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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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A map of Coalbanks drawn by Richard Hill Stafford in 1896. Eight-year old Richard Stafford came west with his parents in 1883 and lived in the Stafford home near the drift mine entrances until moving a kilometre north to the Stafford ranch house in 1893. His 17-year old brother, Henry Stafford, was buried in one of the "Graves." Stafford went to the Klondike in 1897 and remained there for several years.The natural environment of Southern Alberta is largely prairie land that attracted settlers who came to farm and ranch.  A number of factors contributed to making it an attractive destination for settlers.  There was plenty of tillable land;  could be tilled; ready availability of water through several river systems including the Milk and Oldman Rivers; and a moderate climate that included Chinook winds bringing warm air over the mountains.

But there were also extensive resources of coal underfoot, which were formed in the Cretaceous period (about 70 million years ago) when that region was the western shoreline of an inland sea that covered central North America.Thick seams of bituminous coal (1.2 to 1.8 metres) developed and these provided an important energy resource that resulted in the foundation of the economy of the City of Lethbridge as well as of neighbouring communities such asCoal hoisting incline railway, Galt Mines, Lethbridge, Alberta. [ca. 1880s] Coalhurst. In his 1881 report, this had been noted by Dr. George Mercer Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. Elliott Torrance Galt, then Assistant Indian Commissioner, had seen these coal exposures in 1879 at a place called Coalbanks. When the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to build their transcontinental railway across the southern plains, Elliott and his father, Sir Alexander Galt, a father of Confederation, decided that they wanted to be a part of the economic development of the region.

The aloof and probably secretly feared Elliott Torrance Galt, general manager of the Galt companies in the West, is show with one of his eight half-sisters and a cousin. They are sitting on the steps to the verandah of the house "Coaldale," built in 1883 and the most prestigious dwelling south of Calgary in its time.The mining camp of Coalbanks quickly became the City of Lethbridge, envisioned from its founding as a both an agricultural and industrial centre. Irma Dogterom in Where Was it?: A Guide to Early Lethbridge Buildings (Lethbridge, Albetra: Lethbridge Historical Society, Occasional Paper No. 35, 2001) notes that by the end of 1885, Lethbridge had more than 60 buildings that included six stores, five hotels with saloons, four billiard rooms, two barbershops and a livery stable. By 1891, there were 255 residences, 48 business premises, 46 warehouses, 60 stables, four churches, two schools and two hospitals. The City was graciously laid out in the European model with a large public park surrounded by impressive buildings. The mine sites and supporting railyards were state-of-the-art for their time.

Thus, Lethbridge became a crucible for the economic development plans of the Government of Canada and a destination for immigrants. The Aboriginal culture and way of life was totally wiped out by the coming of the whiskey traders, which resulted in the establishment of Fort Whoop-Up, the homesteaders and entrepreneurs. Sawmills, collieries, railways, mines, farms and irrigation systems changed the landscape. As A. A. den Otter notes1:

In just fifteen years, these bustling promoters, with the generous support of the federal government, had transformed the desolate treeless plains into prosperous irrigated farmlands dotted with tree-lined towns. In that time technological man had brought about greater changes than centuries of winds, rains, fires, animals, or native people.

Other familiar scenes in the Coalbanks/Lethbridge of the late 1818s-early 1890s. This photograph shows a log boom from which mine props were cut and milled lumber was obtained. The sawmill is the building just behind the log boom. The object on the shore in front of the sawmill is all that remains of the river steamer "Alberta," used in 1883 and 1884 in a vain attempt to transport coal by barge to Medicine Hat. Its ribs can be seen clearly, the rest of the superstructure having been use in the construction of houses on what is now 1st Avenue South between 1st and 3rd Streets.But it was not all economic boom. As so often happens, buoyant economic times are followed by depressions. The building of the transcontinental railway was followed by economic depression nation-wide and even the prosperous and well-positioned Sir Alexander Galt was near bankruptcy.

These cycles of prosperity and recession marked the development of this southern Alberta city but its early prosperity can be seen in the range of fine brick buildings, which include the cottage hospital built by the Galts to serve the health needs of their companies and the community. This building became the Sir Alexander Galt Museum in the 1980s.

For further information about the entrepreneurs and miners alike, please visit the People and Communities/Lethbridge section of the When Coal Was King website.

Watch Julius Peta as he reminisces about his career in the mines at Lethbridge, including the tragedies and benefits, in this video produced by CFCN Television.

Camillo Bridarolli: Oral History Excerpts

Mr. Camillo Bridarolli talks about the activities and functions of the Italian Lodge in Lethbridge, and its relationship with and to other Lodges.

Click here to listen!

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