Morden Colliery

by T.W. Paterson

For a thousand years Greater London has had its Morden: it's olde English for 'a hill in marshland'.

Morden Provincial Park, just east of Highway 1 at South Wellington, is wet, too, although you don't see it. But, below your feet, miles of abandoned tunnels have flooded since coal mining ceased here in 1930.

There's no difficulty in seeing the Island's last 'pit-head,' however. Ninety years ago it was state-of-the-art; today this gangly concrete framework, six storeys high, is one of the last visible reminders of a time when coal was king on Vancouver Island. Hence its being designated a provincial historic park in 1972.

Sixty years before, work was begun by the Pacific Coast Collieries Co. on Nos. 3 and 4 shafts in a further attempt to tap the famous Douglas coal seam. The hoisting-shaft plummeted 600 feet straight down beneath the concrete tower's great cable drum. A glorified elevator, yes, but one-of-a-kind in its day. As a bucket capable of holding a ton of coal rose to the surface, doors would automatically close behind it, thus ensuring that nothing could fall down the shaft onto those working below. At the surface, the bucket was swung outboard and emptied into waiting railway cars via a chute.

Electrically-powered, Morden Colliery was expected to achieve 1,500 tons of coal per nine-hour shift. In fact, it took a year of tunnelling to find an eight-foot seam - too late to begin extraction because the United Mine Workers of America struck two weeks later. This meant the PCC had to let their new shafts flood. The strike lasted a year, although surface workers continued construction of the reinforced concrete pit-head, said to be the 'most modern (and) unique in this Province'. Five hundred cubic yards of concrete made it fireproof, another improvement on its provincial contemporaries.

When miners returned to work it took them well into 1916 to begin production by means of the pillar-and-stall system. The following year, the 50-man (and five-horse) crew was into 30-foot-wide coal seams, although production remained under potential at 400 tons daily. Even this didn't come easily as the coal was in pockets, the barren ground between requiring costly removal. A further expense was the installation of concrete stoppings between the current and original workings, there being a very real danger of spontaneous combustion in the latter.

Mining inspectors noted a build-up of explosive coal dust and gases. Morden was so gassy, in fact, that it made some miners sick.

It was the owners' No. 1 Fiddick Mine, two miles to the west, that funded development at Morden. By this time a seven-mile-long railway had been built to their new ship-loading bunkers at Boat Harbour, and 14 employees' cottages, a boarding-house and two larger homes for management, all recycled from South Wellington, had been erected at the minesite.

Deep underground, miners had to penetrate 900 feet of rock-fault before they again struck coal. Of 'very good quality,' this seam was only four feet high and, for all their efforts, production was only half that of the previous year.

Further labour problems hindered progress in 1920 but 15,000 feet of 'solid work' was achieved and it was predicted that a vigorous policy of development would be pursued the following year. With 1800 acres of "virgin territory yet to be developed," management remained confident of striking the Mother Lode. But every cubic foot of waste material they had to bore through and extract cost them dearly and their goal of 1,000 tons of coal per day for 50 years began to look more and more like a pipedream.

Operations were suspended in 1921. Not until nine years later did new managers pump out the workings, only to encounter numerous cave-ins. After great expense and only 3,000 tons of coal, they shut down - this time for good.

It's believed that Morden yet has as much as seven million tons of coal. But coal mining on Vancouver Island, with a single exception, is dead. It's somewhat ironic that this fascinating chapter of our past is immortalized by the Morden Colliery tipple. Coal mining once was Vancouver Island's major industry - but Morden was a monumental bust.