May 13th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 18
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Coal Mine in the Sky
Looking Back
Courtesy Fernie Historical Society
Elk River Colliery and Number 9 Mine
The initial strategic locating of coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass and the Elk Valley was driven by some simple criteria, access to the railroad and access to the coal-bearing Kootenay Formation coal seams. In the Pass, accessible exposures of coal within the Kootenay Formation brought about development of many mines within the Pass whose locations are well known. In the Elk Valley, where the seams of the enormous Crowsnest Coal Basin dropped down close to valley bottom geologically, several mines were also developed. These mines came to be known as Morrissey, Coal Creek, Hosmer and Michel.

The most well known of these is the Coal Creek Mine which operated from 1898 until 1958 until it was finally shut down due to a drastic drop in demand and conversion to oil and gas. Coal Creek Mine had a remarkable history and a unique small town that developed around the various mine buildings. The entire Coal Creek mine and town infrastructure has been more or less obliterated now, either torn down or left to degrade and be swallowed up by deciduous growth.
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Canada’s third-worst mine disaster, in which 130 miners were lost in one brutal devastating explosion, occurred up at the Coal Creek mines, seven miles from the town of Fernie. Two problems that made Coal Creek so dangerous were that the coal was very gassy and the topography was so abrupt on either side of the valley. Once an entry was driven in a few hundred feet into the hillside there could be as much as 2,000 feet of cover over top of it. As coal was extracted (pillared) the collapsing pressure bearing down on this development caused massive gas bumps and cave-ins. Indeed the topography was so severe that on several occasions the town site endured snow slides that ran right through the town.

At one point, later on in Coal Creek Mine mining history, a decision was taken to build a new tipple (preparation plant and facilities) and to develop a mine that would potentially not suffer from such catastrophic pressure. In 1943 that plant was completed and a new mine opened to be its principal feed. That mine was known as #9 Mine and its location is just about as spectacular as any coal mine you will ever see. The plant was known as the Elk River Colliery and the entries, fan house and hoist house were built 600 feet above the valley floor from where the cleaning plant lay.

The infrastructure installed to connect the mine to the new tipple included a pair of unique retarding conveyors that brought the coal down to the valley bottom and a 1,900 foot long surface incline track. The incline track system went straight up the 30-degree slope of the mine’s mountainside, mostly on a trestle because of the uneven ground. Men and supplies were hoisted up and down the mountain in coal cars and timber cars using a big cable hoist perched above the entries.
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The location of #9 Mine was at the very top of the Kootenay Formation and directly below a massive 75-foot thick quartzitic sandstone band. The fine grained sandstone band stands out very prominently amongst the now tree-covered mountain-side when viewed from the valley below and therein lies a story. The hoist house for the incline sat directly below that sandstone bluff and when one stands on its roof, one realizes the peril that existed there. They recognized the danger of rock falls and subsequently the roof of the hoist house was built over two feet thick, comprising of a layer of 2 x 10’s on edge covered by 3 inch plank lain flat, then a layer of sheet iron, then 4 x 4’s every 16 inches on center and then another layer of 3 inch plank.

I stood on this roof years ago and looked up and can tell you that the structure on that building’s roof could have been 8 feet thick and I still would not have worked inside that hoist room. The view down to the valley bottom was also astonishing and my vehicle, parked down at the old plant site, was barely visible. Alongside the hoist house they poured specially tapered concrete columns to hold up the sandstone lip that the hoist room was tucked in under. Those massive support columns are still holding today.

What is even more remarkable about this sandstone bluff is that, in 1947, a 100 ton section of it broke loose, tore down the mountainside and severely damaged that special retarding conveyor system, the snow sheds and some of the supply track. Fortunately, it was an idle day at the mine but the amazing thing was that ten men, including the mine overman Dan Chester, had just made the trip to the valley floor from the top on a man skip only minutes before.
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The après damage inspection revealed the disturbing fact that a body of rock about twice the size of what had fallen out was left suspended up there, held only by two small ledges. For this mine, the main coal supply to the plant to continue running safely, this hazard had to be dealt with. A rather novel idea was hatched to build a restraining steel harness to hold back that weakened sandstone zone. The harness was to be built with 7/8 inch steel hoist cable that had been retired from what they call an endless underground haulage system. In time old underground hoist cables became weakened and need to be replaced for safety reasons.

The way in which the harness was built was as unique as the mine itself. At the top of the bluff, above the bad zone, holes were drilled and one end of long strands of the harness cable was cemented into the holes using flowers of sulphur. I cannot find any reference anywhere as to why this sulphur agent, normally used in the medical profession, was used to bond the cables into the holes. Once a series of parallel vertical strands were dropped down, they were then grouted into the bottom of the cliff. Next horizontal cables were attached in a cross pattern series using large cable clamps, thus forming a giant steel net.

I found a 1947 picture of the mine overman (pit boss) Dan Chester, hanging off the harness as he was attaching the clamps to bond horizontal and vertical cables together. In the photo he wore his miner’s lamp, even though he was working outside. No doubt that monster bluff casts a pretty dark shadow.

I first visited #9 Mine in 1991 and the memory of hanging off that harness and looking out northward across the valley towards Mount’s Fernie, Proctor and Trinity was spectacular. The harness is still holding to this day and the site is still accessible by means of an 11-switchback overgrown road that climbs up the hillside at a tolerable 4 per cent grade. The mine is included as part of the Coal Creek Heritage Trail interpretive trail which was installed years ago and is an unforgettable hike.
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There is one more fascinating aspect to the #9 Mine story and it is that there was a stunning fossil find located nearby. It lies at about the same elevation but about a half mile west of the #9 Mine entries. The fossil was discovered in 1947, the same year the mine was dealing with that hair-raising sandstone collapse. Its discoverer was Chuck Newmarch, a geologist with the B.C. Geological Survey. It was named Titanites Occidentalis after ammonites of similar size found elsewhere and it unofficially became Canada’s largest ammonite fossil. The spectacular stone cast lies near a steep, ephemeral drainage that flows into Coal Creek and is a whopping 5 ½ feet in diameter.

This ancient version of a modern day nautilus is partially a cast and partially an impression. When they existed, ammonites were predatory, squid like creatures that lived inside coil-shaped shells. When I try to imagine one 5 ½ feet in diameter, bobbing along in the ancient Western Interior Seaway that covered most of Alberta, it leaves me speechless. The Coal Creek ammonite is often referred to as the “fossil truck tire.” I have found several miniature ammonites in the marine shales of the Bearpaw Formation just east of Coleman. It is always exciting to spy one sticking out of a shale bed. The ancient fossilized remains of a creature that dates back 75 million years!

The Number 9 Mine development lasted from 1943 until the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company finally shut down all operations at the Elk River Colliery, leaving 284 men out of work. The plan to reduce subsidence and bumping at the mine by going up higher didn’t work that well and the mine experienced some bumping events like the mines in the valley below. It seems the issue then was more about speed of extraction than depth of cover.

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May 13th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 18
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