100th Anniversary of Morden's Head Frame and Tipple

by Charlie Christopherson

"[A] towering, grotesque frame of reinforced concrete." That's how Morden's reinforced concrete pit -head is described in T.W. Paterson & Garnet Basque's, Ghost Towns & Mining Camps of Vancouver Island (Heritage House, 2006). Now 100 years old and visibly deteriorating, Morden has been a remarkable survivor against time, the elements, and neglect. It's a wonder that it has stood this long, with practically no care and attention. In its old age, and rising amidst the encroaching rain-forest, Morden is indeed grotesque and ghostly. In its towering strangeness, it impresses one as "gothic," even "surreal." Artists, who know how to use their eyes, sense that surreal quality instantly.

Visitors to Morden Park are struck by its strangeness, and then are drawn to ask what its significance might be. It has a multi-layered story to tell.

Morden's most dramatic aspect is its head frame. At the time of its construction good timber of massive dimensions was easily accessed on Vancouver Island. Timber was used in other such applications, so one might wonder why reinforced concrete was used at Morden. Perhaps as someone suggests, the Morden structure was "inspired marketing" for the early 1900s cement manufacturing industry in B.C.? Its first cement manufacturing plant was established in 1904 by Vancouver Portland Cement Company at Tod Inlet. Cement for Morden may have been shipped by boat from Tod Inlet, landed at the South Wellington docks at Boat Harbour and then taken by rail to Morden, or from the Associated Cement Company established at Bamberton in 1912. Both companies were operated by the B.C. Cement Company.

The Morden framework was spectacular for its time. For Morden's builders, there must have been an element of pride in being "ahead in the game" in the art of building, and the use of newly developed materials. The engineers and developers who worked on Morden were cultured people who were well acquainted with the latest discussions about innovative building techniques in the engineering and building literature of the time.

Publicity from the time of Morden's construction describes the pit-head as "the most modern (and) unique in the province" ( Paterson & Basque). "Modern" and "unique" were words in those days that held special meaning for buildings using reinforced concrete, partly because until the early 1900s reinforced concrete remained in an experimental stage, and partly because its use in a pure, unornamented form was at the time widely debated, especially by architects. It was first widely used in its most technically advanced form by engineers in civil works. Architects were much slower to accept its use in an "honest" and undisguised way.

Morden is engineer's architecture. In a very general way, concrete was discovered and used as a building material thousands of years ago, but mostly in the form of what we now call "mass concrete" in which all the loading is compressive, weight bearing. Mass concrete can be seen at Morden in footings, walls and in the huge and impressive boiler-chimney base. If reinforcement was added in mass concrete it was to prevent splitting and cracking. Such use at Morden was unexceptional. In reinforced concrete proper, rods are included to increase concrete's capacity for sustaining tensile stresses, as in beams and columns.

Artisans and builders began experimenting with concrete strengthened with reinforcements to sustain tensile stresses in the early years of the nineteenth century. It wasn't until the 1890s that proper scientific analysis permitted the use of reinforced concrete in large building framing. In the early 1900s, reinforced concrete was beginning to be more commonly used in building construction - one example being the 1912 Pemberton Building in Victoria. At the time, renowned architect Le Corbusier welcomed reinforced concrete as "the magnificent First Fruits of the new age."

What makes Morden's head frame exceptional is it's pure reinforced-concrete framework, which gives the impression of being a bold and deliberate expression of pure, abstract technique. As such, it has dramatic aesthetic qualities consistent with the "Futuristic" and "Cubistic" space-modulator sculptures of its own experimental time.

A hundred years later, Morden deserves not only respect for its age but conservation for its heritage. It is the first pure, stand-alone coal mining structure still surviving from the old days of the industry on Vancouver Island, joining the beautiful tipple structure at Muddy, Illinois, built something like ten years later than Morden, as one of two still standing similar coal mining structures in North America.

Surely, it's unthinkable that Morden's unique and venerable structures shouldn't be preserved as a singular memorial exhibit in memory of Vancouver Island's historic coal mining industry and the hundreds of coal miners who risked their lives in abysmal conditions, too many losing them on the job? The coal mining industry gets bad press these days because of environmental concerns but too few of us remember that coal mining was a major generator of economic development on the central island and the reason for the founding of a number of Vancouver Island communities. The reason why many of us are now living, working, raising our families here, delighting in our beautiful environment.

On the side of the local economy, Morden has immediate appeal in its value as a tourist draw. Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park has been named as an National Historic Place by Parks Canada. Friends of Morden Mine (FOMM) have also recently completed an application for approval as a National Historic Site. FOMM also has a good site plan in place for overall development of Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park.

The iconic structures still stand after 100 years. Plans for preservation and improvement are in place. But missing is commitment from levels of government to provide funds for this work, while deterioration has continued unabated over the 40 years of B.C. Park's custody. Why is that? Admittedly, the cost of preservation may be substantial, but reckon those costs amortized against a hundred years of neglect. And consider the superb memorial these dramatic gothic structures represent for the Island's industrial past. Should our past be forgotten while we consider only present policies and needs? In Europe, the U.S. and much of Canada, heritage sites and buildings - including those of the industrial era - are treated with much respect. In contrast, is central Vancouver Island a sort of cultural backwoods area where little care or thought is given to heritage preservation?

Check out Conservation and Parks Canada, Keeping our Historic Places Vibrant. www.historicplaces.ca/en/pages/31_conservation_protection.aspx

Friends of Morden Mine welcome your views on this issue: email info@mordenmine.com