Until the 1960s, when technology changed the
way coal could be removed, accessing buried coal in Western
Canada involved digging a tunnel near a seam. Branching off
this main tunnel were smaller passages that ran in the seam and
allowed miners to retrieve the coal. If the coal seam was
extensive, the mine would consist of a complex network of tunnels
many kilometres deep. The first miners often worked by hand,
using picks and shovels to dig and load the coal into one-ton
coal cars. "Pit ponies" or horses moved the coal from
deep in the mine to the surface using coal filled car trains.
However, in cases where horses were could not access the
tunnels, pit crews pushed the cars themselves.
Labour accounted for the biggest
expense to mining companies, and the search for technologies to
reduce manual labour developed throughout the 1900s.
Mechanization became important to coal mining as devices such as the "air pick" reduced labour costs and increased efficiency. In
some mines however, hand
mining continued for many years in areas where sparks and
explosions were of greater concern.
The most common underground techniques were
"room and pillar" and "long wall" mining. These were
traditional techniques that had been used in Europe before the
development of mines in North America. Today, "surface
mining" is more common and safer method of accessing coal that
is close to the surface and is not impeded by mountains.
This section explores the most common
methods of coal mining in the early 1900s to today.