It’s interesting that when most of us think of provincial parks we envision pristine beauty, wildlife, perhaps some sort of waterscape. About the last thing I expect to see in such a park are mammoth century-old structures of reinforced concrete – but that, along with all the other aforementioned assets, is exactly what we encountered when we visited Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park just south of Nanaimo.
The park isn’t large – just four hectares (nine acres) but it offers an interesting glimpse at the sheer mass of some of the equipment required to extract the black treasure from the ground a century ago. Morden Colliery was never a particularly successful or productive coal mine due to a number of mitigating factors (including labour unrest), but it does boast a North American ‘first’ – the use of reinforced concrete for a surface mining structure. The 74-foot high headframe and tipple are the main features at the park and, even 100 years later, left us awe-struck at the accomplishment of such massive construction with what must have been very primitive equipment.
After spending a few minutes reading about the history of the place at the pit head site we meandered along the 1.2 km (just a little less than a mile) trail that wends its way through woodland, over a marsh and concludes at the Nanaimo River. The trail leading to the river was the original rail bed of the Pacific Coast Coal Mine. In the early 1900s the railway carried coal from Morden across a long-gone trestle over the Nanaimo River and out to Boat Harbour for export.
The trail is a pretty one that offered, on the day we were there, glimpses of trumpeter swans, beaver dams and a variety of wild vegetation. There is an interpretive plaque that describes local flora and fauna along the way, and a rustic bench at the river’s edge.
On the return trip from the river we looped along the Miners Trail and found many other intriguing remnants of the various buildings that made up the small community. According to historical notes a small number of houses were moved to the Morden site to accommodate some of the mine workers.
We have, of all people, an industrialist to thank for the preservation of this most engrossing site. In late 1969 George Wilkinson, president of Interprovincial Construction in Vancouver, began lobbying the provincial government to help save the final remaining remnants of what had been Vancouver Island’s major industry in the early 1900s. At the time the site was owned by a company that was using it to dump rubble from logging operations. Wilkinson even, at one point, proposed to purchase the land himself in order to preserve what was left of the site for future generations. It took two years and $10,000, but eventually the land (including the railbed on the other side of the river) was purchased by the provincial government and designated as parkland.
Sadly the situation with the concrete headframe and tipple is not looking promising at present. The concrete is deteriorating at a rapid rate due to lack of maintenance and without reinforcement the imposing and impressive structure is in danger of complete collapse. It has been estimated that somewhere between $250,000 and $500,000 would be required to ensure the continued existence of this historic monument to a thriving industry that contributed so much to the Island’s economy. Perhaps it’s time for other industrialists who have benefitted from their existence here on the Island to step up to the plate.
Further information on the Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park can be found at the excellent website operated by Friends of the Morden Mine at:
Access to the park is at the end of Morden Road, south of the Duke Point ferry turnoff.
GPS co-ordinates are:
Lat. 49.09460841991113 Long. -123.87281082343111
N 49 05.677 W 123 52.369