January 24th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 24
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Frank the Czech in Frank – Part II
Looking Back
courtesy Fernie Museum Archives
Mine entry at Morrissey circa 1904
So I ended last week’s story with Frank Wejr, a Czech immigrant, arriving at St. John, N.B. in 1903. Now finally we can get into his connection here in the Pass. It begins with his arrival along with four others that February, after a seven day train trip, at Morrissey Mines which is a few kilometers south of Fernie. B.C. Morrissey had started up a couple years earlier with a mine and town site called Carbonado and 240 beehive ovens for coking.

On arrival they met their friend Antonin Bryndac who, along with Alios Marek and Frantisek Cerny, had been working at Morrissey for eight months. I should add that these three already had their wives with them. Much to his disappointment he discovered the mine had been on strike for two weeks, a strike that would last two months. Frank wisely chose to leave with Bryndac after a month of waiting, moving to Fernie where they eventually found work after the valley wide strike was over.

This was one of several decisions that may have saved Frank’s life. Morrissey suffered a terrible gas outburst in October of that year that killed four men. The Carbonado mines were deadly dangerous, just how deadly will been seen later. Instead Frank and Antonin worked a few weeks up Coal Creek of which Frank said: “I have to say that there was so much gas that I have never before and never after seen anything like it”. Frank abruptly quit after six weeks and his friend Bryndac chose to leave with him. He wouldn’t even finish his last shift because he was so convinced of the dangerous conditions he was working in. Coal Creek mines were full of gas and not a year earlier an explosion had killed a staggering 130 men in one blast on May 22, 1902.

Frank did odd jobs in the area until fall and then he and Vaclav Ondricek went to Washington State to work in the mine in the small town of Roslyn. Seems like everywhere Frank went disasters had preceded him and Roslyn was no different. Eleven years earlier 45 men had died in the Roslyn Mine disaster. That April Frank returned to Canada, this time to Lille, where his friend Antonin Bryndac and his two brothers Jan and Alois were working at the time. In all Frank said there were about twelve Czech’s working, prospecting on Grassy Mountain for about three dollars a day.
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In June of 1904 Karolina arrived in Canada with their three children: Anna born in 1898, Julie born in 1900 and Rudolph who was born four months after Frank had left for Canada. With them were Mrs. Ondricek and Emil Dypolt. It had been a year and a half since he had seen his family.

On Sunday August 15th of that year Wejr writes that a forest fire broke out near Lille and enveloped the entire area around the town. Several company houses were lost and mining was halted so the miners could fight the fire. Frank recalls going without sleep for several nights and that it was about two weeks before a heavy rain extinguished the fire. Of this Frank said: “All the woods around Lille, near and far, were burned down; many wild animals were killed also.” I cannot imagine how Karolina must have felt, having left her beautiful Bohemian homeland.
The next month “a gentleman from France” shut down the Grassy project and Frank once again went looking for steady work, eventually starting at the Frank Mine on November 1st. His Czech friend Antonin Bryndac and Antonin’s brother Jan went back to Morrissey where on November 18 yet another massive gas outburst took their lives along with 12 others including two other Czech’s, Joseph Suchy (38) and Vaclav Veverka (33). Antonin was only 21 years old. It must have been heartbreaking for Frank. Vervecka had come with him on the boat. One of those lost was Thomas Jenkins whose wife and children had just arrived at Morrissey from England the day he was killed. All this hurts my heart.

The following April, in 1905, Frank’s first son was born and was also named Frank. Frank was now working in Frank which was named after a man named H.L. Frank. Frankly that’s too many Franks for me. Of H. L. he wrote: “he was born in the United States, was of German descent and of Jewish religion.” As an aside, he backs up his story and outlines a brief history of the start of the town and the slide which of course happened when he was at Coal Creek.
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The slide shut the mine down until 1904 and from then on work was steady, including Sundays, until New Years Day 1908 when word came that Henry Frank has passed away in Cincinnati, Ohio. The mine was shut down until another buyer was found and was reopened six months later by a French company (Franco-Canadian Collieries).

Frank was there for the “big new melting plant” (zinc smelter) construction in 1905 and at the same time the coal company began selling lots. Frank was the first to buy one for $100 and immediately built a home. When Frank first moved from Lille to Frank there was a housing shortage and until he got his own place six months later, he and his family lived with Pavel Steiner’s family in a three room house. A tad cozy I’d say. There were a lot of Czech’s arriving back then, mostly from Frank’s hometown of Bruch in Bohemia. It wasn’t long before they were, as he put it: “the majority among nationalities.”

December 28th, 1906 Frank’s second son Josef was born and about a week later a rumor went around that Frank had been killed in the mine. What in fact had happened was that two Finlanders had died and Frank had been working late to get them out. My U.M.W.A. list of fatalities in Alberta (1904-1963) lists them as John Olvila and Peter Fisher- Jan 5, 1907. Frank came home to a big worried crowd and his wife so distraught he said: “my poor wife was more dead than alive.” Imagine what she was going through thinking she had lost him and little Josef just a week old.

On New Year’s Day 1908 Frank’s brother Alois arrived from Bohemia and after much celebration he went back to work to find as I mentioned earlier that the mine was closed due to the death of the owner. That May yet another son Louis was born and the mine was restarted. It was as Frank put it: “in French hands now” and things changed with a new general manager named Muller of whom Frank claimed caused a great deal of evil. Muller was against the U.M.W.A. union which was strong in Frank and of which Wejr was a very active member. The manager brought in Belgian and French miners, all non-union, to work in the big shaft and break the miner’s union but in a very short time those men also joined the union.
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In December of 1909 Frank and Karolina had a daughter Caroline (Karla). That made seven children to date, four of which had been born in Canada. Frank and a few of his Czech friends decided to take a look around for farmland in the Okanagan and eventually he and Pavel Steiner and Frank Melac bought land there together. Frank later sold his 40 acres and bought a nicer 108 acres near Enderby with his brother Alois. The government offered additional lands there for homesteading back then and of this Frank said: “many Czechs from Frank acquired land there and have been farming there to this day.”

April of 1911 saw all of District 18 of the U.M.W.A on strike, a particularly nasty business that lasted eight months with the union eventually ordering them back to work under even worse conditions. Frank felt the top union bureaucrats had betrayed them and what made it worse was Frank, along with some of the best union men, were black listed by Muller, the union busting manager. So it was almost thirteen months before Frank did finally find work again. As he put it: “if it were not for the fact that this Muller himself was fired, perhaps I could never find work in Frank again.”

April of 1912 Frank and Karolina’s last child Lillian was born and later that summer was to come a blow to this man that was the hardest he was ever to endure. But is seems that I will once again not make it to the end of Wejr’s legacy. So stayed tuned for Part Three where I will finally reveal the tragedy of 1912, the marriage and loss of some of his children and Frank’s remarkable deathbed recovery using Harris Wonder Health Restorer.

Author’s Note: I have a wonderful picture of the Wejr family après 1912 so watch for it next week. It will help you get your mind around this amazing family story.

To read the other parts of the Series:

Frank Wejr – An Immigrant's Life Story - Part I
Frank the Czech in Frank - Part II
Frank from Frank Life's Twist and Turns - Part III
Frantisek Vejr – Honor to His Memory - Part IV
January 24th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 24
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