Coal was king before gold rushes hit B.C. But a vital link to this mining history faces jeopardy
by Greg Klein
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Look around downtown Nanaimo and you wouldn’t know that British Columbia’s mining industry started here. Hidden from sight are the extensive workings where men dug coal beneath the streets, the harbour and the nearby islands. Gone are the wharves, the narrow-gauge tracks that comprised western North America’s first railways and the mines’ surface structures. Several kilometres south, however, a very substantial monument to Vancouver Island’s coal mining heritage remains—for now. But the historic Morden mine headframe and tipple need urgent repairs. The site’s owner, the B.C. government, says it doesn’t have money to save it. A group that wants it saved finds itself at a dead end.
The structure is “all we have left of any consequence that speaks to the industry that dominated the east coast of Vancouver Island for the better part of 100 years,” according to the Friends of Morden Mine volunteer society. The 22.5-metre reinforced concrete headframe and adjoining tipple comprise the world’s third structure of its kind, the second-oldest survivor and the oldest such structure in North America, FOMM co-president Eric Ricker says. After 102 years, its condition continues to deteriorate as flaking concrete exposes rusting steel. In fact the situation’s getting urgent, he warns. “It’s the kind of structure where, if something goes, it could start toppling.”
The mine sits on B.C. government property, part of the four-hectare Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park. With help from the Regional District and the city of Nanaimo, Ricker’s group commissioned an engineering study that pegs preservation on a $2.8-million price tag. The province says it can’t fund the project and talks about unloading responsibility to others. As a small group, FOMM can’t raise the money. Efforts to find funds from other sources, Ricker says, have brought responses like this: “Well, it’s a provincial park. Why doesn’t the province fix it?”
“Of course there’s no answer to that because the province should fix it,” he maintains.
B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment, which runs provincial parks, sees no such responsibility. Although a spokesperson informed ResourceClips.com that the ministry currently has no active plan to unload the site, the department has previously stated it’s interested in divesting the park to an organization that would manage it. The ministry cited Barkerville and Fort Steele as divestment examples.
“Laughable” examples, according to Ricker. “Those were going concerns in which substantial capital improvements were made before they were divested.” Barkerville, a restored boom town dating to the 1862 Cariboo Gold Rush, is run by a non-profit with help from local governments and educational institutions, a local tourist association and the province’s Tourism B.C. Fort Steele, a restored mining town named after Mountie legend Sam Steele, is also run by a non-profit with help from local government. Both are legitimate historic sites but offer tourists something of a wild west theme park atmosphere.
It’s hard to imagine Morden winning comparable popularity, even if the structure were preserved. But as a reminder of the past, it offers a sense of continuity that’s intangible.
It’s a past best commemorated through remembrance, not celebration. The Hudson’s Bay Company claimed the region’s coal deposits in 1852, began mining soon afterward and eventually sold its assets to others. Over the years bitter strikes, deadly diseases, frequent accidents and catastrophic disasters took their toll on the coal-dependent community.
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