the Newcastle coal seams. This was good business for the coal company but meant tough, tight working conditions for miners following the snaking, thinner Newcastle seam.

Like all Nanaimo coal mines there were more than harsh working conditions to be endured underground. Dangers of explosion, fire, cave-ins and poisonous gas were constants that miners and their families had to take as their lot in life.

16 men went down with plunging elevator cage

Protection Island's Violent Past

This miner’s pocket watch stopped at the moment of impact…

None of them could have foreseen the circumstances that, at 7:10 on the morning of Sept. 10, 1918, saw 16 men killed instantly when the elevator cage in which they were riding plunged 550 feet to the bottom, “cutting through 12-inch timbers as though they had been matchwood,” and splintering almost at the feet of 96 of their workmates who’d safely descended minutes before, and who, alarmed by the roar of the plunging cage, thought that the whole mine was caving in. Of all the terrors to be faced underground, this was so out of the blue that it stunned the community.

Reported the Nanaimo Free Press on its front page the next day: “It was late last evening before the final tally of the killed…was completed, considerable difficulty having been experienced in identifying some of the bodies of the victims, owing to the fact that they were so terribly mangled that the barest clues had to be accepted as evidence of identification. For quite a while it was believed that there had been 17 victims of the accident, but fortunately this proved not to be the case and the list of dead remains at 16 who have been identified…”

42 orphans

Killed were: Joseph Turner, James Bond, William Blinkhorn, Rathom Maisuradse, Robert Kelly, John Rollo,Augusto Eussa, M. Eussa, Robert McArthur, David EddyJoseph Bonak, Joseph Sturm, Caleb Price, Angelo Sedola, John Kernahan and Lionel Barlow. All but four were married and, in total, they left 42 children.

The cage carried 16 men at a time. Six times, the elevator had safely delivered its human cargo of the morning shift after having carried the night shift to the top. For the remaining men of the morning shift of Sept. 10th, the seventh time was anything but lucky. In the terrifying moments that immediately followed, those miners who’d already been lowered had retreated from the area at the bottom of the shaft in the fear that “the entire roof of the mine was caving in, such a roar did the cage make in its descent, and such a deluge of broken timer and other material did it bring down with it…”

Although fairly new, the elevator cable had corroded through

Obviously, the hoisting cable, said to be only three years old, had snapped–the result, laboratory tests confirmed, of its exposure to the salt air.

Saturday, Sept. 10, 2011, under a blazing hot sun made bearable by a cool breeze from off the water, the Protection Island Historical Society hosted the 1st Annual Memorial and Dedication Service to the 16 lost miners. At their museum, formerly a lighthouse at Gallows Point, they gave several ‘songs of the working men’ and a beautiful solo rendition of Amazing Grace. Between, the names of the 16 miners, their nationalities, their ages and family status were read out in succession.

A lady in the audience told me that it was all she could do to keep from crying.

Then they unveiled a handsome sign commemorating the 1918 tragedy, an enlarged photo of one of the men’s pocket watches. Today in the Nanaimo Museum, it is stopped at the moment of impact.

All said, it was a moving event, extremely well presented and intended to be an annual affair such as the Joseph Mair Memorial held each year in Ladysmith.

20 Comments

  1. Can you tell us more about this? I’d love to find out some additional information.

    • Further to my previous response, I would add that I’m presently researching the history of the Nanaimo No. 1 Esplanade Mine which used the Protection Island shaft as one of its air shafts for the workings that extended well out, and under, Nanaimo Harbour. I have much more information on this tragedy but it will have to wait for the book’s release. The Nanaimo Historical Society and the Protection Island Historical Society would be useful sources to you in the meantime.

  2. Firstly, William Blinkhorn was my great Grandfather….my father’s/ mother side. This account was Informative -my father just passed away this summer and I have been researching the family history. Their are good stories regarding Mr Blinkhorn’s offspring – Smiling Billy Blinkhorn and his sister Nell (My grandmother) had a radio show on CJOR – he moved to Austarlia some years later – Nell married Kenneth O Everett – a fireman in vancouver and was the lead soprano at Christchurch cathedral in vancouver – thanks for the history – Ken Everett

    • Thank you, Ken. My particular interest in the Protection Is. disaster is its link (underwater) to the No. 1 Esplanade Mine, Nanaimo, whose history I am researching for a book. This will be my personal tribute to the thousands of unsung miners and their families who risked their lives underground to heat homes and make the wheels of industry go round. We have yet to do them justice. –TW

      • This was great to be able to read this history. I am a great grandson as well to William Blinkhorn. Had always been told he died in mine accident with a cable breaking. I have wondered how my grandfather’s life might have been different if his father had not had this violent tragic death at a young age.

        • Thank you, Mark. It’s great to hear from a direct descendant of a Nanaimo coal miner. I’m writing a history of the No. 1 Esplanade Mine, by the way, which was connected to Protection Island, where the elevator crashed, under the harbour.
          Our coal mining history is so important but has been neglected and all but forgotten, even in the communities where it once was the economic backbone. This is why I and the Friends of the Morden Mine are trying so hard to save the headframe/tipple at South Wellington from collapse, as a memorial to the thousands of unsung coal miners and their families who built Vancouver Island for 90 years. So soon we forget…

    • Hello Ken – I’m working on an article on Smilin’ Billy Blinkhorn and wonder if you can help. I have some information from Australia but not very much on Canada. Do you know the years he and your grandmother were on CJOR? Also did he appear on other radio stations? I have the CD that has been reissued of his old Regal Zonophone recordings from Australia and he was certainly talented.
      Fred

      • Hello Fred, My name is Judith Linton and I am the daughter of Smiling Billy Blinkhorn. I live in Sydney, Australia. Where are you located? I am interested to know more about the article you are writing (or have written by now). My Canadian cousins emailed me a link to this site about our grandfather today and I was surprised to read your reference to my father. He brought quite a detailed scapbook with him from Vancouver with articles and photos from the 1930s, which I may be able to share. I am just not sure if it is appropriate to include my email address in this part of the message. Let me know if you are interested and we can try to work something out.J.L.

        • Thank you, Judith. I’ll get back to you on this… TW

        • Hi Judy, I have been looking for you for so long. The New Zealand Connection. I have special memories of Uncle Bill, especially singing Tie a Yellow Ribbon around the old oak Tree, I think that was the last time I saw him. I would like to be in touch with you again if possible.
          Karen (nee Sands)

        • Hi Judith. Sorry if I didn’t reply sooner but I have the article done on Billy and published in Senior’s Advocate.
          Had to do it with what little information I had. If you email me at fredisenor@ns.sympatico.ca I’ll scan it and send you a copy.
          Fred

    • Hi Ken,
      I am a distant relative. I met Smilin Billy Blinkhorn and family several times. My Mother came Nanaimo, she was a Tipton. I am visiting Canada next month actually and catching up with family and some of the Blinkhorns too I believe.

  3. With havin so much written content do you ever run
    into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?
    My blog has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of
    it is popping it up all over the web without my authorization.
    Do you know any solutions to help reduce content from being stolen?
    I’d really appreciate it.

    • Yes, my stuff is elsewhere on the net without my permission. People seem to think that if it has appeared in print, say it’s one of the lengthy articles I wrote in the Victoria Colonist in the 1970s, it’s free domain. It isn’t, but what am I to do? Others think that if they credit the source they’re doing me a favour! (I don’t need the extra exposure, online or otherwise, at this point in my career.)
      The joke is when Google thinks I’m the plagiarist because someone has posted MY newer material previously, having swiped it from the thousands of newspaper/magazine articles I’ve written over the years and my current twice-weekly historical column in the Cowichan Valley Citizen!
      I’ve not investigated it but I understand you can ‘brand’ your individual posts as you write them with Google; in effect stamping copyright on them as of the time of their first being posted.
      As a matter of fact, I’m going to add that to my to-do list. You might wish to look into this. Good luck. TW

  4. Hello Tom,
    I am a travel journalist from Holland and will be visiting Nanaimo on Thurs 17th of July. It would be great if you would have time for an interview, and maybe even a tour of some mining sites. I have read about the black track tour you organize. My travel story will concentrate on modern life in Nanaimo and the past.
    Kind regards,
    Jessica de Korte

    • Hi, Jessica: Welcome to British Columbia and Vancouver Island and Nanaimo area! I shall be pleased to show you around some of the old coal mines, beginning, of course, with Morden Colliery Provincial Park in South Wellington.
      The concrete headframe/tipple is the last man standing of 80 years of coal mining on Vancouver Island and is in desperate need of repair despite its being designated as a heritage structure by the province.
      I’ll likely do another Black Track Tour to raise public awareness of the restoration efforts of the Friends of the Morden Mine in September. I’ve lost track of how many I’ve done to date as, I think, I started about 2003 and sometimes have done as many as 3 trips in a single season.
      Although you wouldn’t know it by this website, Vancouver Island coal mining is my number one historical passion and I shall be writing about it in future posts. I look forward to meeting you next week. –TWP
      PS: We did manage to save the Cowichan Valley’s legendary Kinsol Trestle from the wrecking ball so here’s hoping we can make lightning strike twice by saving Morden!

  5. Hi there. Joseph Turner, who was killed in the mine disaster, was a Great Granduncle of mine. His sister was my Great Grandmother. Recently I have been contacted by the wife of Joseph’s grandson, so I am currently awaiting new information on this side of my family tree, so any information I do get I am happy to share!

    • Hi, Jon: As I informed you by email, you can learn much more about this disaster in the 1918 Annual Report of the B.C. Department of Mines. Possibly available online; I work from a hardbound set of volumes I acquired years ago and wich have been one of the most valuable sources of information for me over the years.
      What makes the chapter-length entry on the Protection Island elevator crash even more intriguing is that it includes close-up photos of the corroded cables taken during scientific tests. This is pretty cutting edge–CSI!–for a century ago. –TWP

  6. I have hanging in my home a large framed illuminated, illustrated and calligraphic piece presented to a forefather on June 1st 1907. He was the Underground Manager of No.1 Shaft Western Fuel Co. His name was Thomas Mills. I have searched the text but have found no mention of “Esplanade” (I know the No.1 Esplanade is of great interest to you) but am writing just in case it is the same! Contact me if it is of interest.
    Vicki

    • I’m going to have to check my copies of the B.C. Dept. of Mines Annual Reports to see if I can narrow this down as the Western Fuel Co. owned several mines–and each of them would have had a No. 1 Mine.
      Yes, the No. 1 Esplanade is of particular interest to me but so are all the coal mines on Vancouver Island!
      Speaking of which, the Friends of the Morden Mine are about to–finally, it’s been years in the doing–to install a memorial to all the coal miners of Vancouver Island and their families at Morden. An estimated 1000 miners were killed on the job and this is a heartfelt attempt to at last honour them and their families. We of the FOMM haven’t succeeded in gettin the government to restore the headframe/tipple but, through our efforts and fundraising,have succeeded in our secondary goal, the memorial. I can’t wait. –TW

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