By Ezra Black
In the 1998 book The Forgotten Side of the Border, local historian John Kinnear said the explosion that ripped through the Balmer North Mine almost 50 years ago was travelling at over 1,600 kilometres per hour when it slammed into 25 people on their way to work that day.
Propelled by the concussive force, all sorts of debris including power cables, timbers and chunks of rock and coal shot down the mineshaft killing 15 men and injuring 10.
“Those Michel miners had literally climbed into the wrong end of a gun barrel and fate pulled the trigger at the other end,” said Kinnear.
Balmer North could be considered the last major underground mining disaster in the Elk Valley but it was only one in a series of fatal tragedies.
In May 2016, Kinnear and other researchers on the Balmer North Committee began compiling a list of every person ever killed in the mines that operated between Sparwood, Corbin and Elkford since the turn of the last century. In November they concluded that 180 people had been killed since 1901.
The names of these lost miners will be etched onto a memorial wall in Sparwood as part of the 50th anniversary of the Balmer North explosion.
The team used old B.C. ministry of mines annual reports, death records, newspaper accounts and even the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company archives in the basement of Fernie’s city hall, where the former coal company’s detailed accident record books are kept.
Once the list was more-or-less complete, the District of Sparwood placed ads requesting feedback from the community regarding possible missed names and misspellings.
The team recently got help from John Gawryluk and Corlyn Haarstad of Cherished Memories Funeral Services who are reviewing the compilation.
“[Cherished Memories] has been accumulating in-depth death records for the Elk Valley for over 20 years and were able to help verify the accuracy of the list,” said Kinnear.
This research was necessary for the Balmer North memorial wall, which will honour the dead from a number of Elk Valley mining accidents including those who lost their lives in the Balmer North explosion of April 3, 1967.
In addition to the wall, the Balmer North Committee has commissioned Victoria artist Nathan Scott to create a life-sized bronze statue of a coal miner. Both the wall and statue will be located in Sparwood’s Titan Park.
Kinnear noted that three other major mine disasters have already been commemorated with similar monuments in the Crowsnest Pass and Elk Valley. The community of Hillcrest, Alta. has a major interpretive park and monument for 189 miners killed in a June 1914 explosion while Bellevue, Alta. has a bronze plaque for the 31 men lost there in 1910. The Fernie Miners Walk, unveiled in 2011, carries the names of all 130 men lost in the Coal Creek Disaster of May 22, 1902.
Memorial committee member Sharon Strom said that most fatalities occurred while the mining of coal was an underground procedure.
“Underground operations were more deadly because of the buildup of methane gas and the potential for explosions,” she said. “In addition, quite a number of single fatalities were caused by falling beams or coal or rock from above.”
The number of fatalities has declined significantly with the rise of open pit coal mining and improved safety standards, she said.
The most challenging part of the project was settling on the spelling of names where there was more than one option, said Strom. In the final stage of spelling determination, four committee members reviewed all documents available for those whose spelling was questionable and picked what seemed to be the most relevant name.
Alex Hanson, the president of the United Steelworkers (USW) local 9346, noted that the Sparwood memorial would be both commemorative and a warning.
“We hope to not put another name on there but if we’re not guarded and vigilant, we could end up in the same situation,” he said.