When Coal Was King
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Underground Techniques

By William N. T. Wylie

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Over time, mechanized cutters began to supplant manual pick and blasting techniques. Mechanical coal cutters were first introduced into the Galt mines at Lethbridge in the 1880s in order to reduce the high expense of skilled labour. By the early decades of the 20th century, the shift had become quite dramatic. The proportion of mechanically-cut coal, measured as a percentage of production, increased in Alberta from 22.5 percent in 1913, to 40.6 in 1924, and 44 percent in 1934.1 Most of the cutters were punchers, small machines, acting by percussion, which were used to undercut the coal prior to blasting. Eventually, larger machines, utilizing teeth set in a revolving apparatus, completely superseded pick and explosives techniques in some mines.

Anderson Boyes Universal coal cutter making the first cut from an entry.The source of power for the machines varied. Before 1900, most of the cutters were powered by compressed air, sent through lines coming from compressors on the surface. Compressed air was viewed as safer than electricity, which was feared because of the danger of sparks. After 1900, however, electricity was increasingly used underground, particularly in plains mines, as greater provision was made for safety concerns, and earlier fears dissipated. The proportion of coal cut with cutters driven directly by electricity increased significantly in Alberta in the early part of the 20th century, rising from 2.8 percent in 1913 to 27.4 in 1924.2

The proportion of mechanized cutters was much greater on the plains than in the mountains. On the plains, the seams were flatter and the danger of gas-potentially combustible with machinery-was relatively small. In the steeply-inclined and gassy seams of the mountains, on the other hand, cutters were introduced relatively late and were usually limited to compressed air picks or punchers. While these machines required two men to maneuver them into place, they were small enough to fit in the tight spaces of the mountain rooms. They did not come into common use in the Crowsnest Pass until the 1920s and at Nordegg until the 1940s. In the Coal Branch, mechanization was even more limited, being restricted mainly to compressed air drills, which replaced hand augers in the 1940s.3

The challenge of underground haulage also prompted the use of machines. After being cut, the coal had to be moved from the rooms through the main tunnels to the openings at the surface. The practice was to lay tracks from the base of the chutes in the mountain mines, and from the entrances to the rooms in the more conventional plains operations. Coal fell into coal cars from the chutes, or was loaded by hand, with shovels; in the prairie mines. In the early years, the coal cars were pulled by horses, ponies, or mules along the main entries to the surface. An exception occurred in shaft mines where electric, or steam-driven, hoists were employed to raise the cars in cages from the bottom of the pits. Animals continued to be the main mode of conveyance in smaller mines, and were employed in larger operations to work in tight spaces, such as between the rooms, until the 1950s.4

In the larger mountain and plains mines, animals were gradually replaced in the main passages by mechanized systems. The process began about 1900 with the introduction of mechanical rope haulage. This system, which became quite prevalent, depended on the installation of wire rope, which ran for great distances underground. The rope pulled the coal cars towards the surface by means of power coming from hoists, usually located on the surface, and run by electricity. Conveyors also came into use in the early 20`h century. Widely used in plains operations, they were not practicable in the steeply-dipping parts of mountain operations, but could be employed in more level sections. Conveyors were installed at Blairmore and Coleman in the Crowsnest Pass as early as 1906. By the 1930s, they were employed at Michel and Coal Creek in the Pass and were becoming widespread on the prairies, especially in Lethbridge and the Drumheller Valley. By the 1940s, mechanical loaders had also been introduced, which scooped up the coal in the rooms and loaded it on cars or conveyors for the journey to the surface.5

Diesel locomotive used in Galt Mine No. 8. Ventilation was such that diesel fumes did not pollute the air in the mineFinally, starting shortly after 1900, locomotives began to appear in the main passages of large mines, when the slope was gradual. In the Crowsnest Pass and at Bankhead near Banff, these conveyances were powered by compressed air, which was relatively spark-free and hence safe. The system required a network of underground pipes linking recharging stations along the rails, from which the tubular-shaped tanks of the engines could be replenished. When the danger of explosions was less, electric trolley locomotives were employed. They were introduced in Pembina, west of Edmonton, by World War One, and in the Drumheller Valley by the 1930s. Battery-powered locomotives also were used between the rooms of the Atlas mine in the Drumheller Valley by this time. Finally, diesel locomotives were introduced in the Crowsnest Pass in the late 1940s, and at Lethbridge by 1950.6

The underground passages also contained provisions for drainage and ventilation. Gravity was employed to expedite drainage at mines with drift entrances, since the nearly-horizontal passages were constructed to slope slightly down towards the openings. As mines expanded, and internal slopes or vertical shafts were constructed, compressed air or electrically-driven pumps were placed in the tunnels at strategic locations to get rid of the ground water. The layout also was designed to facilitate ventilation. From the entries to the face, the tunnel system has been constructed in the form of pairs of parallel passages. There was a natural tendency for air to move from the inlet entry through the mine and back to the outlet tunnel by means of convection currents responding to different temperatures on the surface and underground. The process was facilitated by a series of underground partitions and doors, or "traps", which channeled the air in the required directions. To supplement the flow of air, underground furnaces were at first built in the upcast shafts of some mines in the Crowsnest, and elsewhere, to heat the air and speed the process by which warm air was expelled and new air was drawn in. This practice was extraordinarily dangerous in gas-laden air, and had been discarded by the First World War. Instead, large electrically-powered fans were becoming common at many mines. Situated on the surface, they either sucked air out of the outlet tunnel, or pushed fresh air into the inlet entry.7

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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