The Morden Mine Story

Researched and written by Judy Burgess, with the help of Friends of the Morden Mine

The most complete above ground remains of a historic coal mine on Vancouver Island are to be found at Morden. These structures represent a last chance for us to appreciate the massive scale of coal-mining operations on the Island and to gain insight into the lives of those involved in this industry. Coal dominated life in the mid-island area for nearly a century, starting in 1852 with its development at what became the town of Nanaimo. When coal exploitation expanded into land south of Nanaimo, new communities either developed around the mines, as at Extension or the early South Wellington, (known then as "Alexandra") or were deliberately created, like Ladysmith and the Morden town-site. Life in these communities was very hard for most, with long working days when the mines were running or times of pinching and scraping when the mines were closed. Some of the earlier mine workers were able to pre-empt 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.

Excavation of the Morden mine began in March 1912, alongside the existing PCCM (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.

It took over a year to dig two parallel shafts down to the coal at Morden. On April 19th, 1913, a good 8-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. Years of frustration on the part of the miners finally bubbled over when their demands to be represented by their own unions were met by implacable opposition from the coal mine owners.

The PCCM were not willing to negotiate a settlement with their miners so, 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. Companies specializing in various techniques for building in this new way had developed explosively in Europe and the States but not yet in Canada. An engineer, experienced with using this material for mine construction in both England and South Africa, was hired to direct operations.

Cement was now available locally, instead of being imported from overseas. In 1904, the Vancouver Portland Cement Co. built a manufacturing plant at Tod Inlet near Victoria (the site of the present Butchart Gardens). From there, cement was shipped to the PCCM's depot at Boat Harbour where railway cars delivered the material directly to the Morden construction site.

Problems plagued the company. John Arbuthnot, the founder of the PCCM had been forced to resign from active control in 1911, and the group of shareholders, who took over, took on a massive debt. In addition, Morden was expensive to develop. The Company declared bankruptcy in 1921, leaving a mountain of debt, including the wages of the coal miners. (See "The Story of Morden's Office Clock.")

Morden's was not a story of success, in fact it is more of a cautionary tale showing that finding coal did not necessarily lead to immense riches as it had for the famous Dunsmuirs. However, Morden today, provided it can be preserved, partially restored and well interpreted, can become a dynamic centre where present and future generations experience how life was lived for nearly one hundred years, in the shadow of coal.

Definitions:

Headframe - A structure of wood or steel erected over a shaft to support the pulley wheels by which the cages are raised and lowered; also called Headgear.

Tipple - The dump trestle and tracks at the mouth of a shaft or slope, where the output of a mine is dumped, screened and loaded; also applied to the whole structure of the headframe containing that tipple.

(From "Coal Dust in my Blood" by Bill Johnstone, published by B.C. Provincial Museum, 1980)