For more than 30 years, the men and horses of the Bellingham Coal Mines toiled beneath the city, using dynamite and muscle power to carve a labyrinth of passageways through a thick coal seam. Over their heads was a ceiling of crumbly slate rock, held up— if all went well— by log timbers and pillars of coal itself.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published March 3, 2008.
Bill Wegley, 82, was among the last of the Bellingham coal miners, working in the Bellingham Coal Mines for three weeks just before the operation shut down in 1955. As an Alaska gillnetter and part-time longshoreman, Wegley was no stranger to a hard day's work, but he found mining a bit much.
"It caved in three times in those three weeks. The last time it buried me clear up to here in coal," Wegley said, holding a hand to his waist.
Other miners dug him out and he finished his shift.
"The next day I felt like I'd been hit with two trucks at the same time," Wegley said.
Not long after that, he was fired — just a week before the mine closed and idled more than 200 men.
"I was the happiest guy you'd ever seen getting fired," Wegley said.
Wegley’s brief career as a miner came at the end of an era that had spanned more than 100 years.
Even before there was a city called Bellingham, the first white settlers were digging coal from the seams around Bellingham Bay, beginning in the 1850s when Capt. George Pickett of eventual Civil War fame was still living in a little house on Bancroft Street. But the Bellingham Coal Mines were the biggest by far.
Beginning in 1918, in the days before anyone had heard of quality of life, miners clambered aboard open coal cars at the mine entrance near the present-day Albertson's on Northwest Avenue for the trip down the mine’s main passageway, after the man known as the "fire boss" had checked those passageways for explosive methane accumulations.
Wegley remembers having to duck down with his head on his knees as the coal train rumbled through low-overhead passageways. As the train passed under Squalicum Creek, water sprinkled down from above.
By the time the mine shut down in 1955, the miners had carved out hundreds of miles of passageways beneath the Birchwood and Columbia neighborhoods, extending along both sides of Squalicum Creek from West McLeod Road southeast all the way to the edge of the bay. The coal they dug provided heat for homes and fuel for the region’s cement plants, especially during the 1930s when the construction of Columbia River dams consumed cement in unprecedented quantities.
Vern Geleynse, 81, went to work at the mine in 1947, after he got out of the U.S. Navy. To get a miner’s job, it helped to have connections. Geleynse’s father-in-law was a miner, and after Geleynse got established in the mine, he helped his brother Bruce, then 19, get a job there.
After they got off the coal cars at the start of the shift, Vern and Bruce would trudge through the narrow passageways to their own section of the coal seam, known simply as a room. Miners worked two to a room, chipping and blasting away at the coal, putting in roof timbers every five feet.
New miners got no respect until they had proven themselves.
"When I brought my brother down there, those old miners had fits: 'That kid, he can't run that room,'" Geleynse remembered.
But those who stuck with it became part of a brotherhood.
"It was almost like combat," Geleynse said. "There was the same camaraderie. You might not like each other, but you shared the same common hazards."
There were hazards aplenty.
Geleynse described the routine: Miners would drill holes in the coal face, shove in sticks of dynamite and pack the holes with dirt. They would attach blasting caps and wires, and call for the "shot lighter," a specialist who did the detonating work. The shot lighter would check for methane with a safety lantern that would flare up if gas were present. Then he would wire the blasting caps to the detonator, and he and the two miners would back up a respectful distance and set off the charges.
If all went well, as it mostly did, the miners would wait for the air to clear and set to work with picks, breaking chunks of coal into pieces small enough to shovel. But miners knew they were never more than one mistake from disaster.
Geleynse remembered one time after a blast when he sensed something was wrong. He walked up to the freshly dynamited coal face and removed his helmet to shine its light on the rock roof overhead, then backed up a few steps.
"As I stepped back, the whole roof where I had been standing went KABOOM like that," Geleynse said. "My brother thought I was under that rock. Any miner that worked there had close calls like that."
Even on days without close calls, the work would seem hellish by contemporary standards. Each pair of miners was expected to shovel eight two-ton cars full of coal on every shift — 16 tons was the coal industry standard immortalized in song by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Geleynse said a day’s work was usually more than 16 tons. The miners were paid by the ton, so they piled the cars high and sometimes managed to fill an extra car or two, using nothing but shovels.
Geleynse said he went to work with a big sack of sandwiches every day.
"I ate all day long," he said. "You[re burning up calories all day long."
Horses pulled the filled cars out to the main line, where they were coupled to power equipment for the trip to the surface — a trip the horses never made until they were too old to continue working. At the end of their shift, the horses were taken to an underground stable.
The miners trudged to the dog house, the assembly point where they waited their turn to board an empty coal car for the "man trip" back to daylight.
"You're standing in the dog house at the end of the shift, you're dead tired, everybody's laughing and joking," Geleynse recalled.
The pay, as Geleynse remembers, worked out to $1.67 an hour after the management deducted the cost of dynamite and other supplies.
"You even paid to have your pick sharpened," Geleynse said.
But the pay was considered good by local standards.
Larry Lyle, now in his 70s, remembered how his dad supported the family with mine work during the Great Depression. Asked if his dad made a good living, Lyle replied, "Back in those days there wasn't a lot of ways to make a living. I never considered it, good, bad or indifferent. We had plenty to eat."
Lyle said his dad saved enough to buy a lot on Bakerview Road, and the family moved into a tent on the property while his dad built a house there. But his dad quit the mine after a coal car rolled over his leg and left him hospitalized for months.
Irene Park, 76, said her late husband Robert was the youngest miner in Bellingham when he went to work at 18, not long after they were married in the late 1940s. Besides the pay, miners got medical insurance, which was rare in those days, Park said.
Times were tough in those postwar years. Park remembers serving ground horse meat for dinner, because at 25 cents a pound it was a lot cheaper than beef.
"We didn't tell the kids that it was horse meat," she said.
George Mustoe, research technician in the Western Washington University geology department, has been gathering information about Bellingham mines for the past 15 years. He said the big Bellingham mine had a decent safety record for the time, although records are far from thorough. In the only known fatality, a fire boss known as Soapy Lancaster died when he went down into the mine at the start of a shift to check for methane and triggered an explosion.
But the environmental toll was high. Wegley remembers that Squalicum Creek salmon runs were still numerous in those days, but the fish he caught there had gills coated with coal dust. A period photo at the Whatcom Museum shows the creek choked with mining debris.
It might seem strange to modern readers, but many of the surviving miners and their families have good memories of their experiences.
"I liked working underground," Geleynse said. "It was always pleasant underground, except for the dust and things like that. It was an experience that I'm glad I had. It prepared me, in a way, for the rest of my life."
Geleynse remembers the miners he worked with as smart, tough and politically savvy.
"I really admired those people, the old ones particularly," he said. "They toughed it out all their lives. I was always impressed with the intelligence of the guys in mines. They were not dummies, none of them. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of forethought to run a room."
After less than three years as a coal miner, Geleynse got some college education and went to work for the Washington State Patrol. He later joined the Bellingham Police Department and eventually served as Whatcom County undersheriff before his 1982 retirement.
"There's some things I'd rather not have to do for the rest of my life, and (mining) was one of them," Geleynse said.
Today, there is scarcely a visible trace of the old mine. In the past few years, apartment projects in the Northwest Avenue area obliterated some of the last old structures, Mustoe said.
And the ranks of those who remember are thinned by time.
"It's amazing," Irene Park said. "You say anything about the coal mine, nobody believes you."
WATCH THE VIDEO: BELLINGHAM'S COAL MINES
Click here to watch an audio slideshow featuring Vern Geleynse reminiscing about work in Bellingham's coal mines.