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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Miner's Roles and Responsibilities

A miner's role and responsibilities differed from one location to another and on the nature of the mining operation—whether it was a surface or underground mine. However, miners knew that no matter what the challenges there were from mine to mine, they had skills that were transferable and could work anywhere in Western Canada. The workforce was, therefore, very mobile and, as one mine was exhausted or closed for other reasons, the miners moved on to the next.

Working as a coalminer involved a routine that was repetitious but which was, none-the-less, demanding not only physically but also Sunshine Mine Tipplebecause of safety issues. When the whistle blew to call miners to their shift, men from the nearby town potentially traveled several miles to get to work. No matter where a miner worked in Western Canada, many of the same buildings comprised the mine operation. Some of the structures found above ground included power-producing machinery, an area to repair faulty equipment and a place to process the coal. In the earliest days, a blacksmith shop was a part of the mine operation not only to deal with equipment repairs but also to repair harness and other requirements of the pit ponies.

The miner started the day at the wash-house, the place where he could change into pit clothes and get ready for the work ahead. From there, he would move to the lamp house for his lamp, the most important item he would carry into the mine. Holding his lamp, lunch box, blasting powder, pick and other supplies brought from home, the miner was ready to descend to the coalface. In the Crowsnest Pass, early coal mines usually had two entry shafts. The main entry was a large, heavily-timbered opening, where men and material moved in and out of the mine. The second "counter" entry acted as an emergency exit but mainly was designed for ventilation.

Atlas Mine, East Coulee

Crisscrossed between the two entries was an intricate series of airways, haulage tunnels and coal cars. If the miner was lucky, he could catch an empty coal car to the area he would be working, but often he would climb to the coal face by foot, an arduous process even for the fit. Traveling to his location, the miner potentially passed pumps that removed water, if the mine was wet, and ventilation fans positioned at tunnel junctions. Once at the coalface, the miner began to work.

Coal mining started at the face where men, usually in pairs, worked rooms in the seam. These men, who dug coal, loaded it onto mine cars, laid track to the face and shored and bucked the rooms, were contract miners. They were paid by the amount of coal dug, graded and weighed, or by the yard. If they drove tunnel, or set up timber and did other preparatory jobs, they were paid a set rate for each job. The contract miners were the elite of the mine labor force. They had to be proficient to earn a decent living and to protect life and limb.

Men responsible for general maintenance of the mine, driving the ponies that pulled the cars, bringing the rail and timber to the contract miners, or cleaning up the grounds, were company or day men. They earned a daily wage on the basis of hours worked. They were responsible for inspecting, running and repairing the huge fans that ran constantly to pull dust and gas out of the mine and force clean air in. They operated the pumps that kept some shafts from flooding.

At the surface the coal was weighed, watched over by a check-weighman elected and paid by the men. The mine car was dumped, cleaned of bone and passed over a screen. The screened coal, divided into grades or sizes, was shipped in closed boxcars to markets. Supervisors, or bosses, included the mine manager, overman, pit-boss, shift-boss, and fire-bosses. Another important figure was the mine surveyor, who surveyed the larger mine workings every three months, the smaller mines once a year.

Young miners cleaning up at the coal face. Note the parting, which is characteristic of the Galt seam and tends to divide the generally 1.7 m seam into to almost equal layers. The roof and floor appears to be shale.The Crowsnest Pass miner extracted most of his coal by hand because the steep floors of the "rooms" that followed the pitching coal seams made it impossible to hold coal-cutting machinery against the coal face. Lying on his side, the miner first used his pick to cut a gap three feet into the bottom of the coal seam. If the weight of the remaining block of coal was not enough to bring it down, he was then forced to use driven wedges or explosives.

If explosives were needed, the miner drilled holes into the coal block with a hand-held auger. He then filled the holes with powder, positioned the fuses, and lit them. Undercutting the seam allowed the coal to expand into the groove during the explosion, producing a safer and, in the end, a more efficient blast. "Blasting from the solid," or making no cuts to allow for coal expansion, was both dangerous and illegal because the charge could backfire into the room to wreak its destruction there.Lump coal picking belts. There was one on each side of the refuse belt under the platform in the center.

When the dust cleared, the men shoveled the loosened coal into the chute. "Buckers" were employed to push the coal down the chutes. When it jammed, they tried to dislodge it by prodding or kicking it. If the jam gave away suddenly, the bucker could be swept down the chute to his death. By 1918, at least seven Frank miners had died attempting to clear clogged chutes.

Most miners in the Crowsnest Pass worked on contract, under which they were paid for the coal tonnage they mined. The size of the miner's pay cheque depended upon his skill. The 1907 Royal Commission inquiring into coal mining in Alberta discovered that daily wages fluctuated between $2.50 and $12.00. If there was too much dirt or rock in the coal, money was subtracted from the miner's earnings. At the same time, he could earn more if his seam was difficult to mine, or if his work area was wet. If he drove his own tunnels, erected his own lagging, placed his own brattice or performed other preparatory work, he also received additional income.

An old "Galt Coal Burns All Night" sign has been placed in front of a mine car. Note the piece of large rope in the car. Rope had to be repaired and rope splicers were brought in as needed. These men were looked upon as highly skilled craftsmen and, not infrequently, were called upon to work all night in order to have haulage and hoisting ropes ready for the morning shift.In many mines, day or "company'" men did all the preparatory work, receiving between $2.50 and $3.67 per day. "Timbermen" cut and installed timbers that supported the mine's haulage ways, airways and shafts, "Tunnellers." who were often skilled hard rock miners, extended entryways and searched for additional seams. "Haulage crews" guided the loaded coal cars back to the surface. "Brattice men" erected the partitions that controlled ventilation in the mine by separating the intake and return air passages. Other company men might be responsible for brickwork, or for maintaining the pipes that supplied the underground operation with power from compressed air.

Anderson Boyes Universal coal cutter making the first cut from an entry.Mining was intricate work with each man having a specialized role and responsibilities. The safety of all was dependent on the accomplishment of each task and there was little margin for error. That is why working well together was important and individuals who worked together frequently socialized together.

All the jobs in the mine were important, and if one person slacked, the consequences could affect the safety of all work. The miner's main responsibility was to remove coal from the seam and transport material to haulage routes. Safety was the responsibility of all miners, as each member ensured their work area was safe by timbering or bratticing.

The fire boss is the underground official who oversaw safety in one district of a mine. A district contains no more than 70 men and horses and has its own ventilation system. Three hours prior to a shift, the fire boss examined gas levels, tunnels, airways and timbers for proper safety. During the shift, he twice examined his district for safety and he would fire the shots of blasting powered as required.

Pit Boss CertificateThe pit boss is the man in charge of all underground operations and who directly reported to the mine manager. He supervised all pit officials, including the fire-boss and coordinated the mine's development.

The timber packer responsibilities dealt with bringing in timbers to be used as supports throughout the mine. Although miners were responsible for building the supports in rooms and crosscuts, the timber packer was responsible for everywhere else, including the main and counter entries.

In places in the mine where seams were too flat to allow gravity to move the coal, the bucker was employed to push coal down chutes where they could be hauled below.

This well-worn Overman's Provisional Certificate was a valued document as it enabled its holder to take charge of a mine.The spragger were a specialized group that used sprags, short pieces of wood with points at the end. Spraggers stopped coal cars by throwing the wood into the spokes of the coal car wheel to stop the coal car.

Other jobs in the mines included the haulage crew, mechanics and mine managers.

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