The War Eagle Mine Tragedy
The May 20th, 1899 accident at the War Eagle Mine shocked and captivated the citizens of Rossland, with 9 articles published in the Rossland Miner - the local newspaper - within the week. These articles documented the tragedy as it unfolded, from the initial assumptions that it was the fault of the hoist operator, to the harrowing retelling of the sole survivor, to the eventual discovery that faulty machinery was to blame.
The bull wheel, or bull gear, on display on museum’s front lawn was part of the hoist mechanism at the War Eagle Mine. On that fateful day in May 1899, the brake on the mine’s electric hoist failed. A missing safety pin caused a bolt on this gear to slip out of place. As a result, the skip plummeted to the bottom of the mine shaft, killing 4 men and injuring 1.
The miners who tragically lost their lives were honoured with solemn funerals and the whole town came together to remember them. Allegedly, the mine manager then took a sledge hammer to the bull wheel - breaking the teeth - to ensure it could never be used again.
Albert J. Honeyford
James O. Palmer
The bull wheel display was made possible by Teck Trail Operations
Why Were Hoists Being Used?
Hard-rock mining in Rossland involved digging and drilling deep into the earth. Mines were developed as a series of tunnels, with many tunnels often reaching depths of over 1000 feet (305 meters). As such, hoist systems were the most practical method of accessing these depths. Miners, equipment, and ore could be raised and lowered almost completely vertically through a shaft - so much more effective and efficient than using ladders and buckets.
Rossland’s shock over the War Eagle mine tragedy should not be taken as a sign that such accidents, injuries, and deaths were uncommon for the mines. Early hard-rock mining was a very dangerous endeavour, and workers faced tremendous risk both in attempts to maximize productivity, and because there was little knowledge of the dangers and how to mitigate them. In the early years of Rossland mining, workers would work 10-13 hour days for just $2-3.5 dollars per day. Death and injury from explosion, falling rock, and respiratory complications were commonplace.
Advancements in mining technology improved mine safety and productivity over the years, but at times it has come with a cost. One example of this is the shift from manual drilling with a bit and sledgehammer towards automatic drills. In the late 1890s Rossland mines started using C.H. Shaw’s stoper drill, invented in 1890. The drill hammered a steel bit into the rock through a pneumatic feed, drastically increasing the amount of rock which could be removed as workers now only needed to hold the drill in place rather than hammer the bit themselves. Despite its incredible impact on reducing the physical toil of miners, the drill is notorious for the reason behind its nickname - the ‘widowmaker’. This nickname was earned because the drill seemed to cause a higher than usual number of deaths of those who operated it, therefore miners joked it was excellent at creating widows. At first the cause of these deaths was a mystery. Eventually it was discovered that it was due to the fine silica dust the drill produced which wasn’t present in manual drilling. This dust when inhaled causes silicosis, more commonly known as black lung, a serious respiratory disease which can be fatal. In order to remedy this dangerous side-effect of the drill, miners added a water pump to the machine so that the dust would become mud before it could be inhaled.
The Workmen’s Compensation Act
The dangerous working conditions in mines and other British Columbian industries at the turn of the century was a concern both for the workers and their employers, who worried about being held accountable for the accidents and injuries which occurred. This meant that the BC government was receiving complaints and concerns from both sides of the issue, with owners asking for employer protection and workers wanting some sort of insurance if they were to experience an injury. The government looked for a compromise, which took the form of the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1902. The act worked to meet the needs of both sides, having employees give up their rights to take legal action against their employer in exchange to being guaranteed compensation if they were to experience an accident that made them unable to work. This act came into effect in 1917, and has been the main legislation for workers compensation in BC ever since, laying the foundations for the current WorkSafe BC. While some worry the act provides more protection for employers than it does benefits for workers, it is undeniable that it was a turning point in labour standards, finally allowing worker well being to be taken seriously by both employers and the government.
The large mining operations which led to the creation of Rossland also led to advancements in workers rights, as such a large group of at risk workers were gathered together. In fact, alongside Rossland’s golden history is the story of workers fighting for their rights, which is still important to this day.
Rossland’s Miners Union
Realizing the power in their numbers, the miners of Rossland joined the Western Federation of Mines as Union No. 38 in July of 1895, becoming the first Canadian branch of the organization. The Federation was known for being progressive for its time, allowing all minorities to join as equal members. The Rossland branch was known for being a very active branch engaged in improving mine safety. In these early days, union members did not receive the protection they do now, and members were at risk of persecution or violence. The union stuck tightly together in their fight for fair work treatment.
The 8-Hour Work Day
One of the first and biggest fights of the Western Federation of Mines was pushing for 8-hour work days, as they felt the long hours miners worked were both exploitative and dangerous. In 1897, unions in Idaho, Colorado, and Montana organized strikes in an attempt to pressure 8-hour days. These strikes led to mass violence, incarceration, and even casualties. Some states went as far as to implement state militias or introduce martial law as to facilitate this widespread crackdown. Seeing the poor reception of strikes received by their southern neighbours, the Rossland Union was wary to organize their own, believing there must be a more effective option. Puzzling over their options in a local blacksmith shop, the members came up with the idea of turning their efforts to politics. Rossland miners put their faith into a local hardware dealer James Martin, who promised to push the 8-hour day legislation through government if elected. Flooding the ballot boxes, the miners successfully elected James Martin to the British Columbia legislature. Martin held true to his promise, and soon after his election 8-hour work days became a provincially mandated law.
The miners did not start celebrating quite yet, however. Anticipating push back from mine owners, union members dutifully recorded all workings of the mine since the passing of the legislation. This proved a smart move as mine owners pleaded the law be revoked, claiming decreased productivity in their mines. When inspectors called on by the legislature came to investigate the productivity of BC mines, the Rossland union workers were able to point to their records and demonstrate that, in fact, productivity had increased!
Strikes and Strikebreakers
Although legally the 8-hour work day fight had been won, many mine owners still required workers work longer hours, in part because many were Americans and found themselves in a grey area in regards to Canadian law. Therefore, with the law now on their side, the Rossland Miner’s Union called a strike on July 11th, 1901. The strike affected 900 to one thousand mine workers, its size making it impossible for mine owners to ignore. Owners fought back by hiring what became known as ‘strikebreakers’; foreign workers from the US and Europe who, due to being so new to the community, were not affiliated with the Miners Union. This method inevitably failed, as these workers most often decided to join the union and their strike once they realized what was going on. The tough 1901 strike in Rossland was the main catalyst for the Trade Union Act, passed June 20th, 1902, which gave greater legitimacy to unions, as well as ensured they could not be held accountable for the losses caused by strikes.
This display was funded in large part thanks to: