Owned by the Vancouver Coal Company the Number One coal mine, located at the foot of Milton Street in Nanaimo, was the most successful and lucrative mine in the area. Known as the “Esplanade”, its shafts and tunnels extended over extensive grounds from under the harbour to Protection Island, Newcastle Island, and the Nanaimo River. Expansion led to the addition of many new shafts and tunnels, turning the mine into an intricate network of twists and turns. As the mine grew more complicated, the likelihood of a major disaster became more real. Poor ventilation and the accumulation of coal dust unfortunately caused those fears to become a realization as one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history unfolded on a fateful spring day.
On May 3, 1887, a pocket of gas floated undetected along the south slope of the mine. When a worker fired a poorly placed shot into the nearby rock, the gas ignited, causing the mine to explode. The catastrophic explosion killed many men instantly and trapping others in the mine while a fire raged above. A number of the men trapped even wrote farewell messages in the dust in their shovels. In total, 150 miners were killed, with only 7 miners surviving the tragic event. After the explosion, the mine re-opened and continued to produce 18 million tons of coal before closing permanently in 1938. Today, a plaque at the foot of Milton Street commemorates the men who lost their lives in the tragedy. (From the collection of the Nanaimo Archives)