Thursday 24th September 2020

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Goodbye Morden mine?

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Among the mine disasters was one of Canada’s worst, an 1887 explosion that killed 153 workers. Months later, when another blast killed 60 more men, the region’s mines “were gaining a reputation as among the most dangerous in the world,” according to the Nanaimo Museum. The carnage continued, as did labour strife.

Coal was king before gold rushes hit B.C. But a vital link to this mining history faces jeopardy

With the Morden mine still under development, the 22.5-metre
headframe dwarfs a barely visible employee. (Photo by the late
Eldon White, donated to the Friends of the Morden Mine Society
by Tom Paterson)

But by the time Nanaimo was mined out in the 1950s, the town had become an important transportation hub with fishing, logging, pulp and paper, and other industries to keep it going.

A relative latecomer, Morden was operated by Pacific Coast Coal Mines between 1913 and 1921. In the late 1960s, Ricker says, George Wilkinson, a well-connected Vancouver businessman and son of a former mine inspector, happened to drive by the site, then used as a lumber company’s junk yard. He offered to buy it on the province’s behalf but the government went one better and bought the site itself. The provincial park was born.

Even so, Ricker says, it took a new arrival to that neck of the woods, Judy Burgess, to realize what was still taken for granted. As a result, FOMM came together in 2003.

A decade of co-operation followed with the environment ministry’s BC Parks branch. Ricker says that ended abruptly in 2013 when a new minister adopted a do-it-yourself attitude.

BC Parks informed that it’s “not able to fund the estimated $500,000 for emergency repairs to the mine structures or the estimated $2.2 million for restoration. This $2.7-million expenditure would equate to 20% of the annual BC Parks capital program.”

The province continues to conduct site maintenance and inspections, the spokesperson added. He also stated, “BC Parks respectfully hopes the FOMM, or other community partners who have an interest in the repair and preservation of the heritage structure, can continue to raise funds to support the project.”

Having been rejected at the provincial level, FOMM last month tried to interest the Regional District of Nanaimo, an effort Ricker portrays as almost an act of desperation. RDN directors asked their staff to look into leasing the site but Ricker strongly sensed they had “no taste for getting involved. They’ve made no commitment and quite frankly I’d be amazed if they did make a commitment.”

Coal was king before gold rushes hit B.C. But a vital link to this mining history faces jeopardy

One surviving remnant of Nanaimo’s mining history
is the Hudson’s Bay Company bastion. A structure
usually associated with the fur trade, this one was
built in 1853 to protect miners and their families.

Other options seem elusive. B.C.’s coal industry, now mostly located in the province’s northeast and mostly idle, has been pummelled by plummeting prices. Moreover stakeholders, including miners, related companies and labour, might not want to risk sullying their new image by associating themselves with the industry’s tragic past.

Meanwhile, discouragement has caused at least some FOMM members to consider giving up. After 13 years of effort, it might even be for the best, Ricker suggests. “In a way we might be an impediment to getting Morden fixed because people just keep turning it back to us as if we have the capacity or responsibility to do something about it.”

Still, he’s incredulous that a government that professes to support mining would neglect this government-owned monument to B.C.’s mining past.

Next month the B.C. Historical Federation’s annual conference heads to Barkerville to commemorate the Cariboo Gold Rush. By press time the federation hadn’t responded to an interview request. Neither had Heritage B.C., an organization that advocates preservation of historic structures including industrial sites.


Using Morden as a backdrop, David Gogo sings a song dedicated to his great-grandfather, one of 20 men who died in a 1915 flood at another Nanaimo-region Pacific Coast Coal Mines operation.


Update: In October 2017 B.C.’s provincial government announced a $25,000 grant towards the estimated $2.7 million needed to preserve the site.


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