Morden Mine - Requiem or a New Beginning?

by Rick Morgan

"There can be no denial of the fact that of the busy world of industry and transportation, Coal today is King; and the contest which has recently been going on here for possession of the Dunsmuir colliery interests is indicative of the immense importance that is placed upon the control of this commodity by the men who make business, and, by business, new nations."
- British Colonist Newspaper, April 30, 1910



As the ghostly ruins of Morden Colliery further deteriorate due to weathering and neglect, let us review the reasons for saving this site. The following have been suggested:

  • The most complete above ground remains of an historic coal mine on Vancouver Island.
  • An example of building with reinforced concrete unique for its day possibly in all of North America.
  • Formally recognized for its heritage value as an “Historic Place” by Parks Canada.
  • Situated alongside an historic railway right of way now part of a regional trail system.
  • A legacy to the pioneer miners who came to this country from many lands to toil and, in many cases, die in the coal mines.

The site is certainly all these and yet it is more.

The short history of Morden is inextricably linked to that madcap period in Canadian history where obscene fortunes were made by a select few at government expense. It was a situation that could not possibly last nevertheless it was largely responsible for defining Canada as we know it today, a society distinct from the colossus to the south.

We are, of course, speaking of the great railway race prior to World War 1 where no less than three separate intercontinental railways, the CPR, Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific, were built and vied for economic control funded through huge land grants, loan guarantees and cash subsidies by the federal and provincial governments. By 1900 Canada had over 19,000 miles of track laid, more rail per capita than anywhere else on earth.

Compounding the issue were the ever present attempts by the ex patriot Canadian, J. J. Hill to route the traffic through his Great Northern line south of the border. Hill, a founding member of the CPR, broke with the company swearing everlasting revenge when the all Canadian route around Lake Superior was chosen instead of using his St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway Company to link to the American mainline.

By the time WW1 started Great Northern, operating under a number of subsidiaries, had established a route that criss-crossed BC 12 times and had further inclusions into Canada to the east. In the East Kootenay coal fields, for example, Great Northern built a line linking this important area to the Great Northern mainline in Montana. It also had a controlling interest in the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company and its subsidiary, the Morrissey, Fernie & Michel Railway. The CPR, crossing BC as it did so far north of the American border via Rogers Pass, was at a decided disadvantage in reaching the developing mining, farming and lumbering areas in the Kootenays and Boundary districts. There was intense pressure for a southern Canadian route and in its 1896 annual report, the CPR announced its plan to expand westward from the prairies through the Crows Nest Pass. The company was not to be disappointed in the assistance it received from the federal and provincial governments; an $11,000 per mile subsidy from the Federal government and a Provincial land grant of 3, 350, 000 acres not taxable until leased or alienated.

The competition amongst the railroad giants was no more intense than on Vancouver Island. With the bulk of its population on the island, British Columbia had entered into Confederation in 1871 on the promise of an intercontinental railway with a terminus at Esquimalt. The original route called for a line from Esquimalt to the northern end of Vancouver Island crossing to the mainland via Seymour Narrows and the northern islands to Bute Inlet. This route proved unfeasible and when the terminus was changed to Vancouver via the Fraser canyon, many British Columbians were ready to secede from Confederation.

John A Macdonald felt he must take some action to demonstrate minimal progress on an island railroad hence an initial attempt to start the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway was made in July 1873 the plan being for the railway to continue north crossing to the mainland at Seymour Narrows. Due to a variety of delays including a change in power in Ottawa, construction did not actually commence until the spring of 1884, the contract being awarded to Robert Dunsmuir & Associates the previous year. The last spike was driven on August 13, 1886 by Sir John A Macdonald who had been reelected as Prime Minister in 1878.

Railway building proved far more profitable than railway running and in 1905, James Dunsmuir sold the E&N Railway and the Land Grant to the CPR but retained all the coal rights. In 1910, he sold all the Dunsmuir coal interests at Extension and Cumberland to CPR rival, the Canadian Northern Railway. Mackenzie and Mann of Canadian Northern had made millions from CPR contracts across Canada before starting their own intercontinental railway. Canadian Northern subsequently recapitalized and sold the former Dunsmuir coal lands to British interests which formed Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Ltd. The following year Canadian Northern started its own line which was to run from Victoria to Port Alberni. (This is the line that crosses the Koksilah River over the famous Kinsol Trestle) The proposed line was to continue north to Campbell River and then west along Gold River to Muchalet Inlet.

The tiny Pacific Coast Coal Company at South Wellington with its loading docks at Boat Harbour separate from the former Dunsmuir mines suddenly became very important to “the men who make business”. It was at this time that the transfer of power on the company’s board shifted from Victoria to eastern Canada and New York. The following year the first sod for the new colliery at Morden was turned and Pacific Coast Coal Mines Ltd was merged into Pacific Coast Collieries Ltd.

In a few short years the bubble was to burst. A world war dried up the government funds which had made millionaires out of many of these capitalists, workers were organizing into unions increasing the cost of labour, and interest in coal as the only means of running all the industrial endeavors was gradually being replaced by oil. Pacific Coast Collieries was hopelessly tied up in litigation by the end of the war and soon went into receivership. The two intercontinental railways, the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern, without the government support they were used to were also in financial trouble and were merged into Canadian National, Canada’s first crown corporation.

There is an often used cliché “Canada has too much geography and too little history”. It has been described as a country held together by railway lines and telephone wires lacking a unique national identity. Not true! We have a fascinating history; it only needs to be nurtured. Our early politicians had the vision to tackle the “too much geography” portion of the above cliché. Hopefully current politicians will exhibit the same vision in dealing with the “too little history” portion of this equation so national treasures like Morden Colliery park can be passed on to future generations.

Over the next few months we plan on profiling some of the directors who sat on the Morden board as well as countless other boards across the country on the Friends of the Morden Mine website. They were truly major powerbrokers in that euphoric era leading up to World War 1.