top of page

Looking Back: The Bellevue Mine Tour - Ready to Roll


John Kinnear

May 17, 2023

That place of no light is underground in a coal mine and once I got used to the absence of light the uncertainty of being there faded away. 

I have been to the place where the sun doesn’t shine. Many times.  I worked in that environment when I was 16, as a summer student for my father. I can tell you that the first time was not as bad as I thought it would be.  That is because I knew that those around me were watching out for me.  That place of no light is underground in a coal mine and once I got used to the absence of light the uncertainty of being there faded away.  

In recent years my visitations to the place of no sol were connected to being a board member for the Bellevue Underground Mine. While it’s been a few years since my service to this place, which is an integral part of our interpretation of the history of the Pass, my heart is still there with this unique tour. Part of the reason for my attachment is that what went on there and at other mines in the Pass was key to why we are here. And part of it is Bellevue specifically, because my grandfather, Bill McInnis, worked there for 26 years.   

So as each May long weekend rolls around the preparation for another year of tours at this one of a kind mine is being amped up. The new crew of young interpreters, some experienced, some not, spend a great deal of time familiarizing themselves with the place and continually rehearse their hour-long tour program to the point where it goes like clockwork. Recently I toured the mine as I had heard that, for a couple of years or more now, the dedicated volunteer maintenance crew there had been systematically replacing and refurbishing the entry with all new timbers, planking and roof framing.  This is a monumental task and is on-going. I was absolutely astounded at the amount of work that has gone on since my last visit and I can say, with some experience, that the mine has never looked better.  It is important that absolute safety be maintained there for the tours and that is exactly what has been put in place.   

The first piece of extensive stabilization one encounters is at what is called Raise #1.  There you will find two immense stacks of box cribbing which speaks to the extent that crew Terry Barlow and Terry Vosler are prepared to go in order to maintain the level of integrity required at this bend in the entry.  Stacked 6 by 6’s over 15 feet high tower over the visitor and certainly give a sense of rock-solid security as one moves past the area.   

As you walk further in you will find that pretty much every single timber has been replaced and in between them is all new two-inch planking. The first section of the mine used to have tin mounted to the roof to prevent any cap rock from falling down. That old rusted roof cover has all been stripped away and the loose rock mined back to a hard surface and an all new wood ceiling cover put in its place.  This must have been brutally hard work done on scaffolding  and it now looks very safe. The timbers are flagged with numbered brass tags so that where you are in the mine exactly can be noted by the number on the 16-foot- plus long pressured-treated supports.  Original timbering in the mine was not pressure-treated but for the sake of longevity it is the preferred way now.  

The next important part of the mine interpretation as you proceed inside is called Raise #2 and once again the restoration work is exemplary and there is a fascinating story that goes with this particular raise. The stairs there are reproductions of a long set of stairs that used to exist and were used by the miners. You can see at this stop the remnants of the original wooden stairs that were worn down by decades of miners walking over them. 

The miners entered the mine from the top of the steep hill above the mine and walked down the stairs inside that raise to the entry and from there on into the depths of the mine. It is a rather unique setup that, as far as I know, existed nowhere else in Pass coal mines.  The miners changed up top at the dry, walked over to a small shack that sat overtop of where that raise came to the surface and down they went.  Anyone observing dozens of miners entering or coming out of this tiny shack, without knowing why, would be astounded that that many men could fit in it. 

The next interpreted part of the mine has also had huge work and is Raise #3, which is an operating chute. That is to say there is a wooden chute extending out over a mine car that has a control gate and a liftable apron. It is used to demonstrate how coal cars were loaded systematically at each raise. I operated many of these as a bucker/loader in Vicary Mine as a summer student 55 years ago.  In an operating mine like Vicary, each raise has its own chute and the haulage crew systematically emptied the mined coal from each raise on a regular basis.  

The next stop on the tour is designed to demonstrate how a pair of miners would start a new raise up the pitch of the coal seam from the entry.  There are two manikin coal miners named Pete and Tito stationed there and a wide variety of the tools they used like coal drills and air picks are lying about. It was always a lot of work to get a new raise started and a new chute would have to be built as the miners worked their way up the pitch of the seam. One half of the driveage going up the seam had a sheet iron chute that the coal slid down to the entry in.  

Just past this display the tour ends at a spectacular spot where the roof rock is flowing with many colours and is referred to as the bleeding wall. There is much speculation as to its cause but it provides a spectacular backdrop for a group shot.  The area going further in is fenced off with a sign that says, Absolutely No Entry Beyond This Point.  From that fence one can look deeper into the mine and see how it looks unrestored. 

This year’s crew of Ethan Chambers, Hunter MacDonald and Abigayle Bruce will be joined by Cole Tkachuk in June. Sandi Winter is the operations lead there and is the one that keeps the whole thing rolling along. Hunter, I am told. is the grandson of the expert mine restoration guy Terry Barlow who is a former miner himself. 

From October to opening day on the May long weekend Terry Barlow, Terry Vosler, Rich Rhvette and Diane Peterson, a former executive director at the mine, work Mondays and Tuesdays on the continual job of maintenance and enhancement of this first rate tour. The tours can be arranged on a newly reworked on-line booking system that Sandi says is running smoothly.

CEO of Heritage Crowsnest, Chris Matthews, who oversees the mine’s operation, tells me they are ready to roll for yet another season. That season is from May long weekend to Labour Day. So if you’ve never been where the sun don’t shine you need to see this remarkable place. And if you have been, you need to return to behold this brighter, cleaner and totally safe place to cool off. Step into the world that miners worked in daily for 58 years. Oh and one more thing. Make sure you are dressed for it. Shorts and sandals don’t work there.  

bottom of page