October 20th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 42
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
It’s Not What it Seams
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Section showing extent of underground Frank North Mine
In an April 17th, 2019 column (What Lies Beneath Us – Part 1) the topic I explored was the vast underground extent of the coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass. I suggested back then that a very narrow cross-hatched outlined area running north of the highway on the west side of Frank, as per the ERCB mine-map viewer sketch, was probably a big exploration adit. I have since come to learn that it was in fact the Frank North Mine and its details are quite astonishing. I managed to get a technical sketch of exactly what went on there and it made for some interesting reading.

North Mine is the name I have given this operation to help discern it from the main South Mine that entered Turtle Mountain at its base and travelled all the way over its east flank to Hillcrest! As I contemplated the rudimentary sketch I discerned that there was much more to the North Mine than I realized. The first thing I noted on the drawing was a vertical shaft that went no less than 330 feet deep! Holy Cow, this is unprecedented in Pass coal mine development.

Typical Pass mines drove entries into the Kootenay Formation coal outcrops that had some pitch to them, generally around thirty degrees. So there was always rock, usually massive a sandstone, that formed the roof of the workings and was somewhat stable. But how you mine with no stable roof and nothing but coal above you must have been a bit tricky.
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It turns out there were portions of the Frank North coal mine that ran both north and south from this super deep shaft on the sketch. The hoisting shaft was located just south of the highway approximately across from Pure Country, just south of the tracks. The underground mine was developed south at the 330 foot depth for about 1,000 feet before it ran into a geological fault that blunted off the coal. Logic dictates that they were trying to connect to their mine at the toe of the mountain. That tunnel didn’t make it and the mines inspector ruled that they could not try and get around that fault.

So they mined north from that shaft 2,400 feet at that same depth (330 feet) and then proceeded to mine upwards in the almost vertical seam employing what they called the “diamond system” of mining. Still haven’t found a cogent explanation of how this worked but it must have been tricky and dangerous. Throughout the Frank coal mine history of approximately 19 years, 20 men were lost. Undoubtedly some were killed working the north section of that vertical coal seam.

The development of the Frank North Mine began about the same time as the ill-fated Canadian Metal Company’s Frank zinc smelter began construction. That smelter, as we all know, was located in and around where Goat Mountain Get-A-Way now operates their first class mountain cabins. It is not clear from newspaper articles as to whether the smelter company intended to buy the coal being mined from underneath it or not. The smelter story is a complicated one that I won’t get into but the simple thinking at the time was this. If it takes two tons of coal to smelt one ton of zinc, why not bring the zinc to the coal instead of the coal to the zinc.
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As the mine headed north the topography above it climbs towards Bluff (Goat) Mountain and as some point the company chose to drive a new horizontal entry into the seam. It was part way up the slope north of the highway and was called A Level. This entry went in 1400 feet before it stopped and appears to have connected to the main mine below it that ran under the highway. Quite remarkable isn’t it? I would give my right arm to be there at that time to see how the hell it all went around. But I am not sure if I would have gone in to the mine!

The infrastructure at the hoist house was fairly complicated and included a towering hoist frame visible in some old pictures. There is also a large 20 foot high trestle running south from the hoist to the main south mine tipple which was close to the toe of the mountain. A rail spur line runs back north from the tipple alongside the trestle towards the hoist and then splits with one line arcing to the east and one running past the hoist and connecting to the main CPR line.

The arcing line appears to allow coal to be hauled up yet another trestle that sat right alongside the CPR tracks and allowed, with storage bins, for coal to be loaded straight into coal cars on the main line. Coal from the hoist area could also be sent directly into a massive “power house and electrical light station” which sported its own typical tall smoke stack. Recently I found a bit of the power house foundation remains across from Pure Country. One can usually tell power plant foundations as there often are large threaded bolts sticking out of the concrete that the generators or boilers were mounted to.

Doesn’t this just blow your mind. As you drive east through Frank you pass over the old mine tunnel and on your right towards the bottle depot was that entire amazing infrastructure. First of all, driving a vertical shaft into an ancient till-filled valley bottom 330 down was a feat unto itself. Holding it open and free of water turned out to be a serious issue and required continuous pumping. Don’t forget the river was just yards away at basically ground level. There were times the mine was shut down because of the flooding issue.
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A 1909 Frank Paper reports that some new boilers were added at the shaft site, at the mines inspectors insistence, to allow for a safer pumping out of the shaft which had been shut down because of flooding for some time. Later issues of the paper (1911) talk about proposed expansions including a new tipple right next to the hoist house and west of that a battery of 50 coke ovens. Of course all this did not come to pass because of a multiplicity of reasons including profitability, markets and strikes.

Last week I talked to Goat Mountain Get-A-Way owners Shelley and Dale Kuta about all this and asked permission to roam their property to look for the seam trace and evidence of subsidence going north. I was not disappointed and found several subsidence collapses, one of which clearly defines the coal seam thickness (see picture). As I stood on the hill way north above Kuta’s place I was able to sight down the subsidence periodic occurrences to the south. This allowed me to line up where the coal seam trended across the highway towards Turtle Mountain.

The best exposure of the slump reveals about a 20 foot thick seam with a hard sandstone footwall and hanging wall (top and bottom of seam). The rock is slightly overturned which may mean, at least in that area, it was not fully vertical and that may have helped in the mining issue.
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The subsidence pockets are not particularly dangerous and the time of their activity has long since passed. It is interesting to note that I mentioned Frank Mine subsidence in an April 2013 column I did entitled, “Giant Slides – From Frank to the World’s Biggest.” In it I presented a picture of subsidence way up on the east flank of Turtle Mountain that was identified by the Alberta Geological Survey some years ago using a digital aerial photo technique known as lidar. With lidar you can strip the trees out of digital photos and reveal what is underneath and in this case several round collapses were revealed. They are way up high, hidden in the trees and I am told that a black bear chose one of them for a den. The lidar mapping process is being used in Central America to now reveal dozens of ancient Mesoamerican sites here-to-for not known or visible to researchers. Apparently this has stunned archaeologists in that it has revealed a massive interconnection of sites that was not realized.

There is so much more to this mine story and to the unusual zinc smelter attempt that happened around the same time. I should mention that a 1993 Historical Resources Impact Mitigation report done by Bison Historical Services for NOVA Gas Transmission Ltd at the smelter site does cite several examples of subsidence collapses occurring between 1912 and 1916, some of which swallowed up a couple of smelter buildings and part of the public road. It was watched carefully by mines inspectors for years but that was 100 years or more ago so, like I said, there is no issue these days.
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October 20th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 42
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