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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Natal is one of three communities that once lined the Michel Creek in British Columbia. First established in 1907, the settlement was known as "Newtown" or "New Michel." The Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP Coal) had procured the area for its workers to build their own homes, allowing miners the option to move from company housing in nearby Michel, a few kilometres to the east. When CNP Coal laid out a town site and Majuba Hill, Natal, South Africa.offered lots, New Michel became a popular destination. Independent businesses followed the shift in residency, making the settlement the commercial hub of the area. The town was later named Natal as a tribute to the British conquest of the Boers in South Africa.

Natal's history is intertwined with Michel and Middletown, its neighbouring communities. The three towns were located so closely that a mere kilometre separated each from the other. As a result, an occurrence in one of the towns was surely felt in all three. One example of this phenomenon was the rise of a communist sentiment in the area. Extreme challenges marked the Depression; the coal mining industry was no exception. Early in the 1930s, Natal miners lacked union representation and the imbalance of power enabled mining companies to make unreasonable demands on labourers with little or no repercussions.

By 1934, the Michel Creek miners made a significant change to balance the power structure in the area. In joining the communist-led Mine Workers Union of Canada, the labourers procured their first union representation in nine years, marking a shift in the area's industry. The union represented miner solidarity and set about organizing better conditions for labourers. The first union event was a May Day celebration marked with rousing speeches and promises for a better future. Miners from across the Elk Valley travelled from one mining community to the next, gathering support for the event along the way. In its first few years, May Day was an unprecedented success.

With the onset of the Cold War, the attractiveness of communism began to waver. Most miners separated themselves from communist ideals in favour of the newly resurrected United Mine Workers of America. Although there was still support for May Day celebrations, general interest diminished over the years.

Historic sign marking the coal mining communities of Natal and Michel in the Elk Valley, which were cleared by the Government of British Columbia.For years, the coal mining industry sustained itself through almost constant upheaval. By the late 1950s, the industry faced its biggest challenges and by the late 1950s, the industry faced its biggest challenge as oil and gas assumed the place of coal as the fuel of choice. In the midst of a rapidly dwindling industry, the B.C. government reviewed all mining communities. Natal, Middletown, and Michel, were dirty and rundown, covered in soot from the coke ovens. In comparison, Sparwood—just a few kilometres upwind—was a much cleaner and attractive place to live. Upon their review, the government resolved to close Michel-Natal and move the residents to Sparwood. Although many from Natal were ready to leave, there were a few families who were adamant about staying. Regardless, all residents eventually moved on, leaving behind what was once their home.

Today there is little that remains of Natal. By the end of the 1970s, the settlement had been demolished, allowing nature to take over once again.

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