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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Surface Technology

By William N.T. Wylie

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The extensive underground works were complemented by a wide range of facilities above ground, serving both to support the sub-surface activities, and to prepare the coal for shipment. Constituting the main visual evidence of the mine to observers, the surface plant consisted of buildings and equipment relating to underground haulage and ventilation, the supply of power below and above ground, repair and storage, and coal preparation and transport. Besides the hoists and fans expediting the movement of materials and ventilation beneath the surface, the most crucial elements of the plant were those providing a source of power and associated with coal preparation and shipment.

Coal Mine near Wabamun LakeElectricity was almost invariably the main source of power in the coal mines of Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. Even when compressed air ran the underground machinery, electricity usually powered the surface compressors. Before 1914, the electricity ordinarily came from power houses located on site, where it was produced from coal-fired boilers and steam engines. Gradually, the need for these facilities waned, as surrounding communities developed, and electrical power became more widely available. By the 1930s, the only evidence of the power source was sometimes small electrical substations and rows of transmission poles, carrying electrical cables on site.1

Coal Power Plant at Wabamun LakeThe most extensive facilities on site usually dealt with coal processing. The need for preparation was great in Alberta and southeastern BC because of the nature of the coal and the demands of the market. In both mountains and plains areas, much of the coal was friable or crumbly, and had to be handled carefully to minimize breakage. The market required coal of many sizes-lump coal for steam engines, smaller pieces for domestic use. In the Crowsnest Pass, very fine coal, or slack, unusable elsewhere, was employed to make coke used in smelting. Preparation plants2 tended to be more complex in the mountains than on the plains, partly because of the uneven quality of the coal, and partly because of the stringent demands of the steam and smelter markets. Steam coal companies also tended to invest large amounts in mechanized facilities in order to reduce costs, and offset the high expense of employing large numbers of skilled miners underground.3

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918.

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