Soon May The Draegerman Come


Safety wasn’t something much talked about in coal mining in the early days. Coal mining is a risky business after all. When coal production was booming in Cumberland in the late 19th and early 20th century, a man (or boy) took his life into his hands every time he went “down the pit.”

There were different challenges in every coal mine. Most of the coal mines on Vancouver Island were narrow coal seams which meant working crouched over for eight to ten hours at a time. No.4 slope mine was wet as well. But the worst hazard was always gas. Cumberland had notoriously gassy mines.

Dangerous conditions like rock falls or runaway coal carts killed miners in ones and twos. But a gas explosion? A whole shift of men could die at once, and did. At No.6 mine on February 18th, 1901, 64 men died, including two 17 year olds. In 1903 another 16 men died at the same mine. 17 more died at No.4 in 1922 and another 33 at No.4 in 1923. All gas explosions.

There is nothing darker than a coal mine. Candles were used in the very early coal mines in Scotland, replaced by oil-wick lamps in about 1850. “Open flame” lamps were commonly used in the Cumberland mines. Oil wick lamps burned brightly and were designed with a hook on the back to mount on a miner’s soft cap, often with a reflector to direct the light to the work surface. Miners had to pay for their equipment so they would use the cheapest fuel available: often lard cut with kerosene or whale oil, which produced a very smokey flame. Carbide lamps were invented around 1910 and the acetylene gas burned brighter than the oil wick lamps, but the drawback of both lamps was that the open flames could ignite the methane gas in the mines. 

There were safety lamps in existence but they were larger, had to be carried and didn’t produce as much light. Miners were paid by the pound. Safety meant a reduction in efficiency and time was money. Edison electric safety lamps became more common after WW1 but the elimination of open flame lamps did not completely eliminate gas explosions. Any stray spark, careless match, accumulation of coal dust in the air or improperly reported evidence of gas in the workings were reasons to fear an explosion.

Toxic gas is common in coal mines.  The fireboss is responsible for checking air quality and gas levels in the mine workings prior to the shift to ensure the safety of the men. The first firemen covered themselves in wet sackcloth and held a lit torch on the end of a long stick and walked the tunnels, igniting any methane and burning off the gas before work started. This was incredibly dangerous work and if the fireman was unlucky he could ignite a dangerous quantity of methane and die. Another firemen would take his place and walk the tunnels until the mine was clear of gas and work could continue. The presence of gas and unsafe conditions ignited “the Big Strike” on Vancouver Island between 1912-1914. 

Unsuspecting or careless behaviour has deadly consequences in a coal mine. Informal rescue squads could unblock a tunnel or provide rudimentary first aid but they were not trained to save miners trapped in dangerous conditions. If there were high levels of toxic gas present, it wasn’t safe for the rescuers to enter the mine. It wasn’t until the invention of the first self-contained breathing apparatus that mine rescues with gas present in the atmosphere could be actual rescues and not just body recovery. 

Drager & Gerling in Lubeck Germany patented a reduction device for using carbon dioxide to dispense beer in 1889. The technology was found to have other uses: regulating gas for medical ventilators and incubators, scuba diving rebreather devices and air filter and respiratory personal protection systems for fire prevention, mining and other hazardous occupations.

In 1906, the first self-contained breathing apparatus for mine rescue in North America was purchased by Glace Bay Collieries. Rescue workers became known as “draegermen” and were responsible for saving many lives in mine disasters,working under precarious conditions at great risk to their own lives. 

Mine rescue has existed in B.C. to assist in mine emergencies since 1909. Mines were required by law to provide emergency response under the Health, Safety and Reclamation code for mines in B.C. and paid men to train. The shortest course was two sessions of two hours but the most comprehensive was a ten session course for which the men were paid $22.50. It was also the first step in the certification process to become a fireboss, which was a step up in pay. In a time when a miner’s day wage was under $3.50/day, this was meant to enrol as many people as possible. 

In 1915, to add to the prestige of becoming a rescue worker, Dr.Frost of Ladysmith and Mr. J.H. Cunningham, manager of Canadian Collieries Dunsmuir Limited, put up $35.00 in prize money for the Frost Cunningham Cup, a safety competition that fielded four teams of four men. In later years all the Vancouver Island mines competed for various trophies. Competition was fierce. We have the Vancouver Island Mining Safety Association Trophy for Draeger Competition in the Cumberland Museum and Archives collection. The trophy was first awarded in 1917 and the most recent names etched on “the Shield” are more recent than you might think – 2019. Several “draegermen” champions have walked through the museum and proudly pointed out their names on the trophy.

A long history of safety that was indirectly benefited by improvements in making beer, which, not coincidentally, has been the beverage of choice for coal miners for generations.

Image: C175-005, No 7 mine rescue team 1914-15 c.c.d. ltd. draeger gear mine manager, T. Spruston, P. Meyers, C. Dando, Jr. Pete Meyers. Shows use of inhaler equipment. Date: 1914-15.