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