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Workers’ Hell at Coal Mountain

A century ago on July 30, 1905, Daniel Corbin, a Spokane, Washington railway entrepreneur, had just finished a horseback journey along Michel Creek deep in the southeastern Canadian Rockies when he gazed upon an 80-metre thick seem of high-grad bituminous coal. “Well, I’ll be damned,” declared the excited 73-year-old businessman, who was sizing up coal deposits as future transportation revenue for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Corbin’s discovery on the mountain led to the formation three years later of the Corbin Coal and Coke Company, and the locale became known as Coal Mountain, featuring the “Big Showing” – a surface cut estimated to contain nearly a million tons of coal. The company constructed a rail spur line and the mine showed promise in the first few years. By 1912 the mine employed 173 men, extracting and transporting 122,000 tons of coal.

Shey locomotive & steam shovel, pre-1930 Loading coal onto Spokane INernatinal Railway cars at Corbin
Loading coal onto Spokane International Railway cars at Corbin.
Photo courtesy of the Fernie and District Historical Society.
Shey Locomotive and steam shovel working in the pre-1930 period at the Big Show at Corbin mine site.
Photo courtesy of the Fernie and District Historical Society.

Meanwhile, a town site built up at the foot of Coal Mountain. By 1910, it was estimated 600 people were living in Corbin. Although the setting was spectacular in the shadow of scenic snow-capped mountains the town site was not considered modern or even comfortable in any way, with no roads, power or plumbing. The town site consisted of the Flathead Hotel, and several stores notably the Flathead Trading Company. Corbin also had the usual assortment of colliery buildings, including the tipple, powerhouse, warehouse, washhouse and executive offices.

It became quickly apparent to residents that the company was not prepared to make improvements on living conditions. At the company boarding house there was a flat rate of $1 per night with miners expected to provide themselves with their bedding, towels and food. If they were broke the company ordered them out of town, and those evicted were often forced to walk or hitch a train ride to Michel, the nearest town 15 kilometres west. Conditions became especially difficult in the 1908-09 winter when massive snowfalls isolated the community and food supplies became dangerously low. The provincial government was forced to send a relief train with supplies to the residents. The company refused to assist in the rescue operation As well, the Corbin mine was not equipped to operate in winter but the company still expected the miners and their families to tough it out until spring when operations resumed.

Corbin tipple looking south pre-1930
Corbin tipple looking south in the pre-1930 era.
Photo courtesy of the Fernie and District Historical Society.

Tired with the appalling living and working conditions, the miners unionized in 1910 with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Adopting a socialist stance, the union became part of the newly-formed One Big Union in 1919, a year that witnessed a wave of strikes in the industry throughout the country. With the company refusing to deal with the socialist One Big Union, miners later returned to the UMWA.
In 1918, Daniel Corbin died. His son, Austin Corbin II, inherited control of the company but by then the fortunes of the mine were at best mixed with management having to deal with never-ending labor problems, fires and the closure of the copper mines in B.C., a key buyer of Corbin coal. Then the Depression arrived in the 1930s.

Despite the depressed economy, the company made a huge operational investment in 1932, which led to further unrest and a strike by miners on Jan. 22, 1935. The strike, which was supported by fellow unionists throughout the Crowsnest Pass, came to a head on April 17 – known as “Black Wednesday”.

Coal miners at tipple pre-1930
Corbin miners at tipple during the pre-1930 period.
Photo courtesy of the Fernie and District Historical Society.

The Fernie Free Press reported that a “regular donnybrook fair” broke out when company officials called in a caterpillar tractor – under police escort – to clear snow from a road that led to the Big Showing mine. The striking miners suspected the tractor and police escort was also being used to bring in replacement workers. The strikers surrounded the caterpillar, touching off a riot.

The police kept control of themselves,” reported the Free Press. “…only using their clubs, but the strikers which included a number of women, used clubs, iron bars, rocks and sledge hammers, and for a while made it interesting for the forces of law and order, but in a little while the latter were compelled to take to their heels".

Fifteen strikers were arrested in the ugly melee, which was being blamed by provincial police on the “communists of Blairmore” from the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass. Although there were no deaths, 16 police officers and at least 20 miners were injured. Eight women were also injured when they were run over by the caterpillar.

“When the crowd gathered upon the road to prevent the men from going to work they put the women in the front and I saw a man get hold of a woman and push her in the direction of the tractor,” stated one police report. “I afterward learned that it was this man’s wife, and that both of her feet were broken. “This is not a coal miner’s strike but a deliberate attempt by the Communists of Blairmore to get a foothold in the Corbin area,” the report continued. Conciliation attempts were made over the next three weeks to resolve the dispute but on May 7, the company announced from its headquarters in Spokane that all operations would shut down in two weeks. Corbin was finished and the town site was deserted. It became a ghost town.

Pioneer era home
Pioneer era home
Corbin’s modern-day town site is still dotted with homes from the pioneer era.
Photos by Johnnie Bachusky.
Pioneer era house

The mine was revived for a few years during the Second World War, but the community never rebounded. Byron Creek Collieries bought the Coal Mountain property in 1972, which in turn sold their interest to Esso Resources Canada in 1981. In October of 1994 Esso sold the property to Fording Coal Limited, which transferred ownership of Coal Mountain to Elk Valley Coal Partnership in 2003. Elk Valley Coal now claims to be the world’s second larges supplier of metallurgical coal.

Corbin cemetery
Corbin cemetery
The pioneer cemetery at Corbin, located on a hillside near the town site, has recently been restored.
Photos by Johnnie Bachusky.
Corbin cemetery
Corbin cemetery
Marker at Corbin cemetery

Meanwhile, there are still a handful of residents still residing on the old Corbin town site, which sits in the shadow of the current coal mining operations on Coal Mountain. A few pioneer buildings still remain, and restoration efforts have been made on a once long forgotten cemetery on a hillside about a kilometer from the old town site. At that lonely spot, there is at least some peace now in Corbin.

Ghost Towns of British Columbia - Copyright © 2005 Susan Foster & Johnnie Bachusky
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