Morden Colliery's Structures: Unique on Vancouver Island for Early Use of Reinforced Concrete in Industrial Framing

Contributed by Charles Christopherson

Morden Colliery's reinforced concrete structures were built in the second decade of the 20th century for strictly utilitarian purposes: the mining of coal. But they have a peculiar mystical, aesthetic and architectural appeal and their obvious stained and crumbling age begs one to trace their technical lineage.

They are, in fact, emblematic of a ten-thousand-year path of technical invention, which led from primitive efforts to create bricks with a mixture of straw and clay, to binding and grouting the stones of the Egyptian pyramids 5,000 years ago, to the invention of a true concrete by the Romans and the construction in Rome of the Pantheon commissioned in 118 AD by Hadrian. Now close to 2,000 years old, its astonishing structure was built almost entirely of an unreinforced concrete ("mass concrete") whose stone aggregate was bound together by a cement derived from volcanic ash.

Concrete was widely used at the time by the Romans. It was the distinguishing feature of their building technique from then to the fall of their empire around 400 AD. After that time, their highly skilled art of concrete construction was lost for the next 1300 years. Through the ensuing "Dark Ages" buildings continued to be constructed, of course, but they were built of stone masonry held together by inferior mortars.

In the 1850s renowned British engineer John Smeaton was commissioned to rebuild Eddystone Lighthouse. Smeaton found that binding mortars at the time were not good enough for the task; so he proceeded to experiment with various mixtures. After repeated testing of mortars in both fresh and salt water he came up with a superior "hydraulic cement" - the first to be used since Roman times. Smeaton published a book about his efforts, and over the following decades a number of others sought patents for various versions of cement, all evidently intended for use as binding/grouting material in stonework.

It was a time when the Industrial Revolution was in the full flow of inventiveness. In 1824, Joseph Aspdin, a British bricklayer and stone mason, obtained a patent for a "Portland cement", which he had concocted on his kitchen stove.

The first mention of mass concrete in the modern age, according to Pevsner, appears in French building manuals around 1800, and, he says, "Propaganda for cisterns, grain cisterns, grain elevators, and whole houses to be made of mass concrete started soon, and in both France and England concrete houses can be traced back to the 1830s.

"The beginnings of iron reinforcement of cement," Says Pevsner, can be traced back to a note in an 1832 encyclopedia, which mentions "cement floors with an embedded lattice work of iron ribs."

More inventions and patents followed. Around 1850 in Southern France, J.L. Lambot built a small boat of concrete reinforced with bars and steel mesh. Also around 1850, Joseph Moinier, a gardener, began making reinforced concrete flower pots, and in 1867 he took out a patent on reinforced garden tubs and exhibited his work at the 1867 Paris Exposition. Monier (1823-1906) continued his experiments and in 1867 took out a patent on reinforced garden tubs, then in 1877 obtained a patent on reinforced columns and beams. While there were many others working in the same field, Monier is usually credited with being the first to initiate the concept of reinforced concrete for purposes of building construction.

The first application of reinforced concrete as a material for the construction of buildings took place in 1864 when William Boutland Wilkinson built a house in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. In 1889, E.L. Ransom's Alvord Lake Bridge in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park became the first bridge to use reinforced concrete, while the first reinforced concrete building constructed in the U.S. was the Pacific Coast Borax Company's refinery in Alameda, California.

In the 1870's and 1880's various efforts were made in experimenting and analyzing the properties of concrete and iron in combination. In the 1890's the "great French enthusiast" Francois Hennebique introduced hooked steel into concrete. Around 1902, August Perrot used exposed reinforced concrete framing as an openly architectural treatment of facades. Initiation of Morden Colliery's construction in 1912 thus falls into the pioneering end of concrete's timeline.