A different Ladysmith

Ladysmith has the reputation of being a very friendly town.

Ladysmith has the reputation of being a very friendly town.

You walk down the streets and people will smile and wave, probably even say hello or stop to talk.

But it wasn’t always this cordial. Imagine walking down the street not knowing if you were about to be stabbed, or waking up and finding dynamite in your kids’ bedroom.

This was the harsh reality of life for strikers and workers in Ladysmith during the 1912 to 1914 coal strike.

When the workers started their strike, it didn’t take long for mine management to strike a deal with Chinese and Japanese workers, along with some of the miners who could not afford to strike.

This caused concern for the striking workers who depended on the strength of solidarity to get recognition.

In January 1913, the Extension mine re-opened and some for the men went back to work.

And increasing competition from Washington mines was not helping the situation as both sides dug in for what would become a long and violent battle between strikers, non-strikers, strike-breakers and the military.

Soon, then-mayor Hillier sent a note to then-attorney general saying the local police could not handle the situation and provincial police were needed.

Strikers harassed non-strikers and vandalized homes.

By May 1, 1913, the strike had grown to involve every coal mine on Vancouver Island.

The companies responded by importing strike-breakers which increased tension.

“August (1913) was the heat of the thing,” said Ed Nicholson with the historical society.

According to history writer Viola Johnson-Cull in her book Chronicle of Ladysmith and District, on August 11, 1913, a rumour was spread around Nanaimo that strikers had been shot by strike-breakers.

And on Aug. 13, 1913, several hundred miners marched on Extension. Homes were smashed and burned during the ordeal. When they reached Extension, the strike-breakers barricaded themselves in their ‘bullpen’ and opened fire. One man was wounded and the bullpen was burned to the ground.

On August 12, 1913, tensions reached a boiling point in Ladysmith.

A large group of men, angry about the arrival of more strike-breakers and news one of the strikers had been stabbed.

According to history writer Richard Goodacre, the strikers were ready to ‘take the law into their own hands.’

Shortly after midnight a bomb had been detonated behind the Temperance Hotel where some of the strike-breakers were staying.

Later another bomb was thrown into the house of miner Alec McKinnon.

Three men Mike Adams, Bill ‘Tango’ Jackson and Bill Stacouse marched up the street from the local miners’ hall (above what is now Wigwam Restaurant).

‘Chicken’ Michek was also with the men, but turned around before the bomb was heaved.

In a report in the Times Colonist, Stacouse asked the question, “Do you think you’d better do this? There’s women and children in there.”

“We’ll just shake’em up,” was Adams reply.

Alec was awoken by the smash of glass and went to his kids’ room to investigate.

Under the bed he saw what he immediately recognized as dynamite.

Leaping into action, Alec grabbed the dynamite and tried to throw it back out of the window, but the drawn curtains offered a challenge.

McKinnon dashed out of the room containing four of his five kids and into the kitchen, where he again threw the bomb.

He was seconds too late and the ensuing blast robbed him of his right hand and eye.

The next day striking miners marched through the streets yelling and smashing windows.

The events were enough for then-attorney general W.J. Bowser to send in the military.

On August 16, 1913, 130 troops from the 5th Regiment Canadian Garrison Artillery came into Ladysmith and posted camp at the Abbotsford Hotel across from the train station.

Kit Willmot, with the historical society, said when the militia came to town, they came heavily armed with a machine gun.

The arrival of the troops brought an end to the violence and strike-breakers’ shenanigans.

Mass arrests followed until the jails were full.

Of the 50 men sent to jail, 38 were from Ladysmith, ironically, one of the men was Sam Guthrie, president of the Ladysmith union who had urged the strikers to not use force.

In June 1914, Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd. made a proposal for settlement. It was rejected because it failed to recognize the union.

By August 20, 1914 the strikers were forced to accept the deal and go back to work. Failing to achieve its primary goal of recognition, the United Mine Workers’ Association was finished on Vancouver Island.