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Mining Techniques

There were three main types of coal mining in the Crowsnest Pass, two for underground mines and one for surface mines. However, by the late 1990s, only large scale open pit mining was being carried out. Historically, most of the mining was carried on underground. A mine was located as close as possible to the coal deposit or "seams" and tunnels were dug into the areas to be mined. The tunnels into the mines could be very long and often small underground railways were built to transport the miners and the coal.

The most common underground techniques were "pillar and stall" or "pillar and room" and "long wall" mining. These were traditional techniques that had been used in Europe before the development of the mines in the Crowsnest.

In pillar and stall workings, coal was removed from large areas underground, but large amounts of coal initially were left unmined. These were the pillars which supported the roof of the mine and normally prevented the mine from caving in as the miners cut deeper into the coal seam. Usually, these pillars were removed after the main parts of the seam had been extracted. Tunnels and workings also often had to be supported with timbers or "pit props" which supported the rocks above and prevented smaller rocks from falling onto the miners.

Long wall mining worked in a different way. Mine tunnels were dug into the coal seam , usually supported by pit props and pillars of rock and then miners worked along a long face of the coal seam removing coal as they worked. Timbering was carried out along the areas being mined but the area in behind from which the coal had been mined was allowed to collapse. Long wall mining was usually done on thin coal seams up to about 5 feet (1.5 metres) in thickness.

Open pit, or surface, mining is a simpler technique and can be a safer one for the miners. Vegetation, soil and overburden is removed from the site until the coal seam is exposed. After that, the coal can be mined readily and loaded into railcars or trucks to be taken to a sorting facility and eventual shipment to markets. Open pit mining was uncommon in the Crowsnest Pass until the 1960s. However, there was one that was worked by large steam shovels and a railway at Corbin near the summit of the Crowsnest Pass by the Corbin Coal Company. There were other open pit mines in the area where trucks and large shovels were used in excavation and haulage. There are two major problems with open pit mining. First, as the mine gets deeper, a larger and larger quantity of overburden has to be removed. Second, and this was not considered a problem in the early days, is the restoration of the site after large scale open pit mines are worked out. Open pit mines have hazards for workers. In the Crowsnest Pass, the workers are exposed to winter weather conditions and the size and nature of the heavy mining equipment creates hazards.

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For a first hand explanation of underground mining see Bill Johnstone's book Coal Dust in My Blood, The Autobiography of a Coal Miner (Oolichan Books in association with the Royal British Columbia Museum)

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