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Black Wednesday: Miners' Wives and the 1935 Corbin, B.C., Strike

B M Durtnall is a historian and writer with an MA in history. Her focus on labour history resulted in her website "Labouringallourlives.ca"

black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike

Corbin: A Brief History

Corbin was a community near Crow’s Nest Pass in British Columbia, Canada. Its founder was a 73-year-old American entrepreneur, Daniel Chase Corbin. While exploring, he stumbled across the coal. This was “Coal Mountain” and the surface mining sliced through the “Big Showing” – the surface coal seam. His mining company, Corbin Coke and Coal Company, was one of several setting up shop in the Crow’s Nest Pass area. These included the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company founded by William Fernie, Col. James Baker and a few associates.

In 1912, the owners and operators of Corbin Coke had in its employ some 173 miners. At this date, they were extracting approximately 122,000 tons of coal – much of it from this - Canada’s original open pit mines. This was the No. 3 or Roberts Mine and coal from here went down the mountain on the company’s own railroad. At the base of Coal Mountain sat the town of Corbin. In 1910, it boasted a population of around 600. The town, company owned and run, featured the usual company store and the Flathead Hotel.

That same year, the workers in the company mines joined a union. This was the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). In 1919, they opted to become a part of the growing Western union movement – One Big Union. However, management, under Daniel Corbin’s son – Austin Corbin II, refused to deal with them. Partially because of this, the miners returned to the UMWA.

During the 1930s, times were tough. It was the Great Depression and running a business, even a coalmine, did not get easier. Nevertheless, the company decided to expand its operations. This added stress on the workers only increased their sense of unease. Working conditions continued to deteriorate and apprehensions built. The result was a strike.

black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike

Black Wednesday

The Corbin coalminers went out in 1935. They were fighting against the harsh conditions under which they laboured for such low wages. The strike was also in protest of the firing of the secretary of their local, John Press. The miners made their position clear. They wanted improvements in their work environment and the rehiring of John Press.

Corbin Coke and Coal, refused to listen. They cut off the power to the strikers’ homes and called in the Provincial Police. As was the norm of the times, instead of dealing with the workers, the company hired scabs. The miners heard the company, with the help of their police and security forces, planned to move in a large group of Scabs on Wednesday, April 17, 1935.

That day, at around 7:45 a.m., the women of Corbin formed the front line of a demonstration. Their husbands, sons and brothers – many with rocks and tools in hand, stood in the line behind them. The intent was to make a stand and, in doing so, block the entry of company scabs.

Meanwhile, the company had billeted their hired security - police and other armed forces in the nearby Flathead Hotel. After seeing the workers form up, the police charged out and prepared to attack. According to eyewitnesses, they formed two squads, one on either side of the protesters, effectively penning them in. The two groups could have stayed in this position, facing off, except, the employers had not intended to allow this action to continue.

After the police securely trapped the strikers, women in the middle and at the front of the line, two actions took place simultaneously. The police began to press forward and a tractor – snowplough attached, began to move inexorably towards the striking miners and their wives. Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay (1909-1926) recorded the words of one strike leader on what followed

“Before we could understand anything the caterpillar was moving forward, straight at our women.”

The result of this infamous and even unconscionable action were a number of wounded – some seriously. The figures range between 33 and77 miners hurt. These statistics vary according to the source with the government papers playing down the numbers and pro-labour papers increasing them. According to the reports by Helen Guthridge and other Labour activists, the tractor

  • crushed the legs of several women
  • dragged one woman 300 feet
  • tore the flesh from the legs of another woman

In addition, the clubs wielded unremittingly by the police across, backs, shoulders and other body parts, resulted in not only bruises and broken bones, but also a miscarriage. This day became forever known by the miners as Black Wednesday.

black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike
black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike

The Aftermath

To increase the difficulties facing the strikers, the company prevented the entry of medical professionals or other labour supporters into the town following the incident. They simply closed down the railroad and blocked the roads with officers, letting no one they did not want in. This left one doctor, Dr. Elliott, to handle all medical issues without access to the region’s only hospital in Fernie. A small delegation finally arrived.

black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike

One government official stands out during this affair. In contrast to other Members of the BC legislature, Tom Uphill (1874-1962), M.L.A. for Fernie, stood up for the workers. He gave a 15-minute speech on Station C.J.O.R., Vancouver, on April 22nd on their behalf stressing the brutal actions of the police involved. He also joined with the UMWA in launching a representation to the government.

However, all actions were for not. In this strike, neither the company nor the miners won. The mine closed down in May 1935 putting everyone out of work. Since then, the coalmines have opened under several different owners, the last one being Teck Coal in 2008 (until present), but the town of Corbin no longer exists. Only a small group of houses and the remains of residences and other structures are there to indicate the town’s existence.

black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike
black-wednesday-miners-wives-and-the-1935-corbin-bc-strike

Sources

Burton, Nicole Marie. 2016. “Coal Mountain: A Graphic Re-telling of the 1935 Corbin Miners’ Strike.” In Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle.” Between the Lines.

Buhay, Beckie. 1927. “In the Grip of Steel and Coal.” The Worker, April 9.

“Corbin, BC Terrorism Described.” 1935. The Worker, April 25.

Hutton, Glen: “Corbin British Columbia: The Incomplete History of the Mining Operation and the People of Corbin.” https://www.dropbox.com/s/9w1yh8r6cj1o0tz/Corbin%20History%20Mining%20Jan%2013%202016.pdf?dl=0.

Kinnear, John. “Elk Valley Coal News.” http://elkvalleycoal.com/history/

Police Cordon around Corbin Strike Region.” 1935. The Worker, April 18.

Seager, Allen. 1985. “Socialists and Workers: The Western Coal Miners, 1900-1921.” Labour/Le Travail 10:25-59.

Uphill, Thomas. City of Fernie Wall of Fame. http://www.fernie.ca/EN/main/residents/community-life/wall-of-fame.html

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