1583 Blowing the dust away
Beneath the Coal Dust: Historical Journeys Through the Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass
by Wayne Norton
Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2022
$26.00 / 9781773860923
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
Blowing the Dust Away: A historian digs out unique local stories that shed light on our national history
Wayne Norton is a master of footnote history. By that I mean he peers into local British Columbia history, and plucks out events and individuals that other historians may not see fit to explore. The former teacher turned historian dives right in and we readers are the beneficiaries of his commendable efforts.
As with his earlier book, Fernie at War — (reviewed here by Keith Regular) — Norton is entirely focused on the East Kootenay mining communities of the Crowsnest Pass. He opens our eyes to the colourful events and even more colourful characters – “the con artists, carpetbaggers, whisky sellers and brothel keepers” – that populated the region from the earlier 1900s to mid-century. Readers have come to rely on him for that extra detail that marks rigorous historical writing and fact-based storytelling with an eye for the unusual often revealing the little known.
Take the opening chapter of his latest book. Football (soccer) fans will already be aware of the play-by-play of early cup competition among the mining towns of the mountainous region. But Norton adds a twist for labour history buffs. Readers may have heard of socialist labour organizer Albert “Ginger” Goodwin, martyred in 1918 by a police bullet. What they may not know is that he played footie for the coal-mining town of Michel in 1910. It wasn’t his last appearance in the book.
And, of course, there is local hockey, more specifically women’s hockey. In recent years, women have given fans winning performances at the Winter Olympics. In the Kootenays, those skills were being developed at least as early as 1900 when Rossland produced a champion team of pucksters. A few years later, Fernie iced its own team with the unlikely name the Fernie Swastikas. In 1922, the Calgary Herald described them as a “world-beating team.”
As Norton tell us, with Hitler’s rise to power in the 1920s, the team’s name became a liability and was abandoned. As Norton quips, “One cannot help but wonder if the Fernie players might by now have claimed their rightful places in the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame had they stuck with the decision to call themselves the Fernie Red Wings.”
From sports, Norton guides us into the local business world, but again with a twist. Today, Syrian refugees are a common sight for Canadians, but as Norton shows Syrians have been with us for more than 100 years, many of them as Fernie business owners. Why Fernie? Norton suggests it was because it offered a “beacon of promise for immigrant businessmen from the Assyrian province of the Ottoman Empire.”
A chapter on the collapse of the Home Bank of Canada in 1923 also focuses on local business. In his longest chapter, Norton walks us through all aspects of the Home Bank disaster that devastated the meagre bank accounts of local coal miners and farmers. Changes to the Bank Act in 1924 that provided protections were guided in part by the Home Bank failure. It may not have been the first to fail, “but it was the largest and it was the last,” writes Norton.
From business to unions, his chapter on the Fernie Miners’ Union Building tells the sad tale of the union’s failure to make it work. In the early days of Kootenay mining unions, workers contributed to the construction of elaborate meeting places that doubled as entertainment halls, store fronts, or beer halls. The building “was clearly going to be one of the most impressive architectural achievements of Fernie’s ambitious reconstruction process, [after the devastating 1908 fire] and the fledgling Workingmen’s Club had found a home in it. In the optimism of the moment, no one in the club or the miners’ union would have predicted the troubled future that lay ahead.”
Before TV or radio, towns like Fernie relied on the travelling entertainers that showed up at the Miners’ Union Theatre and other venues. Among the most popular was Jeanne Russell, the leader of a touring troupe. Accompanying her was an unknown thespian named William (Billy) Pratt. Long before he earned fame and fortune as Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff, took to the stage in Nelson just before arriving in Fernie, then played “a Russian grand duke in The Man from Home in Calgary soon after leaving Fernie.”
Ever watchful of ethnicity and discrimination, Norton chooses one person to illustrate the absurdity of zealous patriotism fuelled by nativism in the Kootenays. First it was the Chinese, then the Japanese, then in 1914, it was the Germans. Hermann Elmer, a trade unionist and community activist, features as the scapegoat for local anger that led to his interment. By 1919 he was “perhaps the longest-serving prisoner at Vernon [internment camp].” The internment authorities considered him a ‘highly undesirable’ internee” and he was subsequently deported.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, no public institution devoted itself more rigorously to fomenting anti-Asian sentiment and attempting to shun them from Kootenay towns than the local press. Norton reveals the discriminatory views of the two rival Fernie newspapers, the Free Press and the Ledge (later the District Ledger).
Like most editors of the day, Ledge editor Colonel Robert T. Lowery’s “animosity towards Asian immigrants was evident in almost every issue.” He was a key fixture of Kootenay journalism for many years with other editors quoting him reverently. It is regrettable that he unleashed his popular wit against Asians.
His departure from the Ledge in 1905 brought an unusual new owner in District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America. The new editors “generally avoided the sharp tones of Lowery when commenting on Asian immigrants, but continued to express concern about Japanese labour, especially when a small number of Japanese labourers were employed for a few days at the coke ovens at Fernie in 1907.” Sikh sawmill workers faced the wrath of the rival Free Press, “which warned of the negative impact of employing ‘Hindoo’ . . . Chinese and Japanese labourers.”
No book about the mining West would be complete without its chapter on the red-light district and Norton does not fail to please. Again, he uses one individual to bring the story to life. Her name was Lena Bell, a local ‘lady of the night’ among other “gaily dressed courtesans,” “nymphs of the pave” and “soiled doves.” The town’s “feathered beauties” so offended Free Press editor G.G. Henderson that he “insisted respectable wives and daughters should be protected from the sight and even the knowledge of the vice.”
The red-light chapter also offers interesting demographic information. Lena Bell, for example, “was one of the eleven Americans and one of five stated by the census to be Black.” Norton explains that “if the example of Lena Bell is typical, they were not to be trifled with. When a miner refused to repay a modest loan he received from her, she quickly hired a local solicitor and won a judgment against him in civil court.”
Perhaps in a more sober moment of reflection, and having had enough of Henderson’s high and mighty lectures, editor Lowery “called for a ‘happy medium’, noting: ‘Any community absolutely under the power of church or saloon becomes unfit for the abode of free and intelligent human beings’.” Ironically and hypocritically, Fernie teachers’ salaries were paid with fines against brothels and prostitutes.
Wayne Norton deserves much praise for digging through the reams of newspaper pages to find these precious nuggets. Each chapter tells a local story on its own merit. Together the chapters immerse us in a place that serves as a microcosm for the whole country. Blowing away the dust, Norton uncovers some of the stuff we are made of.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His forthcoming book Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023) tells the 30-year social history of the Trail Creek News, a feisty pioneer newspaper in Trail. His recent book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed here by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codenamed Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), is reviewed by Mike Sasges. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He has contributed an essay to The British Columbia Review on trade unionist Harvey Murphy, and has recently reviewed books by Mark Hume, Michael Gates, Jesse Donaldson & Erika Dyck, Michael Cone, Bob Williams, and Larry Gambone for The British Columbia Review. Ron lives in Victoria.
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Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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