Make Morden Colliery a Tribute to Miners

by T.W. Paterson, Times Colonist August 6, 2011

The gala opening of the rebuilt Kinsol Trestle as part of the Cowichan Valley section of the Trans- Canada Trail is a major achievement for our railway and logging heritage and for recreation and tourism.

It also is an event so rare as to be almost unique and one, based upon the record, that is unlikely to be repeated on such a grand scale.

Which is all the more tragic as,just 50 kilometres up the Island Highway, another, perhaps more significant, historical structure faces ruin.

South Wellington's 1913 concrete headframe at Morden Colliery Heritage Provincial Park is the sole surviving pithead of the coal mining industry that, for 80 years, was the Island's economic mainstay.

No fewer than eight Island communities - Ladysmith, Granby, South Wellington, Extension, Nanaimo, Wellington, Union Bay, Cumberland and Fort Rupert - were founded on coal - not fur trading, not logging, coal.

As no suitable monument has been erected to honour the thousands of miners who worked in Island collieries, or the hundreds who died an them, the ideal opportunity exists to score a doubleheader by preserving this last headframe before weather and defects in its pioneering concrete result in catastrophic collapse.

The only headframe in the province built of concrete, its 23metre height is equivalent to a sixstorey building.

With its angled, open-legged verticals and cross-braces (all of its wooden structure has been lost), it somewhat resembles a monstrous crane fly and is, compared to the Kinsol Trestle, less esthetically gifted.

But there are striking similarities between these landmarks. Both are owned by the people of British Columbia, the trestle under the Ministry of Transport, Morden under B.C. Parks. Both have suffered years of neglect.

Although the Kinsol Trestle was finally saved at a cost of $7.5 million raised through government grants and public fundraising, it has never received formal heritage designation. Conversely Morden Colliery was established as a Class-C park in 1972 and upgraded to Class-A (funded) heritage status two years later.

Despite this classification, the only appreciable expenditures have been a fence around the headframe and a concrete cap over the adjoining air shaft, both done for safety rather than heritage concerns.

Not a dime has been spent to shore up sagging timbers or to attempt to slow the destructive work of the elements and the Friends of the Morden Mine Society, who have laboured for its preservation since 2003, are increasingly concerned for its structural integrity.

The same approach that proved to be the Kinsol Trestle's salvation applies to Morden. The Kinsol's location on the Trans-Canada Trail will draw visitors; Morden, a mile off the Island Highway, is at the entrance to Morden Colliery Trail which follows the former railway grade via Hemer Provincial Park to the Pacific Coast Coal Mines' (Morden's builders) dock at Boat Harbour. At present, this scenic trail is interrupted by lack of a bridge over the Nanaimo River and the Boat Harbour property is privately owned. Both have been issues of interest to the Nanaimo Regional District for 30 years without any progress.

Engineering studies have shown that Morden's headframe can be saved. Ideally, it should be preserved as an interpretation centre and tourist-getting memorial to our coal mining heritage. Such a monument is long overdue. The miners and their families built their communities with, literally, their blood, sweat and tears. More than 600 men were killed in Nanaimo-area mines. How many more, whose names are unrecorded, died later of their injuries and workplace illnesses such as "black lung?"

We should honour these men and women with a perpetual memorial worthy of them. That opportunity exists at Morden Colliery Provincial Heritage Park if we can galvanize the various levels of government to recognize the values in restoring Morden's headframe as a heritage structure and as an interpretation centre and monument to all of Vancouver Island's coal mining past. Heritage tourism, they tell us, is the future. Numerous studies of tourist traffic and patterns draw the same conclusion: History attracts one in three tourists.

We in British Columbia, unfortunately, have been slow to embrace this fact and, more often than not, have replaced our heritage structures with new. The Kinsol Trestle is an exceedingly rare exception. Morden Colliery is Greater Nanaimo's chance to do the same - even better - by creating a touristdrawing mining memorial worthy of the men and women who built the Hub City and surrounding communities from 1854 through the early1950s.

T.W. Paterson of Duncan is the author of 23 books on B.C. history.