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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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Mechanical wet and dry cleaning processes were introduced at an early date in the Crowsnest Pass. Wet washeries were used to clean the very fine coal being prepared for the coke ovens at Hosmer, Leitch, and Lille before the First World War, and the International mine at Coleman by the 1930s. This process used jigs to immerse the coal in fluid and separate it by flotation, the coal floating to the top while the impurities sank. The coal was then usually dried with aid of heat. In the 1930s, an improved wet washing process for larger coal was invented by G.A. Vissac, general manager of West Canadian Collieries at Blairmore. In an industry dominated by equipment from the United States and Europe, the Vissac jig was a notable local invention that received widespread use. First introduced at the Greenhill mine in 1933, it was later employed elsewhere in Alberta and in the adjoining American states. Finally, dry washeries also appeared between the First and Second World Wars. Developed in Britain, this process employed air currents to dry-clean the coal. It was in place at Blairmore and Coleman by 1926.1

The use of mechanical washeries increased with time as the demand grew for cleaner coal, and greater emphasis was placed on cutting labour costs. These concerns led to the spread of mechanical cleaning facilities among the larger operations in the Coal Branch starting in the later 1930s, and even more in the early 1940s when labour was again beginning to be in short supply. Both wet and dry washeries were installed at Mountain Park in 1938, and afterwards at Cadomin, Luscar, Coal Valley, and Sterco. The Galt No. 8 mine at Lethbridge opened an air cleaning plant in 1942. Vissac jigs were used at Nordegg.2

At certain sites, the coal underwent further preparation to suit specialized markets. In the Crowsnest Pass, coke ovens were installed at Morrissey, Fernie, Hosmer, Michel, Coleman, Lille, and Leitch Collieries before the First World War, in order to produce fuel for the smelters in the Kootenay region of British Columbia and in neighbouring Montana. Coke, containing a very high proportion of carbon, was produced in these ovens by heating fine coal in an airtight environment. Most Pass ovens were spherical brick structures of the traditional "beehive" type, in which most of the work was done manually. Several, however, were mechanized, including the Mitchell ovens at Leitch, and the Belgian-designed Bernard ovens used by the French-based West Canadian Collieries at Lille.3

Briquette plants were also constructed at mine sites where a high proportion of crumbly coal was encountered. In the briquetting process, the coal was combined under heat and pressure with a binder, which was molten or crushed tar or asphalt. The result was more easily marketable chunks of coal, which burned more efficiently and which could be transported with less breakage. Depending on their quality, briquettes were sold for domestic or industrial use. Briquette plants were built at Bankhead, in the Banff area, by 1907; at Nordegg by 1936; at Luscar in the Coal Branch; and, finally, at Michel in the Crowsnest Pass, in 1954.3

Following the preparation process, the coal or briquettes were usually loaded into boxcars, or-by the 1950s- trucks, that were maneuvered under the tipple or briquette building. At most mines, the coal fell from storage bins down a chute into the boxcars. By the 1930s, loading booms were often used to minimize breakage. These booms or loaders were moveable conveyor belts that distributed the coal evenly through the cars. The coal then usually proceeded by spur rail lines, often built by the companies themselves, to the main rail lines for shipment to market.4

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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