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 Showing—an area containing nearly a million tonnes of coal. Early success reinforced the estimates of the operation’s worth, and by the end of its fifth year, the company’s capital grew to $10 million and aggressive expansion plans were underway.
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 miner’s 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 “last stand.”
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 company’s 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