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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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The townsite of Lille in 1907.Unlike many settlements that endured through fluctuating coal prices in the Crowsnest Pass, Lille ultimately became a ghost town. In the span of only 15 years, the settlement was created and disappeared. Crowsnest historians note that a combination of factors doomed the community. Perhaps, it was Lille's limited accessibility or altitude that led to its demise.

In 1901, prospectors J. J. Fleutot and C. Remy were searching for coal in the Crowsnest Pass for the British Columbia Gold Fields Limited, later renamed the Western Canadian Collieries Ltd. (WCC). Their search led them to an area seven miles north of Frank, between the Livingstone and Blairmore Mountain ranges and to an altitude of 1,400 metres. Despite problems of accessibility, the company proceeded with development quickly and by year’s end, WCC had established a small mining community first called "French Camp."

Initially, travel to the site proved difficult; a pack trail provided the only access route beginning at Frank. The trail later widened to a cart track, and, in 1902, construction began on a railway line. The new camp depended on a route to the Canadian Pacific Railway main line, but its construction needed to traverse a difference of 235 metres in elevation. Many hills and valleys lined the route, and by the time of its completion, 23 timber trestles with masonry abutments and several switchbacks crossed Gold Creek. Incline grades were steep, progress was slow, and work was dangerous. When construction finished in February 1903, only three boxcars could cross at any one time.

In 1912, coal mining operations at Lille closed. An option for miners was to move to Blairmore (as seen here) or Bellevue.Only two months later, the Frank Slide destroyed a half-mile of the line, disrupting coal distribution. Since the mining camp depended on the line for its shipments, the WCC was forced to cover the cost of repair and wait for the work to be done, which would take until November of that year.

Foreign influences marked Lille’s uniqueness in the area. By the end of 1903, the town was renamed Lille after the principle shareholder’s hometown in France. Two years later, the WCC finished construction on the Belgian ‘Bernard’ coking ovens. The company imported the bricks directly from Belgium and considered the ovens to be the most advanced in North America. By 1910, the population reached 400 people, and included many workers from the United States. The large American influence caused townspeople to celebrate both 1 July and 4 July as national holidays.

The town site was abandoned in 1912 for various reasons. As mining costs were increasing, so was the upkeep of the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway. As well, the WCC found that Lille coal produced higher ash content, and the market for high-grade metallurgical coke had just decreased. By 1913, operations at Lille ceased, and mining activities moved to other WCC properties in Bellevue and Blairmore.

Today, there are few reminders of the once vibrant mining town, vandals having destroyed the once well-preserved coking ovens. In January 1978, the Government of Alberta declared the town site an historical landmark, thus legally protecting the area from further damage.

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