When Coal Was King
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Coleman Mine

by Harold Nelson

Coleman - Bob OwenOf the early days of the coke ovens I do not have too much real information. As far as I know, they were built in 1903 and 1904 to supply coke for the Grandby smelter at Grandby, BC. Originally there were approximately 218 ovens built, in a line eastward from a point from the present Elk's Hall to the west bank of Nez Perce Creek at East Coleman, on the south side of the CPR tracks. Later, another 14 ovens were built on the south side of these, at the west end.

Coleman - Bob OwenAt this time, the ovens were all hand pulled and loaded into the CPR coke racks. This was done mostly by contract, at so much per oven and loaded at so much per car. Some time during World War I, a machine called a Coke-puller was purchased from the US and it did away with a lot of hand labor.

At the end of World War I, orders for coke dropped and they closed down at the end of 1918 and remained closed until the fall of 1932. During the early depression years of 1930 and 1931 coal orders dropped. As the CPR orders dropped the mines on the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass were only working about two days per week. In the early spring of 1932, the miners went on a strike which lasted all summer.

Coleman - Bob OwenIn the fall of 1932, the International Coal and Coke Company got an order for 70,000 tons of coke for the smelter at Trail, BC. The 14 ovens I previously mentioned were repaired and samples sent which proved satisfactory.

A Herculean task was then encountered to repair and rebuild 104 ovens to take care of this order. With the craftsmanship of such stone masons as Black Joe De Cecco, Primo De Cecco, Frank De Cecco and Joe Sinini and others whose names I have forgotten, the ovens were soon fixed up and in operation. A number of boys were hired at $2.75 a day and they were mostly mason's helpers. They mixed the mortar, cleaned bricks and stone, and cut away the old brick inside the ovens with a hammer and steel. This order gave the mine two extra days' work a week. At this time the mine rate of pay for labor both inside and outside was $4.45 per day.

Coleman - Bob OwenDick Greenhaigh, who was a pit-boss inside, was brought out of the mine to take charge of the operation. He had been coke oven foreman when they closed down in 1918 and was actually the only one around who knew how. He remained in charge till he became ill in 1942 when I took his place. He later took over again for a short time in 1949 and then was put in charge of another operation.

Once the ovens were in full production, there were about 43 men and boys working there. It was a seven day a week operation, the men worked three days and one day off, 365 days a year.Crowsnest and Its People Millennium Edition

This article is extracted from Crowsnest and its People: Millennium Edition (Coleman, Alberta, Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 2000). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank the authors and the Crowsnest Pass Historical Society for permission to reprint this material.

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