March 5 1986
Free Press Files
It was an end to an era in the coal mining industry and an end to a way of life for many men as the last underground crew came out into the brilliant sunshine Thursday afternoon to mark the end of underground mining in this area.
The final dayshift came out of Balmer North underground mine at about 2:30 Thursday afternoon. It was the last major underground mine in B.C. and the closure brings to an end nearly 90 years of underground mining in the Elk Valley and Crows Nest Pass.
Only one commercial underground coal mine remains in B.C. – Wolf Mountain mine near Nanaimo, which produces about 50,000 tonnes annually, much less than the average year of 250,000 tonnes taken from Balmer North.
The closure of Balmer North was foreshadowed early in 1985 and formally announced last October. Reserves from the mine have been exhausted. It is no longer economic to pursue the seam from Balmer North. Westar Mining has at least 40 years of high quality coal available above ground at the Harmer and Greenhills mines.
When the last crew came out of the mine Thursday a small crowd was on hand to view the historic occasion. Chris Humble, Director of Resources and Public Affairs, at Westar presented the final crew with belt buckles to commemorate the event. Humble then told them that they have now “reached the end of an era and without men such as these, Westar would not be able to compete on the world market today.”
Crows Nest Industries, which became Kaiser Resources, B.C. Coal and finally Westar Mining, began the rock work on the Balmer North mine in 1965 and the first coal was produced in 1966. The mine tapped the rich N. 10 seam of high grade metallurgical coal.
Tragedy struck the mine in 1967 when an explosion claimed the lives of 15 miners.
Since then, particularly in its last 14 years of production, Balmer North has had an exceptional safety record of any mine ever in the valley with an accident frequency of 3.1 based on 200,000 man hours worked.
As it closes, the mine is at a depth of 500 feet and in a distance of 2,500 feet. A total of over four million tonnes of coal have been extracted. Its best year was 1973 when it produced a total of 323,174 tonnes.
The mine has been operating on three shifts Monday to Friday. In its height of operation in the early 1980s over 320 men worked underground. The last six months the underground crew has been at its lowest ever employing only 33 men under ground.
These men will be placed in other areas of the mine. Sam Atkinson, underground mine manager, said that the change to surface mining will be a dramatic change for the miners. Underground mining has become a way of life and some of the miners can trace underground mining back to their grandfathers in the early 1900s.
Mr. Atkinson said that when you work underground you work in very small groups and these groups come to depend on each other and form a special bond, they become very close knit. They become almost like a family and the closing of Balmer North is akin to breaking up that family.
To mark the closing of the mine, Westar treated the media to a reception at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre.
On hand for the reception were Lawrence Riffel, General Manager of Balmer Operations, Chris Humble, Director of Resources and Public Affairs, and Sam Atkinson, Underground Mine Manager at Balmer. Also on hand were several retired underground miners: Arnold Webster, who joined the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in 1937 and retired in 1983, William Davey, worked underground from 1951 to 1983, James “Jazz” Anderson who worked underground from 1941 to 1982, and Louis Zuffa who joined the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in 1937 and retired in 1984.
These distinguished guests along with members of the media were treated to an audio visual presentation showing what the mines were like in the early years of production. The presentation was made by Patrick McCloskey and narrated by W.O. Mitchell.
After the slide show the guests were given a tour of the centre by Albert Goodwin who was an underground miner from 1924 to 1962.
From the interpretative centre the entourage went to the portal at Balmer North and greeted the crew as they brought out the continuous miner for the final time.
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