Cumberland Coal

Shaft Number 6, Cumberland, BC
Cumberland Mine #6 – Illustration by George McLachlan

Union was the original name for Cumberland, the mining town founded by the Union Coal Company in 1870. The name was changed the following year when coal was discovered and mine-owner Robert Dunsmuir brought over miners from the coal-mining county of Cumberland in northwest England.

The town quickly grew to a population of 3,000. Miners of many nationalities and ethnicities worked there including Italians, Chinese, Japanese, and Blacks. Each group kept to their own community and racist attitudes prevailed. Dunsmuir, for example, paid Asian workers on a lower scale than white miners and used them as strikebreakers. In retaliation, miners often targeted their Chinese co-workers as scapegoats explosions or fires in the mines.

Cumberland Shantytown houses
Cumberland Houses

With its eight coalmines, Cumberland contributed significantly to the province’s economic development. No. 4 mine alone produced 2,540 tonnes of coal a day. Although production fell in the 1920s, 80 businesses and 50 stores still served the town until they were destroyed in the fires of 1932 and 1933.

Today, Cumberland is a quiet village with a main commercial street and side streets with old houses remaining from mining days. Visitors can still see the sealed coal shafts and visit the mining museum to appreciate the glory days of one of the province’s most important mining communities.

“Cumberland Coal” uses a fictional character, Jack Dunne, who is the ghost of a miner killed in a mine explosion in 1901. The explosion and fires which killed 64 workers were caused by methane gas seeping from the coal and igniting.

Cumberland Coal

Pleased to meet you son. My name is Jack Dunne
Died in the year of Nineteen-O-One
Down shaft number five of the Cumberland mine
Hardly a soul that day did survive
All aboard that midnight train for glory
Heaven bound so they sang
Sixty-four below, bodies lay in the coal
Up above church bells rang. Up above church bells rang

I must tell you now, it was pure hell down there
Smell of gas always in the air
Ten hours of everyday we worked hard as slaves
All that we received, two dollars in pay
Hours we would lie ‘neath a ceiling three feet high
Pick and shovel, hands and knees
The colour of your skin didn’t mean anything
Black or white or Chinese. Black or white or Chinese

On a cold winter day to the mine, made my way
Kissed goodbye a wife I’d not see again
High above, blue grey sky. Downward we did fly
Not one man that day wanted to die
In the heat below gas seeped from the coal
A spark… then it blew
Fire raced along singing the reaper’s song
Ended the life I once knew. Ended the life I once knew

So now I meet you on these streets
Who did you think you’d meet?
Where lives have been lost ghosts stay around
In your time is it still the same
Do people die as the rich man gains?
It’s always been that way. When will it ever change?
Change. When will it change?

Pleased to meet you son. My name is Jack Dunne
I died in the year of Nineteen-O-One

© John McLachlan (SOCAN)

Union Bay, BC
Union Bay, Vancouver Island where the coal from Cumberland was shipped from