Remains still exist of old mines like this one on Vancouver Island. (T.W. Paterson collection)

T.W. Paterson column: Old coal mines challenge the imagination

After several hours of scratching, no tags but a real treasure of another sort

By T.W. Paterson

After several hours of scratching, no tags but a real treasure of another sort: a “coffee pot” head lamp the size of a small teacup.

If you want to test, really test, your imagination, try visiting an abandoned coal mine.

It’s a mental challenge, both enjoyable and frustrating at the same time.

I proved this to myself yet again over the holiday weekend at the site of an 1880s colliery that long ago bit the dust, almost literally. I knew I had the right location by the treed slack piles, those dumps of waste ore and rock that are the inevitable by-products of coal extraction.

I knew, too, from my research and from previous visits, that the shallow trench angling towards the swamp and railway tracks beyond was the entrance to this once-productive “slope” operated for 20 years by the New Vancouver Coal Co.

But that was long ago. What’s there, today, is but a ghost of what was. But that’s all part of the joy and the mental challenge of trying to recreate in your mind the where and the why after generations of foliage have all but obliterated man’s handiwork of old.

Oh, there are telltale clues, but you sure have to look for them — and recognize them when you see them. Which is where research and experience comes in. But even then Mother Nature has so often so thoroughly camouflaged these once bustling industrial sites that it takes a real stretching of the imagination to be able to create even a mental sketch of the historic landscape.

Scratching in the trench yields bricks, railway spikes, nails and other rusty bits. Nearby, it’s three and four-foot lengths of rail and broken wheels from ore carts. But these aren’t what we’re looking for. No, what we want to find is a miner’s tag, his ID, and it’s unlikely there are any in this particular rubble.

Which brings us to the deductive part of the game: where was the lamphouse? That’s likely where, if any tags remain, they’ll be found. That is, if subsequent clean-up operations haven’t so rearranged the ground that everything is scattered. And, of course, long buried by a century of composted leaves which is so often the case…

However, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and, on a level terrace immediately above the slope, the metal detector sings out, not once but repeatedly. Now we’re getting somewhere! But repeated turns of the shovel reveal only nails, dozens then hundreds of them. At least they’e square, proof of the site’s antiquity.

Why so many nails in such a small area? Hmmm…the likely answer is that the lamphouse, or several buildings, were pushed or piled together and burned here.

After several hours of scratching, no tags but a real treasure of another sort: a “coffee pot” head lamp about the size of a small teacup. These burned whale or dogfish oil, wouldn’t have shed much light and really stank, but those were minor considerations. Far worse, they were open flame — almost an invitation to disaster in a gassy coal mine.

But that’s the way it was; coal mining was and is a risky venture. And Vancouver Island coal mines were notoriously more risky than was necessary, although the NVCCo. had a better reputation in this regard than the competing Dunsmuirs.

Across the swamp where the Chinese workers lived, there are shards of glass and pottery and the base of a brick chimney. More scratching in the summer sun yields a chisel and a plain, unbroken wine bottle with a kick-up base. Not much to show for hours of hot scavenging (shades of “mad dogs and Englishmen in the noonday sun”) but these, and the headlamp, are real mementos of a coal mine long gone and the anonymous men who worked it.

But for the slack piles, now heavily overgrown and almost unrecognizable to the untrained eye, you’d never know that, a century ago, this was a bustling worksite. It’s another reminder of the mortality of humankind and human endeavours.

But our day isn’t done so we continue along a well defined trail, what had been a narrow gauge railway grade, until we see another, smaller slack pile. This proves to be a “gyppo” operation, likely from the depression years of the 1930s. Old car parts suggest the likely source of winch-power for these independent miners; the small amount of slack suggests they weren’t here long or that the coal was scarce or of low quality.

The mine entrance is still wide open and you can see some of the props (posts) still in place but it’s collapsed just 30 feet in. Which is just as well; one shouldn’t venture into an abandoned coal mine, a cardinal sin I’ve vowed not to repeat.

This time, we have better luck. It was common practice for miners, upon quitting a mine that they hoped to reactivate, to leave their tools on-site. They did this by wrapping them in canvas and burying them in a shallow trench. And, sure, enough, there they are: a drill with several bits, and a large, unusual style of wrench. Cleaned up and tagged as to their provenance, they’ll go well in my museum.

That’s the second time I’ve found a miner’s tool stash; hopefully, it won’t be the last. Unfortunately, never-ending development is steadily diminishing the old mines pool, which explains our return visits to the most likely sites.

Speaking of return visits, we also popped by Morden Colliery Provincial Heritage Park. The imposing, six-storey-tall tipple/headframe is still standing, I’m happy to say, as is the fine memorial stone and plaque that the Friends of the Morden Mine erected three years ago.

But the marble bench, meant for visitors to sit upon while musing about the mine’s history, and the industry that spawned 10 communities and served as the Island’s economic driver for almost 90 years, is gone.

Stolen, possibly, by the same creton who stripped the firebricks from the base of the boiler house smokstack, several years ago.

Some people wonder why I choose to “rescue” artifacts when and as I can, and why I’ve written so much about the coal miners. I’ve said it before: they helped to build this Island long before the forest industry and modern-day commerce took over; they did this with their brawn and, too often, with their blood.

We should at least remember them.

www.twpaterson.com

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