North Borneo’s Silimpopon Coal Mine: Once the World’s Biggest but Now Forgotten

Deep in the interiors of Tawau in Kalabakan once lies a coal mine village called Silimpopon. The diversed community that once existed there represents what Tawau is today – a melting pot of cultures from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The mine which was once dubbed as the biggest coal mine in the world was in operation from 1905 to 1937.

The Silimpopon Coal Mine – the only such mine in North Borneo operated for more than 25 years in a remote location a few miles upriver from Tawau. Owned by the London-based Cowie Harbour Coal Company, the mine was staffed with European managers and engineers.

While some locals were also employed, the majority of the mine labourers were Chinese coolies imported directly from China. At its height the mine housed a community of more than 3000, greater than the population of Tawau at that time.

It was a self contained community, with its own shops, hospital and police as well as the necessary workshops. A railway with Andrew Barclay locomotives provided the only means of transport to the Silimpopon River – for both coal and people.

Here’s a YouTube video of wonderful old photos of the coal mine town:

If you’re interested to learn about this piece of history there is a book written about Silimpopon by Ross Ibbotson entitled Silimpopon : A Borneo Coal Mine (ISBN 9789833987009).

Remnants of the coal mine are still there and they lie within a private oil palm plantation. To date the area has not been gazetted as heritage site.

Image courtesy of Mr Brian Lai and Mr. Azlan Lauddin Martin

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Richard Ker

I love the history of North Borneo (Sabah) and strive to digitally any related information on this website. I'm also the author of and Follow me on Twitter @richardker.


  1. An excellent piece of historical account that is very relevant to be documented and studied by today’s and the generation to come, to the eye openers of this historical event I salute you for this precious video…keep up the good work!

    • Hi Eddie,
      I am glad you like the video.I’ve heard of your name cos i have a friend by the name of Henny Pullie.I am just wonering whether she is your sister.I have a picture of the type of money they were using during the operation of Salimponpon but I did not posted it.I am sure many would be interested to know.I have posted around 22 video clips.If you are interested to know you could search at youtube by typing sinontiku
      Bryan Paul lai .
      I could be contacted at

  2. Wow Nice Info ! its been a year to me searching an info for the railway trail locate at kalabakan/ranggu/else if i dont know it is, and this is what I’m searching for..gee thanks Bro.

  3. Thank you Bryan Paul Lai for this very educational information. I’m sure there are many more great history of Sabah that we have never even heard of.

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