The coalmines started up in 1897, the railway came thru in 1898 and my great great grandfather came to town in 1902, and he became a firefighter. In 1902 they saw the no. two shaft mine disaster that took the lives of 128 people and left nearly 100 families destitute without a husband or father. The Old Town or Coal Creek had over 1000 residents merely nine kilometres up the valley. It wasn’t even until 1904 that the City of Fernie was incorporated. My family and many others helped build this valley with their blood, sweat, and tears. They are the ones who witnessed the first Fernie fire in 1904 and they survived the second Fernie fire in 1908.
There were times when the town’s population surpassed what it was in more recent years. From 1914-1926 there was an internment camp that imprisoned the Germans and Austrians. In 1916-1923 prohibition threw even more stories and legends into Fernie, underground tunnels and all. Emilio Picariello was one of the most well known players in the prohibition era. These people were our families and friends, they are the ones who endured the depression in the thirties and watched as the town shrunk and held on with all they had with subsidies as the town sank to the lowest levels ever. These were the people that made Fernie what it is. Fast forward 108 years and my great great grandfather Pietro Naccarato had a great great great grandson born in the same town; now today 112 years later here we are.
Growing up here, we all talked about the graveyard under Ridgemont Elementary School. We grew up running around the old buildings up Coal Creek and the old brewery. The ski hill was small and the Griz was the reason for our snow.
In 1997 the ski hill sold and within years, hundreds of millions of dollars poured into this valley changing it forever. In a new direction, one where we got to share our amazing everyday life with the rest of the world. Movies were made, mansions were built and the rumors of the old graves and underground mines remained.
My father John Gawryluk has been working with an absolute passion for over 15 years with Corlyn Haarstad on the story behind the unmarked graves. They have put in thousands of hours and thousands of dollars cross referencing, digging thru files, back and forth to Victoria where archives are kept. They drank coffee and tea with the old original locals who were still alive and got first hand stories of the early days. They have shelves full of books and stacks of maps and arial photos, old surveys, mine reports, real estate transactions, obituaries, newspaper articles, and pretty much everything you can think of. They can say now that yes there are at least 385 missing dead people that were buried somewhere in Fernie.
They have a good idea where and they have some names. They have been working hard with the Council members, following the rules, going to meetings, and hoping that they could form some kind of committee, move forward with this and continue the 15 years of work, find the graves and ensure they are preserved and given the damn respect they deserve. Not just some rock in an unrelated area with no names or locations on it just a few short descriptions of how this council tried. All the while the actual unmarked graves lay in plain sight getting compost thrown on them, fence holes augured into them, foundations and sewer lines run across them.
We need to move forward on this. No one needs to take blame or get in trouble; development and economic growth does not need to stop or be hindered. No one deserves to have things taken away over this.
This all came about because of the wonderful history of Fernie; it is part of Fernie, another reason why it’s so cool.
Let’s not just stand by and allow today’s Council to throw a bow on rock and smile for a camera while they pretend they accomplished something. Let’s move forward without the Council we voted for. Today’s council is only a snapshot of the history of this town. Hopefully one day a new council, who loves this town and it’s history as much as I do, will see how this can be turned into a real opportunity. Hopefully one day a council who will honor those who died before us while building this great town we call home will be voted in and help us provide a proper grave site.
I will not rest until these people, unknown to me, get what they truly deserve.
My father in no way will profit from any of this; any comments to that effect are lies and untrue. He is doing this because he was born here in this town and grew up here just as I have.
I ask that anyone with as much passion and love for this community as my family and friends please take the time to look into this; make it a conversation with the people around you. Discuss some creative and interesting ways we can incorporate this into the real life Fernie, and call my dad, ask him anything. Trust me, he would love to show you all the information he has.
Peace River, A.B.
Born and raised in Fernie, B.C.