March 22nd, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 12
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Coking Coal at Michel – A Mechanized Approach
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Coke product being pushed into trough
Part of the development of the Elk Valley coal mines in the early part of the twentieth century had to do with the baking of coal. That is to say coking it, a process that involves its: “carbonization at high temperatures in an oxygen deficient atmosphere in order to concentrate the carbon.”

By 1908 there had been no less than 1398 ovens constructed in the coal mines of the Elk Valley at Morrissey, Fernie, Hosmer and Michel for the express purpose of creating a high quality coke to be shipped to the Pacific Northwest United States or to the ore smelters at Kimberley and Trail.

In the Michel Creek valley 458 igloo-style beehive ovens were built and began producing in 1902. It is hard to imagine that many ovens all going at once and while those brick-lined cookers were continually resealed with each batch of coal loaded into them, there still must have been a lot of strong smelling blue smoke around!

The beehive oven production at Michel peaked at around 147,000 short tons of coke in 1908 in a year when their underground mines produced just under 500,000 tons of coal. From then on production figures were affected up and down by strikes, a world war and varying market demands. But by the beginning of the Second World War things began to change.

The Crows Nest Pass Coal Company had the foresight in the late 1930’s to consider a more mechanized and efficient coking process and contracted the Coal Carbonizing Company of St. Louis, Missouri to install a bank of ten Curran-Knowles by-product ovens in Michel. In the process they leveled 236 of the older bee-hive ovens to make room for these highly mechanized cokers.

Maurice D. Curran, an American visionary in the field of coking, realized that oil and gas and hydro power were slowly taking over the coal industry and that a vastly improved coking process that created by-products such as coal tar and gas could compete with them to some extent and provide important and cheaper products for the chemical industry. It also followed that his oven design could produce a cheaper, more versatile product than older coking processes. About 1934 the Curran-Knowles coal carbonization oven was first introduced in the United States. It was of the type known as the "sole-flue heated oven," since the heating of the coal charge is done by flues in the floor of the oven rather than by flues in the side walls.
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A bank of 10 Curran-Knowles ovens were installed in 1939 and thus began a forty plus year legacy of producing high quality coke and tar and gas by-products at Michel. More banks of ovens were added in 1943, 1949 and 1952 so that eventually there were 52 ovens operating at once.

The ovens held between 5 ½ and 7 ½ tons of coal per charge that were added by using a mechanical lorry that ran on tracks above the ovens. Basically the lorry was a mechanized hopper car that poured its charge into two rows of four loading funnels per oven. The ovens were about forty feet long and ten feet wide and the charge of coal put inside was usually not more than a foot high. The Curran’s were only 42 inches high inside to the crown of a segmental arch and were heated by flues that ran underneath the ovens and used some of the by-product gases created in the coking process. The remainder of the gas I am told was used in the boilers at the company’s powerhouse.

A special slack storage bin was strategically located in the middle of these four banks of ovens and held 3200 tons of coal which ensured a smooth continuous operation. So those 52 ovens took about 775 tons of coal per day and yielded about 580 tons of coke and around 40 tons of coke breeze, which was anything less than ¼ inch in size. A charged oven took about 10 ½ hours of coking time at temperatures of 2,500 to 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit to yield a grey, hard and porous product high in carbon with few impurities that looks a lot like lava rock. They also produced about 6 gallons of tar which was stored in tanks and sold commercially and 8,000 to 10,000 cubic feet of gas per ton of coal charged. The tar had a high phenol value and could be used as a timber preservative.
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In previous columns I have talked about old style coke ovens and how incredibly physical the labour was to “pull” one of these ovens, that is to say remove the coke after 48 hours of baking. With the Curran-Knowles ovens this was replaced by a mechanical pusher/leveler that moved along one side of the ovens on tracks. It was used first to evenly level each new load of coal in the ovens and about eleven hours later the half-moon shaped doors were again partially pulled upwards by cables, when the coke was ready, and the pusher was used again. This time it would utilize a special hydraulic ram to shove the coke out the other side into a cooling trough that had a chain conveyor in the bottom of it. The pusher’s engine as well as the charging-lorry’s engine operated on by-product gas created by the ovens and compressed to 125 pounds per square inch. The coke was then quenched with water and conveyed to a loadout tower alongside the tracks.

There were several jobs involved in operating these ovens that were pretty nasty and most men who were relegated to these positions were only too glad to get the hell away from there to another job or at the very least to one of the nearby hotels for a couple of cold ones at the end of the shift. To keep the ovens working in a reduced oxygen environment required the continual resealing of the doors on either side and the funnel holes up top. The ovens ran 24/7 and there was always smoke billowing out of freshly recharged ovens and out of doors that needed resealing.
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Standing on the metal platform in front of those doors alongside the cooling trough with a wheel barrow full of special clay for remudding must have been brutal. The heat and smells were undoubtedly oppressive. The men who mudded the top funnels took to putting a second sole on their boots so that they had about two inches between them and the oven.

Bill Savilow from Sparwood worked on the ovens for a time as a young man and told me there was yet another job that must have been even more brutal. Periodically the brick linings inside the ovens would deteriorate and yup, you guessed it, someone had to crawl into that oven (whilst the ovens on either side were still running) and do repairs. Bill re-mudded the oven doors for a time and recalls that a bit of flame and smoke would be coming out them as he started at the top of the arched door and plastered mud down both sides and the bottom.

Another well known miner connected to the coke plant was Ian (Buster) Dufour who worked on the ovens for 27 years. Buster started out there in 1949 as a labourer for $4.90 a day, six days a week and within 2 years was made plant superintendent. By 1970 he moved into safety, hiring and community relations. As Buster put it: “By then, I’d had enough. My health wasn’t too good. It was a dirty place to work.” In the 27 years he worked there he oversaw over 800 employees. The ovens were finally shut down in 1982 for good and eventually the whole coke and briquette plant was torn down. I recall this happening and remember wishing that someone would have had the presence of mind to save a couple of those amazing half moon doors for historic purposes. They would have made the best interpretive panels you could buy.

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March 22nd, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 12
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