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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Banff and Canmore—Canmore

Canadian Pacific Railway roundhouse at Canmore, Alberta. [ca. 1884]

Canmore was founded in 1883 as a division point when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) came to the Bow Valley. By 1885, when George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada reported the Cascade Coal Basin, entrepreneurs had already staked claims near Canmore. When the division point was moved to Calgary, coal mining became the number one activity in the community.

The coal seams in Canmore were the most profitable in the Bow Valley. They were the longest and the least steep. Coal that came from the mines had high carbon content and burned well. There was much money to be made selling the coal to the CPR to fuel the trains before the steep climb into the Rocky Mountains. Unfortunately, the coal was hard to ignite.

In 1891, Charles Carey, a Canmore miner, perfected an efficient method to burn Canmore coal and provoked William Cornelius Van Horne to issue the famous memorandum that "a locomotive driver or fireman who cannot use Canmore coal will get no employment with the CPR." Canmore was a true mining town—it was a tough place to live. Police were always on high alert on payday and there was a fight in the bar every night. It was also an extremely tight-knit community and everyone knew one another. It was only 1965 that Canmore was incorporated as a town with a population of 2000 people.

Canmore, Alberta. 1886 Initially, Canmore sold almost all its coal to the CPR but, while a buyer was guaranteed, the market was unstable and the mines endured a harsh boom and bust cycle. Canmore saw the closing of the Anthracite, Bankhead and Georgetown mines, experienced high demand during World War I, and endured the Depression in the 1930s. However, by the 1960s, Canmore Mines Ltd. was not doing well. Diesel had replaced coal on the trains, taking away Canmore's primary market. In addition, due to the geology of the region, the mines could not become fully automated and modern. During the 1960s there was a temporary reprieve when the Japanese demand for coal went up but, ultimately, the industry that had sustained Canmore for nearly 100 years was finished. On Friday, July 13 1979, the mine closed.

However, unlike Anthracite, Bankhead and Georgetown, Canmore did not become a ghost town. There was a vibrant community of artists that had moved inspired by the town's potential to become the next Banff. In 1988, Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics and Canmore was the scene of the Nordic events. As a result, the community experienced explosive growth and change in the 1990s, with tourism and land development fueling the new economy.

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