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Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historical Overview

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Scranton Mine - 1932Between the 1880s and 1950s, the coal industry in Alberta and southeastern British Columbia went through various cycles of rapid expansion, slow growth and fluctuation, and finally decline. Commercial coal mining emerged in the 1880s in response to the spread of agricultural settlement and the construction of railways in the West. The industry's growth reached its peak in the decade prior to the First World War. After 1918, coal producers faced an uncertain future due to shifting markets and the rise of alternative forms of fuel, such as hydro­electricity and petroleum. While production fluctuated, coal mining continued to have a deep impact on the localities in which it was based until after World War II. After the discovery of cheap supplies of Alberta petroleum in 1947, the industry went into a rapid decline. This section will describe these periods in detail and pinpoint the coalfields most instrumental in the history of the industry.

A coal mine in a wheat country. The Coalhurst mine (Mine No. 174) is shown in the backgroundThe development of the industry depended on the presence of large reserves of coal and the emergence of substantial markets. The coal stocks of Alberta and southeastern BC were among the richest in Canada. Coal of varying types underlay much of the region. On the plains, lignite and sub-bituminous varieties were common, possessing large proportions of ash, moisture, and other impurities, suitable mainly for domestic heating purposes. Bituminous coal was more often found in the mountains. Containing a higher proportion of carbon—which was the burning element—this coal was often suitable for use in steam engines, and for coking to produce fuel used in metal smelters. Anthracite, the highest quality of coal, was available only in relatively small quantities in the region, especially at Banff.1

Watch Dr. Adriana Davies from the Heritage Community Foundation narrate the beginnings of coal mining in Alberta, in this video produced by CFCN Television.

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines,  The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918.

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