21 Feb 2019

Pike River mine re-entry reminds Kaitangata of another disaster

11:44 am on 21 February 2019

As operations ramp up on the West Coast to re-enter Pike River mine, in another small mining town minds are turning to another tragedy underground - the death of 34 men and boys in Kaitangata in 1879.

Kaitangata town.

Kaitangata town. Photo: RNZ/ Ian Telfer

School children will carry crosses through the small South Otago town today to mark 140 years since New Zealand's first mining disaster.

It was sometime around 8am on 21 February, 1879, when Archibald Hodge, the brother of Kaitangata Mine's manager, took a naked flame into a disused part of the workings.

At the time 33 people were underground and Edward Dunn, 15, was on a horse 40 metres from the tunnel's mouth when the blast occurred.

The teen survived the initial blast. However, reports at the time described it as breaking every bone in his body. He died soon after.

"A lot of the men weren't burnt. They were trying to get out, they were just overcome with gas," local historian Irene Sutton said.

The bodies were all recovered within days as miners from around the region poured in to help return the men to their loved ones.

But the tragedy left many families bereft without their breadwinner, Mrs Sutton said.

"Some of them were just here a few weeks. They probably didn't know a lot of people.

"They would have no money to go back to England or wherever and there was no help for people in those days. So, it was a terrible time for all the widows and families."

A welfare fund was created to provide what assistance could be given and the country collectively grieved, she said.

In many cases, more than one family member died in the tragedy. James Beardsmore was killed along with his brother, two sons and a son-in-law.

His great-great-grandson, historian Pete Read, learnt of his family's connection as a teenager.

"When I think about the story I always try to think of it from my great-grandmother's perspective.

"She was fairly hard hit by the events because she not only lost a husband, she lost a father, two brothers and an uncle. And so she was left with three children of her own and one on the way, and [with] no means of income, no social welfare or those sort of things."

The disaster did not mark the end of coal mining in the district.

Law changes provided protection to miners, but men - and boys - continued working in trying and treacherous conditions underground.

Spencer Carson was only 13 on his first day at Kaitangata's coal mines in the late 1930s.

"Most of the kids, when they finished school here, that's where they went to," the 94-year-old said.

"The mine was the usual place to go to because it was a big thing then. It was all underground."

Mining was the only industry in town and though the work was hard, he loved it.

"I was trucking down there and that's the stuff that takes the ginger out of you," he said.

"You had two miners and they used to dig as much coal as they could in the boxes. And they were all hungry for boxes. If you didn't keep them going they were squealing."

Underground mining continued in the area until 1970 when Lockington - the last underground mine in Kaitangata - closed.

Coal still plays a big part in the town though only 11 people work at the local mine now. There were hundreds underground in the heydey.

Kai Point Coal manager Chris O'Leary said conditions at the open cast operation were a far cry from what was faced by the early pioneers.

"We obviously have dangers; we've got big machines now.

"We've got roads, we've got trucks and things moving around so there are still dangers. But not quite like the underground's [hazards]."

Though laws were passed in the wake of 1879's tragedy, it would not be the last. More than 180 have died in the country's mines since.

Today's march through the town to the disaster's memorial at the town's cemetery marks the beginning of six weeks of commemorative events.

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