The Corbin Coal and Coke Company (Corbin Coal) began
operations in 1908, three years after railway magnate Daniel
Corbin discovered a sizeable coal seam in the Elk Valley. Of the
land holdings that his company purchased, the most prized was
the Big Showingan area containing nearly a million tonnes of
coal. Early success reinforced the estimates of the operations
worth, and by the end of its fifth year, the companys capital
grew to $10 million and aggressive expansion plans were
While the coal mine reaped the rewards of success, the town
of Corbin never did. The town site had little business, lacked
utilities and proper roadways, and remaining isolated from other
communities. A Corbin miners life was difficult, especially
since work in the town was not steady. Initially Corbin Coal
lacked equipment to operate during winter and laid off workers
between November and March, encouraging them to remain in the
vicinity until they could be rehired in the spring.
There were risks involved with staying. The company boarding
house charged a flat rate, and placed the responsibility for
food, towels, and bedding on the workers. If a tenant ran out of
money, they were ordered out of the town site, even in the
bitter cold. The 1908-1909 winter was particularly dangerous
because heavy snowfalls further isolated the community, causing
food supplies to be dangerously low.
Eventually, the Corbin miners refused to tolerate such
conditions and elected to join the United Mine Workers of
America (UMWA) in 1910. The next 25 years were tumultuous,
marked by consistent social unrest. Following the First World
War, Corbin miners became more socialist, joining the One Big
Union (OBU), and participating in a wave of strikes sweeping
Canada in 1919. Since most companies refused to negotiate with
the OBU, Corbin miners reluctantly returned to the UMWA after
strikes had failed. Their disenchantment continued into the
early 1930s, when Corbin miners abandoned the UMWA, and
affiliated with the communist Mine Workers Union of Canada (MWUC).
In his article Corbin: A Short and Bitter Existence, Michael
Saad explores the labour unrest experienced in the Corbin
community. In 1935, the disagreements resulted in a strike that
shook the town. The strike could not have happened at a worst
time. Like many coal suppliers, Corbin Coal lost its contract
with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) when the trains switched
from coal to diesel in the 1930s. As if this wasn't enough, an
underground fire blazed on; with the onset of the strike, there
was little manpower to fight it. With few choices remaining, the
company called in the provincial police to seal off the single
access road to the community and removed power from miner homes.
For almost three months, tensions between the two sides
intensified as the strike persisted. Arbitration attempts
continually failed, and with no hope of a resolution, Corbin
Coal announced the mine would re-open with non-union workers.
Furious that the company would hire those willing to work
outside of the union, on 17 April 1935, the miners took their
That morning, a heavy snowfall blanketed the road to the No.
3 mine. Unwilling to remain idle while union breakers took their
jobs, miners organized a mass protest, forming a human barricade
on the route, arming themselves with rocks and tools.
It quickly became clear that neither side would back down. As
the gap between union member and police narrowed, one of the
protestors hurled a rock at the caterpillar operator hired to
clear snow along the route, knocking him unconscious. A
confrontation ensued, the police charging ahead to meet the
crowd. Officers beat miners with clubs and batons, the miners
fought back with hammers, and the women stayed on the line.
Though the tractor was still running, no one was at its helm,
and it drove into the crowd, crushing and scattering people out
of its way.
No one was seriously injured. The most extensive injury
amongst the women was a broken leg or foot. One constable
however, suffered a fractured skull from a sledgehammer blow.
The strike ended only when police reinforcements arrived and
arrested 14 strikers.
By early May 1935, the companys prospects looked bleak. As a
result of the strike, the colliery had been operational for only
15 days. The company was losing money, and with the miners
promising to hold out indefinitely, operations were shut down