News

FALLEN WORKERS: Young man buried in gravel pile

 Riley Friedlein, special to Postmedia News

A conveyor belt and stone slinger beside a large pile of crushed stone, Welland, September 1915. (St. Catharines Museum, Madelein Muntz Collection)

A conveyor belt and stone slinger beside a large pile of crushed stone, Welland, September 1915. (St. Catharines Museum, Madelein Muntz Collection)

The first anybody sensed that something was wrong was when the supply of gravel on the conveyor belt slowed and then stopped.

When workers investigated, they discovered that a large pile of gravel had collapsed. One of them realized that Steve Kopinak, the one who was supposed to keep the gravel moving, was nowhere to be seen.

Kopinak was one of nine or 10 brothers born in Mackenzie Township, Sask., to Fedco ‘Fred’ Kopniak and Mary Tracz/Tratch. Two of the eldest children died in Canora before leaving Saskatchewan. The family name was properly spelled Kopniak, but sometime after moving to Ontario, the children decided to change it to Kopinak.

With a large family to support, and finding it too difficult to make a living in Saskatchewan, Fred moved in search of work with the understanding that he would send for the rest of the family once he was settled. According to an autobiography by his son, Henry Kopinak, “(Fred) tried to get various jobs in the auto plants in Detroit but finally settled with Inco in Port Colborne.” It was about 1924.

With the family reunited, Steve Kopinak, the eldest of the surviving siblings, later found work as a labourer on the canal construction. He was about age 16 at the time and was the only member of his family to work on the Welland Ship Canal. He had been employed by the contractor, A.G. Creelman, for about two years, and was on this particular job for about a month at the time of the accident.

Given his inexperience, Kopinak was working under Howard Armstrong, a foreman who could give the teenaged worker some guidance. Working at Lock 8 at one end of a conveyor belt moving gravel, Kopinak was supposed to keep the gravel loose so it could easily and evenly move onto and along the conveyor belt that ran into openings over a reclaiming tunnel. Even though Armstrong had warned Kopinak several times in the past to stay off the top of the pile, according to testimony presented at the inquest, the worker repeatedly ignored the advice, occasionally climbing to the top of the pile to loosen the gravel and move it around using his shovel. Workers were supposed to stay at the front of the pile to move it along, not on the top.

Had Kopinak heeded the instructions, the accident would never have occurred.

It was Armstrong who first noticed the gravel had stopped moving along the conveyor belt and went to investigate. When he saw the collapsed pile of gravel, he immediately sounded the alarm, realizing the likelihood that young Kopinak had been caught as the pile shifted while he was on it, causing it to cave in upon him. Apparently he had been carried into one of the openings, and before he could get out, a second slide occurred that buried Kopinak under tons of gravel (one report stated he was under three feet of gravel and another that it was twelve feet). It took a twenty-five man crew three hours of intensive and hazardous labour to sink a shaft to the body. Even then it took another five hours to dig it out.

Dr. Grant N. Black was waiting the entire time to administer medical care, if needed. An ambulance also stood by at the ready, as well as a pulmotor (respirator) that had been borrowed from Canada Furnace Co. As soon as the body was uncovered, Black went to examine it. He found that Kopinak had died within 10 minutes after the cave-in due to asphyxiation. The collapse was so rapid that he had not even had time to shout for help.

Kopinak’s body was taken to Wichmann’s Funeral Parlour in Port Colborne. He was buried at Overholt Cemetery in Port Colborne.

Fred and Maria Kopniak had already lost two of their three oldest boys before leaving Saskatchewan and now their next oldest child was taken four years after relocating to Port Colborne.

Fourteen months after Kopinak’s death, Maria gave birth to her 10th child. The Kopniaks named the baby boy Steve, likely in memory of the son whom they had just lost on the canal. Unfortunately, the infant would die after only seven months due to acute intestinal intoxication. The two namesakes are buried together at Overholt Cemetery.

— This article is part of a series remembering the men whose lives were lost in the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial will be unveiled during a special ceremony at Lock 3 on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m. The public is invited to attend. To learn more or to make a donation for the Memorial, please visit www.stcatharines.ca/donate.

Profile No. 111

Steve Kopinak, 18 (a.k.a. Stefán Kopniak)

Born: Jan. 1, 1910 (Mackenzie Township 34, Saskatchewan)

Died: Dec. 5, 1928 (Section 8, Lock 8, Humberstone, now Port Colborne)

Cause of death: smothered by gravel

Occupation: belt tender, A.G. Creelman & Co.

Burial: Overholt Cemetery, Port Colborne (Old Yard)