For decades, coal was king on Vancouver Island and the Friends of the Morden Mine Society will stage a celebration of that history to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Morden Colliery.
The celebration takes place Saturday (1:30 p.m.) at the Nanaimo Museum.
"This area was built on coal-mining," said Louise Shuker, whose great-grandfather, grandfather and other relatives worked in area mines. Coal dominated life in the mid-Island area for nearly a century, starting in 1852 with its development at what became Nanaimo, said Island historian T.W. Paterson.
"Rupert, Nanaimo, North and South Wellington, Ladysmith, Extension, Granby, Cumberland and Union Bay all came into being because of coal," said Paterson. "And for three-quarters of a century, no industry provided more jobs to Islanders than coal-mining.
They weren't good jobs, mind you: Dirty, dangerous and underpaid," he said. "The real wealth -- and we're talking billions of dollars in today's values -- went into the pockets of owners and shareholders."
When coal exploitation expanded into land south of Nanaimo, new communities either developed around the mines, as at Extension or the early South Wellington area, (known then as "Alexandra") or were deliberately created, like Ladysmith and the Morden town site. Some of the earlier mine workers were able to purchase land and develop farms, while continuing to work in the mines. This helped when there was no work in the mines and contributed to the development of adjacent farming communities, like Cedar.
The five mines in South Wellington alone employed more than 2,000 people.
Paterson said the excavation of the Morden mine began in March 1912, alongside the existing Pacific Coast Coal Mines Company railway. Seven miles long, this had been completed two years earlier to run from the first PCCM coal mine at South Wellington to the company's new shipping depot at Boat Harbour.
Like Shuker, Paterson sits on the Friends of Morden Mine society's board of directors.
Both said young people are not learning enough about the history of coal mining in the area and the struggle the miners had to cope with to make a living.
It took more than a year to dig two parallel shafts down to the coal at Morden. On April 19, 1913, a good eigh-foot seam was found at a depth of 600 feet. Two weeks later, with the two shafts nearly connected, to allow for ventilation, the island-wide miners' strike of 1913-14 halted all underground work.
Unable to progress underground at Morden, the company focused on above-ground construction. Instead of wood or steel, fireproof and long-lasting reinforced concrete was to be used to construct both head frame and tipple for the new mine. This was in the early days of the use of reinforced concrete.
Morden is just one of two existing concrete mines remaining in North America, said Paterson.
The company declared bankruptcy in 1921, leaving a mountain of debt, and unpaid coal miners. Pacific Coast Coal Mines tried to reopen the mine briefly in 1930 but "then comes the Great Depression," said Paterson.
The mine closed for good in August 1930 and its pit head and tipple have been left to the elements for decades and face an uncertain future. The Friends of Morden Mine want to create a memorial to the Island's coal-mining past featuring the pit head and tipple because "they are unique, Paterson said. "They are made out of concrete and were considered state-of-the art at the time. Morden is the last man standing and should be used as an educational tool to teach Vancouver Islanders about the Island's rich historial past."
In 1974, the provincial government created the Morden Colliery Heritage Park but as Paterson points out "the province has never put any money into it to help preserve it."
One of the goals of today's centennial celebration is to raise funds to build a proper memorial to the miners of the area at Morden.
"We want to save this as a memorial," said Paterson. "In the Nanaimo area alone, more than 600 men were killed in mining accidents and to this day we have not honoured our coal miners with a suitable memorial.
"I wish local and provincial politicians would recognize that we have an asset here and it should be developed for adventure tourism purposes."
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