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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historic sign marking the coal mining communities of Natal and Michel in the Elk Valley, which were cleared by the Government of British Columbia.The Crow’s Nest Coal Company (CNP Coal) braced itself for success upon the opening of a mine site in the Michel Creek Valley in 1899. Tests on the bituminous coal revealed a low ash content and 68 percent fixed carbon, meaning the coal was perfect for coking and selling for huge profits. CNP Coal started slowly on the Michel mine, but after prompting from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), they began producing more than 11,000 tonnes per year by 1900.

While mining operations were successful, the town of Michel experienced problems in its first years. Starting in 1901, the town was struck with fire for three consecutive years. The first blaze had the greatest impact on new residents, devastating many who began their lives anew despite the loss of everything they owned. For the following years, the damage of the fires lingered in the memory of the town. Just as a sense of safety was being restored, the Great Fire of 1908—perhaps the most memorable blaze of that era raged throughout the Elk Valley. Beginning in Fernie, 35 kilometres away, the fire travelled upward to Michel Creek. The blaze was thought to be so dangerous that women and children were rushed out of the province and into Alberta for safety.

Mining towns were largely company towns with many if not most buildings being erected by the mining company.  This early picture of Michel shows an orderly community with relatively new, well-built houses.  While this certainly was one reality, as miners’ testimony at the 1919 Alberta Coal Mining Commission, housing was frequently substandard and costly.Also affecting the townspeople to a profound extent were the numerous mining disasters. In 1904, tragedy struck when an explosion shook the No. 3 mine. Rescue crews immediately descended upon the scene in the hopes of finding survivors. In discovering a blocked mine shaft, it became quickly apparent that there would be few, if any, left alive. Using pickaxes and shovels, even retrieving bodies took a long time. By the time rescuers reached the miners, their fears were confirmed. Seven miners, newly immigrated from Britain, were found dead beneath a collapsed wall.

Another mining disaster occurred on 11 August 1916. The three explosions that occurred were more massive that the 1904 tragedy, and the consequences far worse. This time the explosion extended beyond the mine, demolishing nearby buildings and shaking the town. Again the rescue crew made a vain attempt to reach the trapped men, but with high gas levels in the cave, they were forced to turn back for several hours. It became clear that there were no survivors when rescuers continued, only to find a tiny passageway that remained open. As a result of the explosion, 13 dead bodies were hauled from the mine.

The Great Depression strained relationships between workers and their companies. Many miners, reeling from the previous accidents and poor labour relations, turned to communist doctrine and unions in an attempt to protect themselves.

By the 1960s, oil and gas replaced coal as the major fuel used in North America. After years of neglect and armed with no new money to invest, Michel's future was uncertain. Export company, Kaiser Coal had established Sparwood as the centre for the burgeoning coal export industry, and expanded the town with new commercial and residential development. Work was available to Michel miners, as long as they would relocate. If any uncertainty remained for residents of Michel, it was erased when the British Columbia government decided to destroy the Michel-Natal settlements. Though some residents refused to leave, they were ultimately left with no choice. By 1978, the last vestiges of Michel were destroyed. Though some residents refused to leave, they were ultimately left with no choice.

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