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Dark as a Dungeon: Life as a Coal Miner


The exhibit, “Dark as a Dungeon:  Life as a Coal Miner,” is the story of coal mining in south western Alberta and south eastern British Columbia.  The exhibit is done in conjunction with other regional partners in honour of The Year of the Coal Miner, a celebration of the coal mining heritage of our region.

Coal: The Beginning

Coal is formed from plants that grew in vast swamps and forests throughout the world. As these plants died and decayed over thousands of years they formed bogs of peat that were many metres deep. Over time the peat was covered by soil and, in turn, that soil turned to rock. Millions of years of pressure and heat ultimately compressed the peat and turned it into coal. To this day, in many coal deposits the remains of plants can be recognized. Some coal is actually in the form of pine needles from forests that covered the planet over 100 million years ago. The coal mines of Alberta and British Columbia have been operating for just over 125 years.

Coal is generally classified by what is known as “rank” which is based on the degree of transformation of the original plant material to carbon. The ranks of coals, from those with the least carbon to those with the most carbon, are lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite.

Coal and the Blackfoot

“The Blackfoot knew that coal would burn but had tribal taboos against its use, particularly in tipi fires. Natives of other regions, notably the Hopi of Colorado, mined and used coal from exposed seams for hundreds of years before the coming of the whites, but the Blackfoot never did.

Taboos against the use of coal probably originated many years ago when whole families died mysteriously in their sleep from poisoning from carbon monoxide, the gas given off by a coal fire. Gradually the relationship of coal fires-mysterious deaths became convincing and tribal taboos evolved to provide the necessary protection.

Also, failure to use coal in any fires may have bee due to apprehension and fear of the underground spirits by the Natives. Coal was almost always found underground, hence, fears of the underground beings may have become attached to coal.

The fuel used by the Blackfoot included the dried branches of willow and, particularly, poplar, which the women pulled down by means of a hooked stick on a long pole. Other trees and shrubs were burned, as was dried buffalo dung, later to be called bois de vache, the “wood of the cow” by the early explorers.

All of these fuels were widely and readily available, thus lessening dependence on a resource such as coal.” Pg 25 Lethbridge Centennial History

The Blackfoot knew the coal existed. The Blackfoot name for the place Lethbridge would eventually become was known as sik-ooh-ko-toki or place of the black rocks. This was translated into The Coal Banks by the Europeans.

Coal: The Pioneers and the Start of Lethbridge

George Mercer Dawson was one of the most remarkable scientists and explorers in Canadian history. Dawson’s work with the Geological Survey of Canada from 1881 through 1883 was the impetus for much of the early investment in coal and coal mines in Alberta and Southeast British Columbia. Although it was known that there were coal fields in the area, it was Dawson’s maps and research that brought to light the magnitude of the deposits and provided the credibility necessary to invest in the coal mines. One of the patrons of the Geological Survey was Sir Alexander Galt and, without doubt, it was Dawson’s work that led Galt to direct much of his fortune to the coal mines that brought Lethbridge into being.

Nicholas Sheran came to the banks of the Belly River around June of 1874 following a life of adventure that included work on Arctic whalers and service in the American Civil War. Sheran established a ferry service across the Belly and grubbed coal from its banks, that he sold to near-by Fort Whoop-Up.

When the North West Mounted Police established Fort Macleod in the autumn of 1874, Sheran saw an opportunity to expand his coal operation. He opened a seam at Coal Banks and began providing coal to the fort in time for winter.

Sheran operated his mine until his death by drowning in 1882. His sister, Marcella, who had moved to the area in 1877, managed the operation until her death in 1896. Nicholas Sheran is credited with being the first coal miner in Alberta or Southeast British Columbia.

In 1879 Elliott Galt visited Nicholas Sheran at his mine. Galt lost no time in advising his father, Sir Alexander Galt, of the potential of a mining operation. The elder Galt was interested in the idea because he knew that a trans-continental railway was to be built on a route across the southern prairies. The railway and the settlers it would bring would make a profitable market for coal.

Sir Alexander Galt hired William Stafford and Captain Nicholas Bryant to examine five possible sites for a large coal mining operation. The site they chose was across the river from Sheran’s mine. On 13 October 1882 Stafford and a group of Nova Scotia miners opened the first drift mine of the North Western Coal & Navigation Company.

Sir Alexander Galt created the company with the participation of English investors. The NWC&NCo. was capitalized at $250,000 and the biggest shareholder, publisher William Lethbridge, became its first president.

By 1900 about 150 men were employed and they mined about 300 tons of coal daily. Coal production peaked during World War I, when 2,000 miners in 10 large mines extracted 1,000,000 tons of coal a year. The coal industry gradually declined after 1919 with the development of oil and natural gas resources. The last mine at Lethbridge, Galt No. 8, closed in 1957 and the entire industry collapsed when the mine at Shaughnessy closed in 1965.

The end of mining doesn’t mean that there isn’t any coal left in southern Alberta. All of the mines in the region extracted only a fraction of the available coal. The seam still lies about 300 feet deep over an area of about 400 square miles. Estimates are that about 800 million tons of coal is still there to be mined.

Coal: The Great Depression

The Death of Isteven (Steve) Voytko

The Great Depression began in Lethbridge in August 1929. By October 29, the day of the Wall Street stock market crash, unemployment in Lethbridge’s coal mines, always very sensitive to the gyrations of the marketplace, had reached alarming proportions with many applications for relief. The usual high winter unemployment failed to correct itself in spring 1930 and economic hardship became a way of life for many coal miners. The depression bottomed out in 1933 and, except for a downturn in 1937, conditions gradually improved until the outbreak of war in 1939 brought about full employment once again.

Meanwhile, the unemployed coal miners had to live, cook their meals, and heat their homes. They could not afford to buy coal and many of them went down to the river bottom with picks and burlap sacks and, although hounded and harassed by mine owners and their lackeys, grubbed bagsful of coal from the thin, exposed seams there.

On Saturday morning, 21 March 1931, Steve Voytko, his son Albert, and Steve Bullas left their North Lethbridge homes and went down to the river bottom. They began digging coal and putting it in a sack at a point about ¼ mile south of the CP Rail High Level Bridge on the west side of the river. Miners had been warned about this area as the slopes were steep and unstable and there was a danger of landslides. The three men were picking away at the exposed portion of a seam when the bank collapsed and entirely covered Steve Voytko. The others dug him out and got him to the Galt Hospital as quickly as possible, but he died of his injuries a day or so later.

Steve Voytko came from Hungary and had been in Lethbridge for 26 years. He left a wife and 6 children in the family home at 1013-7St N. He was buried under his proper name of Isteven Voytko in St. Patrick’s Cemetery.

In 1931 there were estimated to be in the order of 750 million tons of coal in the Lethbridge field. Steve Voytko died trying to obtain 100 pounds of it.

Coal and Mining

Historically, underground methods were used to mine coal. When a coal seam was to be mined, a tunnel was driven to access the coal. Branching off this main tunnel were smaller tunnels that ran in the coal and seam and allowed it to be mined. As time and mining progressed, each mine consisted of many miles of these workings. The earliest mines were usually worked largely by hand: the miners using picks and shovels to dig and load the coal into one ton coal cars. “Pit ponies” pulled trains of coal cars on rails to the surface, though in some mines the miners pushed the coal cars themselves. These techniques were inefficient and by the 1900s, mechanization was becoming common in coal mining; although in some mines, to reduce chance of sparks and explosions, hand mining continued for many years.

Decline of Coal

After fuelling the industrial revolution and driving the expansion of western North America, coal had finally had its day by the 1950s. Natural gas and other fuels replaced coal in the homes, buildings, and vehicles of the time, leaving coal and the coal industry fighting for survival.

Coal was down, but not out, as in the late 1960’s the economic renewal of post-war Japan brought about a new market for coal. The steel smelters of Japan were hungry for Canadian coal and the coal seams of the Elk Valley opened up to fill the need. Alberta’s boom from an agricultural economy to that of resource extraction generated a new need for electricity and coal was the chosen fuel.