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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Regional Profiles—Crowsnest Pass

Crowsnest Pass area, Alberta. [ca. 1884]The Rocky Mountains developed in a period of mountain building in the Tertiary Age (66 million years ago) as shifting plate tectonics thrust up sedimentary. The Crowsnest Past, in particular, is rich in mineral and coal deposits Thus, as early as the 1860s (1864 Gold Rush with deposits in Mount Fisher), became an area of intense economic activity, first with the establishment of British Columbia and, then, with the establishment of the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Besides the east/west linkages (Alberta/BC), there were also important north/south trails connecting with the US (for example, Montana) that allowed miners access from the south. For example, American Robert C. Dore developed his first claim at Wild Horse gold workings, exhausted the gold in three years, and produced $521,700. Preceding the coming of the railways, steamboats carried miners in the mining boom of 1893-98 connecting Jennings, Montana, and Fort Steele. By 1900, their usefulness had ended as rail became the dominant means of transport.

Heritage Trails No. 121—Crowsnest Towns (Part One), Sentry Siding, Coleman

One of the most important regions at the turn of the century was the coal branch through the Crowsnest pass. And once the railway cut through the Crowsnest Pass, the line thrived with industry and towns, all centered on coal mining. Today, a drive east along Highway 3 from Crowsnest Pass to Pincher Creek is a journey back through time.

Click here to listen!

According to historians Howard and Tamara Palmer, this north/south linkage so concerned the CPR that they decided to push for a railroad from Lethbridge to the Crow's Nest Pass and obtained a subsidy from Sir Wilfred Laurier's government in 1897 to do so1. The railroad was completed in 1898 and signaled major economic development and settlement in the region2. Calgary, as the closest southern Alberta urban centre benefited from these developments. With the building of the more northern rail route in the early part of the 20th century, Edmonton developed as the hub and became the destination for immigrants. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway saw its line as the means of opening up the Bellevue - Bob Owenagricultural land around Grande Prairie as well as a linkage to Jasper Park as a draw for tourism.

Mining was instrumental in the development of communities in both the BC and Alberta portions of the Rockies. The railways needed fuel to run and coal mines were developed to do this, as well as to meet industrial (for example, the smelters in Trail, BC) and domestic needs. The largest deposits are found in Alberta and BC and their exploitation paralleled the settlement of the West. From the beginnings, these developments were characterized by cycles of boom and bust, particularly with the gold mines. Entrepreneurs and miners were mobile, moving from California to Dawson City following gold strikes. Diggings began and were later abandoned, and the remnants of mine works and cemeteries can be seen by the visitor to the area3. According to the Palmers in Alberta: A New History, "Coal production increased more than tenfold from 242,000 tons in 1897 to almost three million tons in 1910, and then to over four million tons in 1913. By 1911 coal mining employed 6 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce in Alberta."4 As well, Western Canada, by 1911, was the largest coal producing area of the country.

Watch Roy Lazzarotto narrate through the illnesses and other dangers that miners suffered, as well as the things they loved about mining, in this video produced by CFCN Television.

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