Underground coal mining was a skilled trade that required experience and intelligence as well as physical stamina. Miners often began work as boys of 12 or 14 and spent a life time digging coal. As a man gained experience, he could take stringent provincial examinations to gain his Third Class, Second Class or First Class Miner's Certificate. Courses were available for the advanced certificates through correspondence schools such as the Bennett College of Sheffield, England, the International Correspondence School of London, England and Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the Calgary Institute of Technology and Art.
Miners who aspired to a Third Class Certificate (or higher rating) also had to have a St. John's Ambulance first aid certificate and a mine rescue certificate. Most miners were satisfied with a simple miners certificate which permitted them to work at the coal face in the mine. This qualification was usually attained by passing an oral examination from the District Mines Inspector. A Third Class Certificate, granted if the miner passed a day of written provincial exams, enabled a miner to be in charge of 10 men and to work as a fire boss in smaller mines. A Second Class Certificate permitted a miner to be a foreman, overman or undermanager. He could be a shiftboss working under an undermanager who would have at least equivalent qualifications.
A miner, with an advanced certificate, could become a Fire Boss who supervised a shift of miners working underground. He was also responsible for testing the air for the presence of methane. For this, he carefully monitored the flame in his safety lamp, a device designed to provide a safe way of testing for gas underground.
A First Class Certificate, the most difficult to attain and requiring three days of detailed examinations, meant that the person could be the manager of any coal mine in British Columbia. Curiously, the British Columbia and Alberta ministries of mines did not recognize each other's certificates and for a miner to work in senior positions in another province he had to take that province's exams. For miners working in the Crowsnest Pass where there were mines within a few miles of each other but separated by the provincial boundary, they could not easily work back and forth from one province to the other.
Employment in the Crowsnest Mines
In 1902, for example, at the Coal Creek Colliery of the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company there were 451 men employed underground and another 110 worked on the surface for a total work force of 561. No Japanese, Chinese or First Nations workers were employed at the colliery. Men were paid on this basis:
In addition, at the Morrissey Colliery, a total of 203 men were employed.
Working conditions in the mines were primitive by modern standards but typical of coal mines of the era. Coal mining was a dangerous occupation that required physical stamina as well as skill and experience. The Crowsnest mines, because of the presence of dangerous gases were particularly susceptible to gas explosions and "bumps" as well as falls of rock and coal and the other hazards of working underground. Safety was a concern of miners and management in the collieries and strict rules were enforced to help ensure safety.
Miners were charged under the "Coal Mines Regulation Act" if they were found with matches or smoking materials underground. For example, on April 22, 1902, William Edwards was sentenced to 20 days' imprisonment for smoking in the Michel mine. On November 23rd, four men were fined $5.00 each and court costs for being found with matches in the Fernie mine. This penalty was equivalent to about two days' wages. Sometimes the penalties were even harsher. Examples of sentences from 1903, following inspections, included: Pat Grayhan, one month's imprisonment for having matches and a candle in the Morrissey mine and Louis Aquino, fined $5.00 for having a match in the Morrissey mine.
On November 12, twelve miners were charged for having matches in the mines. Most received sentences of one month's imprisonment with hard labour, for having matches in either the Coal Creek of Morrissey mines. They, and their families, also lost their wages for the time away from the mines.
On May 22, 1902 an explosion in the No. 2 Mine at Coal Creek killed 126 miners in one
of the worst disasters in British Columbia mining history. Each year, however, there was a
steady toll of fatal accidents and injuries from work in the coal mines. In 1903, the Report
to the Minister of Mines recorded (for the year 1902):
In 1903, a provincial Commission on Coal Mines Explosions found:
The report went on to note that in Great Britain the rate of fatalities were .624 from explosions for every million tons produced and the rate of deaths was 3.328 from other causes. In Pennsylvania, the equivalent rates were .415 and 4.63. These figures suggested clearly that the British Columbia mines (which included the Vancouver Island mines) were some of the most dangerous in which to work.