The years of 1908 and 1909 were very active years for the area on the west side of the Belly River, now known as the Oldman River. In spite of a flood of the river slowing the progress of the building of the railway bridge, work on the railway near Kipp continued. Another ant-hill of activity was in the making. A bunch of mining engineers and experienced miners were busy picking out a good spot to dig a shaft to get at the coal seam, that should be under the ground there. Somehow, they knew where to start and had a rough idea that it would be deep. These men were not novices at this - they had been brought out from the coal mines in England where mining was a large part of the economy.
When they started digging they had to find some place to dump the refuse from the shafts so they used a low spot on the easterly part of the section. They must have used this for some time after coal production started because there was a large area covered with waste rock and shale. Some of it is still there along the road east of the village. This old dump was a good supply of red shale for driveways, barn floors, and road building for many years. Even the Dept. Of Public Works often put mechanical loaders in there in the spring to reinforce the bad spots in the highways. Many of the local farmers hauled this red shale onto their driveways in the early spring. It was easier to haul than gravel and didn't bother the horses feet. it was free for the taking and didn't have to be hauled up a coulee like the gravel. Sometimes the Government loader would fill their wagons if there were no trucks waiting. This old dump was deposited there long before most of us can remember and was likely done mostly by horsepower and rails.
By the time I can first remember the Coalhurst mine and the "dump", as everyone called the slag disposal pile, I would be about five years old, about 1921. By this time, the steam blast from the hoist exhaust could be seen and heard quite clearly from our farm two and a half miles south. The large cable pulleys on the top of the tipple looked like bicycle wheels and the dump stood out to the east like a large black strawstack.
The cars hauling the rock could be seen from a long way off, especially when they dumped a dusty load down the side of the dump. They used a special kind of car with a heavier carriage than a mine car and it could dump on either side so that it was no problem to build up the track and continue it farther out. By about 1927 or 28 the dump was really becoming a landmark. It was about the same height as the big tipple, at least a hundred feet or more, and stretched out far to the east, two or three hundred yards. It stood out like a big nose on the face of the flat earth.
It was always on fire. It may have slowed down a bit during heavy rains, but burned all the brighter in dry windy weather. Sometimes, the lines of burning coal and bone formed strange patterns in the night, and could be seen for miles. Other times it just flared up and caused people to be concerned and worried that someone's house was on fire, and then there were times when the mine was idle for lack of orders and the dump just smoldered and stunk to high heaven. But the heat was always there and once in a while it would burst into flame for no reason at all and look like a small volcano. No matter how big of a snow storm we got the upper part of the dump was black and stood out even more on the white landscape.
The two rock cars ran on a pair of rails under the tipple where they were filled from a chute and were pulled out onto the dump by a cable wrapping onto a power driven drum, likely by steam up to 1928 or 29. The cable went under the cars all the way to the top end of the track, around a pulley about three feet or more in diameter, and back down to the rock cars. Sometimes when the wind was blowing, and it really did blow up there, they would only dump one car so that the loaded one would help pull the cable back down to the chute again. By about 1939 the end of the dump had reached so far out to the east that the company decided to swing the end over the north and go higher to dispose of more slag. From then on all the waste was dumped on the north side. In spite of the fact that the pulley at the end of the track was much higher than before the dump kept expanding until it was within about one hundred feet of the houses at the east end of main street.
So far we have only mentioned the dump as a huge pile of "waste. " There was some inflammable rock but most of it was not. Before the coal was loaded onto, or rather into, the railway cars it passed over a conveyor where men picked out any bone or low grade coal, sometimes large chunks of coal with a small streak of bone. All this went into the rock shale and up onto the dump. On a big day, when thirty or forty cars of coal were shipped out, there was lots of bone and coal that went out in the rock cars. This fuel was not all burned on the dump. The side of the dump where the waste was being dumped was crowded with miners wives and sons, farmers, old men, and unemployed young men gathering up all the nuggets of coal they could find and putting it in sturdy sacks to carry it down to their wagons, wheel barrow or pile. The younger ones went the farthest up the dump where the picking was the best. Some rolled the pieces down to their partners at the bottom and caught hell from other pickers who might get hit. Most of the population in the "company houses" near the dump seldom had to buy coal. Anytime that the school was closed and the mine was working most of the boys would go to the dump and pick coal. Some put it in a pile, then sold it to some farmer who had hauled grain to the elevator and wanted to take home some coal. It was a good deal both ways.
There were many humorous things about picking coal too. Some days we would leave home early so as to catch the waste that was dumped from the previous days production or the night shift. Early in the moming one could find a good place to park a team and wagon near the base and there weren't too many pickers either. Once in a while we would climb up to the top and catch about two dumps and then there were no more, so we'd just sit on top of the dump in the sunshine and shoot the breeze. From up there we could see everything that went on in the eastern half of the village. All the dear mamas were packing off their pride and joy to school, and a few minutes later they were packing the shiny white "Jerry" up the yard to the little brown shack or running up the alley with a bucket to get some water from one of the village taps. People in Wigan were almost half a mile from these taps and we watched as they hauled their water in any kind of wheeled barrel they could build. Some had car wheels but most had buggy wheels, plow wheels or anything they could steal or get cheap, but this was their only water supply most of the year. Some even hauled water for their little gardens from the ditch.
At one time one of the citizens bought out the sole rights to the dump from the coal company and charged people for the right to pick coal. If a farmer got about half a ton on his wagon he would be charged a small sum comparable to the amount, but the idea didn't work too well. The aforementioned citizen did collect a few dollars, a lot of abuse from miners' wives (I hadn't known that women could swear better than men), lots of enemies and broken windows. He put shutters on his windows and hired coal pickers but I don't think he ever got rich.
Coal as Natural Gas never got into Coalhurst until 1955 and was a very important commodity in those days. It was just as important on the prairies as bread, butter and milk. The houses of that day were cold compared to ours of today and it took a lot of heating to keep them warm. Insulation never made its appearance commercially until during the Second World War. Also during the 1930s, there was very little money to buy coal so picking on the dump was an accepted chore after school and on weekends. There was some kind of happy relationship about it which made it an enjoyable task. Everybody enjoyed other people's company. I was within a hundred dollars of being the richest person on the dump and if somebody was ten dollars poorer than I, they were in debt. They wore whatever they could find to keep warm in winter months. Some had dug out their army great coats and puttees left over from the First World War and Mr. Helmer even wore his grey coat that he had worn in serving the German Army. In the summer the women came with the kids coaster wagons and old wash boilers to fill with the meagre pickings at the bottom of the dump. The dust and dirt was soon all over the perspiring faces, arms, shoulders, legs and as far down their shirt fronts as they dared to show - and everybody was happy. Many of us miss those old days of poverty but we hope that our descendants will never know what it was all about.
There was a company man who took care of the track on top of the dump. He was a big friendly fellow and he did his job well. He was known to us scavengers as "Big Mike." He seemed to spread the loads out so as not to bury good coal before we got it picked or possibly he dumped it in a different place to keep from injuring someone, especially his own little wife, Annie Grechylo. I met Annie again in the mid seventies and she told me that they had moved to Drumheller after the mine had closed here, and Mike had been killed in the coal mine there. There was a row of steel stakes along the track and each day, after all the rock was hauled out, Mike carefully lifted the rope or cable onto these stakes so that the fire wouldn't damage it. There are not too many of us left who were up there to hear the cable trickling over the rollers or watching for the pulley to start. It is all just a memory now like everything else the mine stood for.
After the mine closed, the pulley and the rails disappeared and so did the flames, the smoke and the smell. It was quiet then and the snow stayed on the sides of the dump part of the way up. Once in a while a flame burst out and smoldered for a while but after a few years there was nothing but the old dump, settled down about twenty feet or so. It stood there for many years, just as a landmark and a memorial to the years gone by.
About seventy five acres of the quarter section that included the dump and the site of all those company houses was purchased by Mr. Frederick Garrick and later by Mr. Alex Veres for $300.00. In 1959 Mr. Veres sold the dump to a Calgary outfit who established a crusher along the railway north of the Ellison Elevator where they crushed the shale for drillers mud. They moved their outfit out to B.C. where there was a natural supply of material along the Fraser River. Unfortunately the barge that was moving the outfit down the river went out of control and the whole crushing outfit was lost. They sold the dump to Jarvie Sand and Gravel who later sold out to Lethbridge Concrete Products. Somehow in the process of the coal, bone and other refuse burning continually it became a brittle form of red shale. It is now being used to make those red cinder blocks that are sold all over Southern Alberta and South Eastern B.C. Many buildings and fences around Lethbridge are made from the lovely pink shale from the dirty old Coalhurst dump. When I lean on my cinder brick wall to chat with my neighbor I like to think that I may be holding on to a memory of those days fifty years ago.
At the time of this writing (April '84) there is still about thirty-five acres of shale about fifteen feet deep which may last another six to eight years. It is not all usable for blocks, however, some is still being sold for use as a base in feedlots and driveways. When the last of the old dump is cleared away we may find some historical artifacts under the eastern end of the rubble where Jarvie's crew covered the village's garbage disposal dump a few years ago.
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