By Ezra Black
On Dec. 9, 1910, Hosmer man Fred Alderson died in a rescue attempt at a deadly mine explosion in Bellevue, Alberta.
About a hundred years later, over a lunch of soup, sandwiches and bread pudding, local historian and coal miner John Kinnear recommended Alderson, the “Hosmer Hero,” for the Canadian Institute of Mining (CIM), Metallurgy and Petroleum’s Medal for Bravery.
Kinnear presented his recommendation to a small crowd at the Fernie Museum’s Lunch and Learn Series at the Fernie Senior’s Drop In Centre.
In addition to being a historian, Kinnear has a coal mining background.
“I am a third generation coal miner,” he said. “Both my grandfathers, my father, my brothers and I worked underground and in surface mines. My Scottish grandmother was called a “slavey,” [which means] for a period of time, she was indentured to a coal company in Scotland and worked picking the rock out of the coal.”
Much like Kinnear’s grandmother, Alderson also endured a Dickensian upbringing.
He was born on October 28, 1874 in Sunderland England, third in a family of four sons and a daughter who died at the age of 14. His father, a second mate in the merchant service drowned at sea when Alderson was a boy.
He and his brothers were put in Sunderland Sailors Orphanage, said Kinnear. Then his eldest brother died deep-sea fishing. His mother remarried and took his youngest brother out of the orphanage but never returned for her other two boys.
“Against this background and his life during the succeeding 20 years, it is possible to obtain some idea of his attitude to life,” said Kinnear.
When he was old enough to leave the orphanage, Alderson traveled to South Africa to work “sinking wells,” said Kinnear. He returned to England two years later where he married and settled into a career in coal mining.
He studied mining and engineering at evening classes in Newcastle-On-Tyne while he worked in a coal mine in Kimblesworth.
After traveling the world Alderson joined thousands of other European miners that had come to Canada to find a better life and opportunity. He contacted his brother Bob who was already a tipple boss at the Hosmer mine and soon had employment there as an underground coal miner.
He volunteered for the Draeger Mine Rescue Team that had formed in Hosmer as part of the B.C. Ministry of Mines decree that all large collieries be equipped with rescue devices and teams. It was the first of its kind in the East Kootenays.
Draegermen are mine rescuers. At the turn of the century they wore primitive breathing apparatus that allowed them to survive in the poison gases that were left in underground mines after explosions.
The gases, known as afterdamp, were made up of a high proportion of carbon monoxide, which was odorless and killed miners by depriving them of oxygen.
Kinnear cited a 1910 issue of the Hosmer Times: “The draeger breathing apparatus, as the name implies, is a device for enabling the wearer to respire with safety and to perform rescue work in a poisonous atmosphere…Equipped with the oxygen helmet, a miner can penetrate an atmosphere that would be almost instant death to the unprotected man, direct air currents, carry out stricken comrades and generally do any work that could ordinarily be done in pure air”.
Alderson’s finest hour came on Dec. 9, 1910 after a deadly mine explosion in Bellevue left 47 men trapped in about 9000 feet of underground tunnels.
“What transpired then was a tragic series of events,” said Kinnear.
Kinnear recounted how a call was placed to Hosmer mine manager Lewis Stockett who immediately assembled a team. The Canadian Pacific Railway sent a special train with Alderson and other members of a rescue team aboard. The train raced to Bellevue arriving there at around 2 a.m. By then six men had been found alive, 22 were dead and 19 were missing.
Alderson entered the mine with a team of draegermen and found a group of men gathered around a high-pressure air charging station. These stations were located throughout the mine and were places for the air locomotives to be recharged.
“The men were probably using the station as a fresh air source,” said Kinnear.
Alderson gave up his breathing apparatus to one of the miners and stayed behind with the others to await rescue. They still had the compressed air supply to keep them safe.
“When [his colleague] returned it was Alderson’s turn to lead a miner to safety but on returning he made the fatal mistake of rushing in too quickly and put a greater demand on his [breathing apparatus] than it was capable of supplying,” said Kinnear.
Alderson was trapped in the mine and overcome with carbon monoxide poisoning. Another rescuer reached the survivors only to find all those left inside had also succumbed. Alderson was found dead next to another miner.
“The thirty that perished with [Alderson] that day were one pit boss, 19 miners, four timber packers, four loaders, one bratticemen and one tracklayer,” said Kinnear. “They were of Italian, Finn and Slav origin and amongst them left 21 widows and 42 orphans.”
Alderson was buried on December 13. The Fernie Free Press wrote: “The body was viewed by hundreds as it lay in the undertaking parlor.”
His heroism was celebrated internationally, even back in his native England.
“No language of which we are capable can describe the abnegation and self-sacrifice displayed, and no greater eulogy can be paid than he gave his life for others,” wrote the Hosmer Times.
The CIM Medal for Bravery has been awarded posthumously before, “so I would suggest to you all here today that if ever a man deserved the CIM Medal for Bravery it would be Fredrick Dunn Alderson,” said Kinnear.