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Danger, Death and Disaster in the Crowsnest Pass Mines, 1902-28

By Karen Buckley

Review By Andrew Yarmie

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 147 Autumn 2005  | p. 129-31

The Crowsnest Pass coal-mining communities serve as the backdrop for Karen Buckley’s study of danger, death, and disaster. Her objective is to examine personal and community responses to death and to “gain a clearer understanding of how a community develops in the presence of danger in the daily lives of its members” (xvii). Within three chapters, Buckley assesses the major dangers that faced miners, the professional response in the formation of mine rescue teams, the growth of the undertaking business, and the family and community response. Of the three chapters, the first and the third come closest to fulfilling some of her stated objectives.

The book fits into the growing body of literature on coal mining in western Canada. Although it does draw on other regions for supplemental material, more comparisons to the major coalmining districts in western Canada, particularly Vancouver Island, and in the western US states would help to substantiate Buckley’s assertions regarding responses to disasters. On the positive side, Buckley draws upon a wide range of primary sources from provincial and regional archives and enriches her study of the miners’ sense of fatalism, their fear of dangers, and the remorse they experienced after disasters by using ballads and songs that effectively capture their emotions. Also, a very readable style is maintained throughout, and relevant photographs are closely tied to the major themes. A couple of weaknesses are the tendency to try to cover too much within a short book and the lack of in-depth theoretical analysis.

Danger is clearly established in the first chapter. Buckley makes good use of government documents and mining histories to explain the mining techniques that increased danger as well as environmental conditions, such as “bumps” and “blowouts,” that released methane gas and caused explosions. More important, she acknowledges the high incidence of serious accidents and deaths that affected the miners and their families. Mention could also be made of the above-ground workers who faced equally threatening industrial hazards and, therefore, contributed to the climate of danger in the communities. With their personal choices limited by economic necessity and traditional father/son occupational patterns, few miners could take the most obvious choice of leaving the job when faced with danger. Fortunately, Buckley does not turn those who remained on the job into mythical stoic miner heroes but, rather, investigates whether its was their “risk taking behaviour,” lack of safety consciousness, or unforeseeable factors that led to accidents. Within this atmosphere of constant danger, miners developed coping methods by adopting a fatalistic attitude and enhancing traditions of pride in their craft, camaraderie, and independence of spirit to block fears of injury and death. Together, they created a sense of community.

While the section on rescue teams and the professionalization of the undertaking business reveals important responses to disasters, it does not appear able to stand as a chapter on its own. This material feels like it is wedged in between two important chapters and could be integrated into the general response, which would allow the section on personal, family, and community responses to be expanded.

A better sequence emerges as Buckley attempts to analyze how individuals and communities responded to death and disasters. The eleven subheadings in the third chapter, however, indicate that there is more to this area of study than can be covered in sixty-three pages. In some areas, the psychological and sociological theories Buckley harnesses to evaluate individual and community reactions need to be more fully developed and supplemented with more case studies. Trauma studies and the sociology of work could be further explored, especially with regard to issues of masculinity, widowhood, and family breakdown. However, Buckley successfully captures the sense of grief and shock caused by disasters and does not spare the reader the details of death, dismemberment, decapitation, and mutilation. Again her use of ballads, songs, and oral history assists in capturing the feeling of collective trauma. The one problem remaining is that the task of measuring community response is too large to be thoroughly carried out in the allotted space. Some of the subtopics, such as mutual aid societies, fraternal organizations, and unions, deserve a chapter on their own.

Generally, the reader is left with the impression of tight-knit communities that pulled together in the face of disasters. However, while Buckley captures many of the communal responses, some of the divisive issues need to be further developed. One response that requires attention is the anger and bitterness created by a large loss of lives. More labour historiography could be added in order to establish the class-based nature of the communities and the miners’ opposition to company attitudes, which put profits before safety. The strikes and protests that erupted after disasters reveal this response. Also, the unions’ role in bringing the community together and, in particular, placing pressure on the coal companies to live up to their obligation to improve the mines deserves more attention. And even if ethnicity, as stated by Buckley, “did not become the sole defining character of the area” (xv), after the 1902 Coal Creek disaster and during the First World War ghettoization, biased newspaper coverage, and flare-ups were significant indicators of tensions. The extent to which class and, in this case, disasters, overcame ethnic differences requires more investigation.

Nonetheless, Buckley presents a good outline of some important issues. The very short conclusion could be expanded to provide a clear picture of how the communities developed in the face of danger and whether they were different from other oneresource towns. By the end, Buckley partially achieves her stated objectives and provides a book of interest to both the specialized and general reader.