May 2nd, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 18
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Workers’ Hell at Coal Mountain – The Corbin Story
Looking Back
Courtesy: Fernie and District Historical Society
One of two Shey (gear driven) locomotives uses at Corbin
On July 30th, 1905 Spokane entrepreneur D.C. Corbin final got to see what his business partner E.J. Roberts had been hounding him about. When he beheld the 85 yard thick seam of high-grade bituminous coal exposed near the base of one of Mount Taylor’s lower peaks he reportedly said: “Well, I’ll be damned.”

That amazing monster pod of coal referred to by many as “The Big Show”, down in the Flathead Valley, was Corbin’s ticket to re-establishing himself in the railroad business after losing his first railway effort in 1898 to J.J. Hill. Corbin incorporated the Spokane International Railway (SIR) in 1905 with the intent of hooking up with CPR’s B.C. Southern Railway that ran close to the Corbin site.

By 1908 D.C. Corbin had the 73 kilometer long Eastern B.C. Railway (EBC) built from the Fabro siding on the McGillivray Loop to the mine site. He incorporated the Corbin Coke and Coal Company (CC&C) and established a very isolated mining camp for the miners there. Production that year was 4,111 tons of coal with 43 employees. It was shipped that September to the furnaces of the Inland Empire before winter snows shut the operation down. The heavy snowfalls up the Flathead would prove to be problematic for the Corbin mine for many years after, isolating the town and the mine for many months. It didn’t help that there was no road into the mine also.
continued below ...
As the mine increased production Corbin took over as President of CC& C and the mine added new equipment. Coal was hauled out of entries with Porter air locomotives and then transferred to the plant, using two second hand Shay locomotives, where it was cleaned and then dumped into gondolas. It was then hauled to the Fabro siding at McGillivray Loop by one of the EBC’s two brand new Montreal Locomotive Works 2-8-0 steam engines. In 1910 they produced 10,500 tons a month and it was full speed ahead after that. By 1912 CC&C employed 173 men to mine the 122,000 tons that it shipped that year. Because of the nature of the deposit, however, the company suspected that the costs of production could be significantly reduced.

According to Michael Saad author of “Corbin: A Short and Bitter Existence” (The Forgotten Side of the Border), the company brought in a hydraulic monitor to see if it could blow off the thin layer of rock and soil which overlaid the measures on the western flank of Coal Mountain. Though that method of overburden removal proved impractical, the experiment had nonetheless opened mine No.3 Mine, the
famous “Big Showing.”

In March of 1913 a fire began in the depths of No.1 Mine which could not be extinguished and the mine was eventually permanently sealed. That spring they chose to try strip mining in the Big Showing using a large steam-shovel working 800 feet above the town site. Coal was loaded into gondolas behind the shovel and in 1917 their combined production from the strip mine and No. 4 Mine was 98,000 tons of excellent, gas-free steam coal for the U.S. markets.
continued below ...
In 1918 Daniel Corbin died, 18 months after CPR took controlling interest in the Spokane International Railway and his New York associates took over the mine but kept his son Austin Corbin involved. Production varied year to year as new mines were tried out but always the heavy falls of snow that habitually choke the Michel Creek’s upper valley, hampered the work of that big shovel. With the post-War recession and the development of the California oil fields reducing the demand for coal, in 1921 CC&C ceased operations at the Big Showing, dismantled the equipment and brought it all down to Corbin.

Strikes, markets and mining conditions continued to plague CC&C for years. In 1924 Spokane money bought out the New York interests and renamed the mine Corbin Coals with Austin Corbin II as second president. Austin Corbin II regained control of his father’s company in 1926 when he became its sole president, relocating CC’s headquarters to Spokane. From July 26th through to mid-November that year the Big Showing was worked again doubling production to 119,000 tons. A new tipple with wet-washery was built and then a drier added to improve their final product. In 1928 a disastrous fire in July started in the drier and burned the tipple to the ground. It was rebuilt by December and in 1929 the mine had 191 men working and produced 168,000 tons. Corbin mortgaged the Coal Mountain property to the hilt to build that brand new tipple.
continued below ...
By 1933 two underground mines, No.4A and No.6, were in full production, and Mammoth Collieries, Limited was created as a wholly-owned subsidiary to recommence operations in the Big Showing with an expensive new gasoline shovel and a fleet of White trucks to run the coal from the pit to the tipple. By that time, though, Corbin workers could no longer suppress their ancient grievances.

Eventually labour issues boiled over after many years of indifference by the company. What follows is an extract from the website: crowsnest-highway.ca, a wonderful documentation site that studies all history along Highway 3. In the Corbin section we find this comment: “The arch-typical capitalist, D.C. Corbin seems to have held nothing but contempt for his workers. From the very beginning of the Coal Mountain operation, life was hell in the little town that the CC&C slapped up to house its workers. By 1910 600 people lived in the little hamlet with no power, no plumbing and no independent businesses what so ever. Just cottages, a company store and a mountain of coal was all there was to Corbin. The only way in, besides the Government of B.C. trail over Tent Mountain from the Flathead Valley, was the EBC, and it, not equipped with snow removal equipment, shut down when the drifts blocked its tracks. In the early days, seeing no need to work his mine through the winter and stock-pile coal, Corbin shut the entire operation down from November to March. He expected, however, that workers would over-winter at the Mountain and present themselves for rehire when spring cleared the railroad tracks. For the privilege of staying, however, each man paid a dollar a day in rent, but was responsible for his own food. Here is what author Michael Saad said in “A Short and Bitter Existence: “the first winter that this arrangement was tried, 1908-‘09, the situation got so desperate that a train carrying provincial aid had to be dug through the drifts and into the settlement.
continued below ...
The CC&C declined to assist in the rescue mission, and Corbin may not have been surprised when in 1910 his men welcomed organization by District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America.”

The story of the unionization of the Corbin workers is a complicated one with a company that stood against any demands for decent wages and working conditions Corbin miners tried first the United Mine Workers of America, then formed the Corbin Miners’ Association and aligned itself with the Mine Workers Union of Canada. Austin Corbin’s company refused any negotiation with them and the credo was, accept lowered wages, extortional store prices and terrible living conditions or hit the road.

It all boiled over in 1935 with confrontations and a strike that led to the infamous Black Wednesday incident on April 17th with a dozer being used to clear strikers off a road to allow replacement labour at the mine. A donnybrook broke out, several on both sides were injured and 15 protestors were eventually jailed. It spelled the end of this controversial camp as Austin Corbin shut down the mine for good that May. In 1939 the rails were torn up and in 1942- 849 tons of scrap metal was taken from the Corbin Mine for the war effort.

Several minor attempts were made to restart the mine or extract more of the coal through the following years but it wasn’t until 1978 that Byron Creek Collieries brought it back to life with new rails and new infrastructure. Three years later Esso Resources took over the mine and in 1994 sold it to CP Fording Coal Ltd. Teck Coal brought the operation into its fold in 2008 creating a five mine consortium that continues to this day. Ironically Coal Mountain has run out of economically mineable coal and its mining operation has ceased, ending more than 109 years of extracting the black gold from the Flathead. The word is that the Coal Mountain plant will continue to process coal which is being hauled there from other Teck mines until April of 2019.
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May 2nd, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 18
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