MYERS, SAMUEL H. (the name is sometimes written Meyers or Myres, but he signed Myers), miner and labour organizer; b. in 1838 in Ireland; d. unmarried 3 May 1887 at Nanaimo, B.C.
Samuel H. Myers immigrated to British Columbia from Ireland in 1858 to join the Fraser River gold-rush. During the 1860s and early 1870s he lived an itinerant life, following the gold-rushes and working at various jobs. In 1860–61 he was an expressman between Port Douglas (Douglas), at the head of Harrison Lake, and Lillooet on the Fraser River. From 1862 to 1867 he shared in various placer mining claims on Antler, Williams, and Grouse creeks in the Cariboo goldfields. In March 1865 at Victoria he was fined for drunken violence against an Indian woman. In 1869 he was at Lytton where he had earlier worked as a ferryman on the Thompson River, and two years later he joined the rush to the new gold discoveries at Omineca. By 1877 he had settled down as a miner in the coalfield around Nanaimo.
Production in the Nanaimo coalfield, first exploited by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1850s, rose sharply following the discovery in 1869 by Robert Dunsmuir of the Wellington seam. When Myers entered the industry as a miner in the mid 1870s the output was continuing to expand rapidly; in 1879 almost 250,000 tons were being mined, and by 1889 production had risen to over 500,000 tons. Employment in the fields grew accordingly: in 1869, 200 men worked in the single mine at Nanaimo, but ten years later 732 men were employed in the coal pits of Nanaimo and nearby Wellington, and by 1889, 1,927 men worked for three companies in ten pits. Although most of the actual face-workers were experienced miners, mainly from Great Britain, some, like Myers, turned to coal mining from other occupations. Among the labour force were an increasing number of Chinese and a diminishing group of native Indians. Eighty per cent of the coal was exported, mostly to California, where it had to compete in price with coal from the American northwest, Australia, and Great Britain.
The mining boom intensified clashes between the men and their employers. In the years 1877–83 there were four major strikes by face-workers, three of them ending in defeat, against the two companies that produced virtually all of the coal: in 1877 and 1883 against Robert Dunsmuir’s Wellington collieries for increases in tonnage rates; in 1880 (successfully) against the Nanaimo operations of the British-owned Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company to resist reductions in payment per ton; and in 1881 against the same company to protest extra loading not considered “customary.” In both 1877 and 1883 the Wellington miners organized themselves into a “Miners Mutual Protective Association” despite Dunsmuir’s threat to discharge any man openly joining a union. The two strikes against Dunsmuir were classic confrontations with the use of police (the militia was also called out in 1877), imported strike-breakers, evictions from company houses, as well as the arrest and trial of strikers. The 1883 strike ended with the strikers clamouring for Dunsmuir to discharge those Chinese he had begun to employ as face-workers rather than labourers. The striking miners did not object to Chinese working in the mines (some employed Asians to load for them), but wanted the Asians kept in the non-responsible positions called for in the Coal Mines Regulations Act of 1877.
In December 1883, following the failure of the Wellington strike in which he was involved, Myers organized the Calvin Ewing Local Assembly 3017 of the Knights of Labor in Nanaimo, the first unit of the Knights in British Columbia. Myers had first read about the Knights in a radical Irish nationalist newspaper, the New York Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, and then, earlier in 1883, he had spent eight weeks in San Francisco where he had been initiated into the secret work of the order by a California Knight, Calvin Ewing, and had obtained an organizer’s commission.
Although the Miners Mutual Protective Association continued to exist after the 1883 strike, some time in the spring of 1884 local assembly 3017 seems to have become the focus of union activity in the Nanaimo area; allied with it was a cooperative society which operated a retail store. In Victoria, however, Reginald Nuttall had received an organizer’s commission directly from Terence Vincent Powderly, the leader of the Knights in North America, on the recommendation of prominent Toronto Knight Daniel John O’Donoghue*, and in March 1884 Nuttall organized local assembly 3107. Myers, surprised at the overlapping jurisdictions, complained that Nuttall was a mere “real estate and stock broker” who “could not instruct in anything.” In August and September 1884 Myers organized new assemblies for coal miners at Wellington (local assembly 3429) in British Columbia, and at Newcastle, Carbonado, and Osceola in Washington Territory (local assemblies 3395, 3418, and 3422); other Knights’ assemblies emerged at New Westminster, Vancouver, and in construction camps along the Canadian Pacific Railway (local assemblies 5506, 5507, 5570, 8608, and 8707). In August 1887 six local assemblies combined to form district assembly 203 of the Knights of Labor, one of eight in Canada.
The entry of the Knights of Labor into British Columbia came during one of the peak periods of agitation against the Chinese population. Chinese imported as labourers for the Canadian Pacific Railway fuelled an already established prejudice. The Knights were initially most successful in organizing white urban workers and miners who felt threatened by the competition of the Chinese. Myers, for example, described himself as “combatting the Chinese curse” and Nuttall claimed to be the founder of the “Pacific Coast League Anti-Chinese Association.” Yet, revealing a contradiction within the movement Myers commended Powderly for his courageous assault on racism in the United States, and Nuttall described himself proudly as “an Internationalist,” “a Free Thinker,” “a confirmed Republican,” and “a Liberal of advanced views.”
Although the Knights as a body did not directly enter electoral politics in British Columbia, their supporters were active in the 1886 provincial campaign. In the Nanaimo electoral district, Myers and fellow-miner James Lewis, running as “Workingmen’s” candidates, opposed large land grants (such as that recently made to Robert Dunsmuir for the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway), Chinese labour, and the liquor traffic, and called for compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes; they promised to “promote the interest of Capital and Labor so that they may work harmoniously to develop the resources of the Province.” The election results were disappointing: Myers was at the bottom of the poll with only 30 votes, and Lewis next to last with 78; winning candidates were William Raybould and Robert Dunsmuir, Dunsmuir heading the poll with 366 votes. In a by-election a few months later, Myers announced his candidacy but soon withdrew in favour of Lewis, who nevertheless finished at the bottom of the poll.
In addition to his union activities Myers was a prominent member of the Independent Order of Good Templars, serving as an officer in the Grand Lodge of British Columbia; temperance sentiment was strong among the Knights throughout North America. He was also a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters and the Ancient Order of United Workmen, each of which offered insurance benefits attractive to coal miners.
The Nanaimo coal pits in which Myers worked were dry, often dusty, and usually gassy, and were therefore prone to explosions. Between 1879 and 1888, four major and two minor explosions killed 262 men. On 3 May 1887 the worst of these killed 147 men at the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company’s no.1 mine in Nanaimo. Samuel Myers was among the men trapped on no.5 level, Old Slope, who succumbed to after-damp. He died intestate and the pay due to him was used to erect a marker over his grave in St Peter’s Roman Catholic cemetery in Nanaimo.
Although it was said that the affairs of the Nanaimo assembly of the Knights fell into confusion only after Myers’ death, there is some evidence that it did not enrol even a majority of the miners when he was alive. Of the 97 white men killed in the explosion only 29 were associated with the Knights and just six of these were members in good standing. However, local assembly 3017 had grown from 17 charter members in 1883 to 241 in the following year before declining to 150 by 1885, the last year for which data are available.
Samuel Myers’ working life in British Columbia spanned the transition from the loose partnerships of individual “free miners” washing out alluvial gold with minimal equipment to heavily capitalized limited companies operating extensive coal and hard rock mines in which the working miner was only a hired hand, unable as an individual to protect his interests. Myers, who justifiably described himself as “the father of the Knights of Labor in B.C.,” is representative of those workingmen who turned to unions to redress the balance.
Catholic Univ. of America Arch. (Washington), Terence V. Powderly papers (mfm. at PAC). PABC, GR 216; GR 431, B.C., Attorney General, Inquisitions, “Inquest into explosion in No.1 mine, Nanaimo, 3 May 1887”; Colonial corr., Lands and Works Dept. corr. St Peter’s (Roman Catholic) Church (Nanaimo, B.C.), Cemetery records, 11 May 1887.
B.C., Legislative Assembly, Sessional papers, 1874–90 (annual reports of the minister of mines); 1878–86 (lists of persons entitled to vote in the electoral district of Nanaimo); 1889: 472. Knights of Labor, Proc. of the General Assembly ([Philadelphia]), 1887. Daily British Colonist (Victoria), 5, 12, 19 June, 10, 24 July 1860; 1 March, 9 Aug. 1861; 19 May 1862; 15 March 1865. Free Press (Nanaimo), 17 Dec. 1881; 16, 22, 25 Aug., 24 Oct., 3 Nov. 1883; 26 Jan., 9 Feb., 10 Sept., 22 Oct. 1884; 13, 20 Feb., 16 Oct., 17 Nov., 22, 25, 30 Dec. 1885; 11, 21 May, 1 June 1887. Industrial News (Victoria), 1885–86. Journal of United Labor (Philadelphia), 1887. The British Columbia directory . . . (Victoria), 1882–85; 1887. CPC, 1887. First Victoria directory . . . , comp. Edward Mallandaine (Victoria), 1871. J. N. G. Bartlett, “The 1877 Wellington miners’ strike” (ba essay, Univ. of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1975). J. E. Garlock, “A structural analysis of the Knights of Labor: a prolegomenon to the history of the producing classes” (phd thesis, Univ. of Rochester, N.Y., 1974). D. R. Kennedy, “The Knights of Labor in Canada” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ontario, London, 1945; also pub. under the same title, London, 1956). J. E. Muller and M. E. Atchison, Geology, history and potential of Vancouver Island coal deposits (Ottawa, 1971). P. A. Phillips, No power greater: a century of labour in British Columbia (Vancouver, 1967). M. L. Tweedy, “The 1880 and 1881 strikes by the miners of the Vancouver Coal Company” (ba essay, Univ. of British Columbia, 1978).
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