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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Surface Mining

By William N. T. Wylie

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Strip mining gradually emerged as an alternative to underground excavation techniques during the period in question. While a few surface operations were visible prior to World War One, it was only after 1945 that improvements in earth-moving machinery made this approach practicable in most areas. Surface mining eventually transformed coal mining, permitting much greater quantities of coal to be extracted, while reducing the costs associated with maintaining a large workforce.      

Shown here  is Galt Mine No. 8 (Mine No. 1464), which was located near the west end of the CP Rail High Level Bridge at Lethbridge. It opened in 1935 when Galt Mine No. 6 (Mine No. 3) and of the Coalhurst mine (Mine No. 174) closed. This mine was familiar to generations of Lethbridgians as mine wastes were dumped along the coulee hanks beyond the mine buildings. These ignited by spontaneous combustion and burned for years as fresh fuel was constantly added. No. 3 Highway, now No. 3A, was the only approach to Lethbridge from the west. It ascended the hill via the same coulee so the coal mine fires were highly visible to motorists and passers-by. Part of the tipple, the water tower, and many of the mine buildings have survived. In 1989, the property owners and various agencies were examining the tourist potential of the site. The early attraction of surface techniques was the opportunity to remove coal without constructing the complex myriad of subterranean passages and rooms typical of underground mining. The potential, however, was limited by the high cost of labour involved in removing the top layers of soil and exposing the coal seam to the surface. Mechanization was not sufficiently advanced to reduce this expense, though self-propelled shovels and steam draglines were in place at Tofield, east of Edmonton, before 1914, and at a few other sites in the 1920s and 1930s. For the most part, surface operations were limited to areas where the coal seams were close to the surface and the overburden could be easily removed. Strip mining was undertaken in some plains locations, and in the Coal Branch prior to 1945.1

The expansion of surface excavations ultimately depended on the development of large labour-saving machines capable of removing vast quantities of coal. By the 1940s, much larger shovels and draglines were available, along with bulldozers for ploughing and giant trucks to carry the coal away. Much of this equipment was now powered by internal combustion engines or electricity rather than steam. With these developments, surface mining began to supplant the more costly and labour-intensive underground operations. After 1935, many of the new mines used stripping methods. As the industry declined after World War Two, only the surface operations were able to remain competitive, and when the industry expanded again at the end of the 1960s, it depended on these methods almost exclusively. Major mines emerged at Sheerness east of Drumheller, at Forestburg northeast of Red Deer, at Wabamun, and in the Coal Branch area at Gregg River, Cardinal River, and Coal Valley. Modern methods sought to do as little damage as possible to the physical environment, replacing and replanting the topsoil after the coal was removed. Under the environmental legislation of 1972 in Alberta, the coal companies were permitted to remove mountains, as long as they left an environment which was still as conducive as possible to animal and plant life.2

Until the 1950s, however, underground mining predominated. The technology associated with this approach was not only costly, but required large numbers of miners to work in situations that were frequently arduous and even dangerous. These workers in turn drew on a tradition of mining culture and pride developed over several centuries in Europe and America. It is to their contribution, and particularly to their confrontations with management, that we now turn.

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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