A Former Coal Miner Looks Back

by Alison Bickerstaff

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been reprinting articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Not many people can say they live this close to work.

“One of the maps I’ve seen I found that where I live on the 2500 block of Victor Street, I’m right above some of the places my dad and I worked,” former Bellingham coal miner Walter Johnson said. “It’s right straight under my house.”

He said he began working in the Bellingham coal mine with his father in 1941 when he was 18. They worked hundreds of feet below ground on the 7 north level of the mine.

“I was a contract miner paid $1.43 a ton,” he said. “We didn’t need a boss to tell us to get to work. We did our own drilling and blasting and I timbered up the rooms and laid track for my coal cars.”

He said a room, also known as a tunnel, was roughly 20 feet wide by about seven feet high. Rooms had two sets of track, and two men would work in each room at a time.

“When we dropped down a loaded car on a pulley wheel, it would put an empty car up,” he said. “Cars would hold about two-and-a-half tons of coal. When we dropped a coal car down, there would be horse and mule drivers there that [sic] would hook the cars up and go to the main slope. The entry was approximately one mile long. The depth of the mine was about 1,270 feet.”

He said the entrance to the mine’s main slope (one of two) was located near where the Albertson’s store is located on Northwest Avenue and Birchwood Avenue. The slope, over 6,000 feet long, ran toward the cement plant by Oeser Cedar pole yard. The horses and mules lived in a barn on one of the upper levels, he said.

Ten Levels in Bellingham Coal Mine
“There were 10 levels,” he explained. “Each level was about 300 to 400 hundred feet apart. The first one started down about 300 feet.”

Later he worked on the 9 north level out under Alderwood Avenue. It angled toward the Bellingham airport. When he worked there, he had to hike in about a mile carrying all his blasting powder, caps and tools.

“When I quit working in the coal mine in 1950, I was working 1, 200 feet below Roeder Avenue where Mt. Baker plywood is, right where Squalicum Parkway intersects there,” he said.

Johnson said the coal vein started near Cornwall Park and ran east to west, extending all the way to Lummi Island. He said no coal was mined out under Bellingham Bay, though.

“The coal was produced mainly for the cement plant in Bellingham and the cement plant in Concrete,” said Johnson. “It was shipped by railroad. It was sold for home use, too. At one time, G-P, which used to be called the Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Company, burned our coal until they turned over to other fuels.”

The mined out area was bound by Meridian Street, McLeod Road, Bellingham Bay and Bennett Avenue. “There was an awful lot taken out,” he said. “The mine ran from 1917 to 1954. It was estimated that the coal vein was 6,000 years old. We used to find imprints of leaves and knots of trees in the coal.”

The Bellingham coal mine was the largest coal mine in Whatcom County, and, at one time, documented as the deepest coal mine in the United States with respect to sea level. The workers had to follow strict safety standards. The fire boss had to check the mine for methane gas every day because of the explosion danger it posed.

“There was an explosion in the Bellingham coal mine in the mid-1930s,” he said. “One man was killed, and that explosion traveled and created damage for about 1,000 feet.” There were some rooms that caved in while he worked there, and there were rockfalls once in a while, too.

Mine Flooded With Salt Water
The mine flooded with salt water from Bellingham Bay and a pump ran 24 hours a day to get the water out. “That mine is full of water now,” he said. “We put up posts every 4 or 5 feet and put up cross timbers to hold the rooms up. We didn’t take them out, but they are all rotten out and it’s all caved in now.”

The entrances to the two main slopes were sealed in with concrete a hundred feet or so after other fuels dominated the market and the mine closed.

A third entrance by Squalicum Creek was used to circulate air into the mine. He said he hoped that one was filled in well.

“That was between Birchwood and Squalicum Parkway,” he added. “There were many miles of tunnel, you see. There was too much to fill in.”

He stopped working in the mine in 1950 when his father advised him that the market was beginning to sink for coal. “I always joke that I worked in the coal mine to keep fires burning,” Johnson said. “Then I joined the Bellingham Fire Department to put fires out until I retired in 1974.”

[Johnson lived on Victor Street in 2003 with his wife of 62 years, Vera.]


Alison Bickerstaff has been published in “The Every Other Weekly,” the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance’s quarterly newsletter, in Huxley College’s “Planet” Magazine, and the the website tidepool. She graduated from Western Washington University in the spring of 2003.

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