By Dalys Barney
The Morden Colliery Regional Trail runs through the Morden Colliery Historic Provincial Park and is maintained by the Regional District of Nanaimo. The park and trail are on the original site of the Morden Mine, a coal mining operation that was active periodically between 1912 and 1930.
In 1908, the Pacific Coast Coal Mines Company was formed to prospect for coal, purchasing mineral rights from early South Wellington settlers. About two kilometres north of the South Wellington townsite, the PCCM operated the twin slopes of the Fiddick and Richardson Mines together as the South Wellington Colliery from 1908 to 1917. Boat Harbour opened as the company’s shipping point in 1909, with a rail line running from there to South Wellington.
The Fiddick Slope of the South Wellington Colliery was the site of the terrible flooding disaster of 1915 when the abandoned Southfield Mine workings were accidentally broken into due to an error in scale on maps. The mine rapidly flooded, killing 19 miners — a tragedy that shook the community to its core.
Ground at the company’s nearby Morden Mine site was broken in 1912. This new mine, with PCCM’s Slopes No. 3 and No. 4, didn’t operate fully until after the Vancouver Island Miners’ Strike ended in August 1914. The company used its existing railway to transport Morden coal to Boat Harbour for shipment. Unlike other mines in South Wellington, which had walk-in, slope entrances, Morden was accessed by a deep, vertical shaft. This required a massive 22.5-metre headframe for hoisting coal up from deep below. The headframe and tipple were built of reinforced concrete, a first in the district. Surface mining structures of the day, including the headframe of Morden’s secondary air shaft, were typically built of wood. The main shaft’s concrete headframe is still standing tall at the site today.
Despite the mine’s modern equipment and the company’s investments, Morden never proved to be a very successful mine. By 1921, only one man was employed as a watchman. In 1922, the mine was closed and flooded, and the PCCM went into voluntary liquidation. In 1930, Morden was briefly reopened by the Canadian Coal and Iron Company, but this also proved to be unsuccessful, closing later that year.
The Morden site was designated a provincial historic park in 1972, but for many years its story was not well told. In 1995, the RDN started to develop the trail, and since then several interpretative signs have been added, and a significant miners’ monument was erected in 2017. This cairn not only memorializes the three men who died at Morden, but also the estimated 1,000 miners who died in Vancouver Island coal mines.
The impressive concrete headframe and tipple at Morden is a precious remnant of Vancouver Island’s coal mining past. The structure is one of only two of its type in North America (the other one is at the O’Gara No. 12 Mine in Muddy, Illinois). For many years, the site’s champions have been the Friends of Morden Mine group, which has advocated for a preservation plan for the degrading heritage structure. Despite many attempts, the society has not been able to convince any level of government to fund what would be a costly restoration project. It will be a significant loss when the headframe comes crumbling down.
An interpretation of the headframe was captured by local artist Patrick Belanger on Nanaimo’s Canada 150 celebration banners, which were hung at major intersections around Nanaimo. The head frame and its adjacent tipple have also been replicated at the other end of the Modern Colliery Regional Trail at Cedar Road, with smaller wooden versions standing in tribute at the trail head.
Currently, the two parts of the trail are bisected by the Nanaimo River, but a bridge is expected to connect them in the future. It would be a great way to tie the neighbouring communities of Cedar and South Wellington together.
The trail at Morden follows the old PCCM rail grade and is an easy walk through the natural forest. We came across a piece of rail next to the path. It’s easy to miss so keep your eyes peeled. My sons loved the two wooden bridges and easy access to a small pond, which was home to tadpoles in various stages of metamorphosis. The trail ends at the Nanaimo River, with a bench overlooking the great view.
On the way back, we circled the Miners Loop Trail. In the trees not far away, the PCCM arch, with a crumbling 1913 date, is all that remains of what was a 60-foot smokestack of the boiler plant, which powered the mining operation.
We only saw two other groups the entire time we were there, so it seems like Morden is a bit of a little known secret. You’ll definitely enjoy the walk, but the site’s history is also pretty interesting — go explore it for yourself!
Follow Dalys at vanislehistoryexplorer.ca Facebook: @vanislehistoryexplorer Twitter: @LibraryDalys