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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Yard engine at the Diamond Coal Company mine (Mine No. 104)The driving in of the last spike became symbolic of the linking of Canada from sea-to-sea through and extensive system of railways. The pushing of the railways across the Rocky Mountains presented many challenges and is important both locally and nationally. The history of Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) activity within the Crowsnest Pass is neither uninteresting nor of strictly parochial concern. Briefly stated, the Canadian government and the CPR negotiated the 1897 Crowsnest Agreement for four reasons: firstly, to counter the American-owned and operated Great Northern Railway; secondly, to bolster Canada's orient trade; thirdly, to open the Kootenay district of British Columbia to Canadian settlement and trade; and fourthly, to strengthen Canada's frail east-west trade links.

Although the Canadian Pacific Railway had expressed an interest in the Crowsnest Pass as early as 1881 (for military reasons it was decided not to construct the mainline so close to the international boundary), work on a rail link connecting southern Alberta to the Kootenay district of British Columbia never began until July 1897. The CPR appears to have always been the most vociferous proponent of the project and its Annual Reports are replete with references noting the advantages of such a line. In 1891, for example, Company executives argued that construction should begin immediately in order "to protect the Company's interests in southern British Columbia, including the Kootenay district which is now assuming great importance owing to its remarkable mineral development." Five years later, the comments of these men were even more pointed. "Unless [the] Company occupies the ground," they maintained, "the greater part of the mining traffic will continue to be, as at present, carried by the American lines southward."

Father of Confederation Sir Alexander Galt and his son Elliott T. Galt were involved in the building of Lethbridge, which was developed as an industrial centre to rival Pittsburgh in the US.  The Galts were instrumental in building narrow-gauge railways to carry coal not only locally but also in Montana (the Great Falls and Canada Railroad) as well as the mines that fuelled them.  Tracks went right to the mine sites and Galt No. 3, which opened in 1890 and produced until 1924, is pictured.  Neither was the CPR ignorant of the proposed line's "national" significance. According to the 1896 Report, the Directors of the Company confidently expected "reasonable assistance at the hands of the Dominion Government" since "the interest of the country at large is so much concerned in this question." By the terms of the final agreement signed in 1897, the railway was to be constructed and equipped for a subsidy of eleven thousand dollars per mile from Lethbridge to Nelson, the total amount of the subsidy not to exceed $3,630,000. A grant of six square miles of coal lands within the Pass was also made to the CPR.

In the fifth chapter of his thesis entitled "A History of the Crow's Nest Pass," William James Cousins attempted to chronicle the railway's actual construction and accurately portrayed the cramped and unhealthy surroundings within which the construction crews were forced to live and work:

The farthest west camp during 1897 was Mann's, at a point a little to the east of the present Fernie, while others were strung out along the line to Seventh Siding near Pincher Creek, which was the end of steel in December. The bunkhouses in all camps were unsanitary and over-crowded. Wages were $1.75 a day while board cost about 75 cents. There were doctors in two districts, Dr. Roy in Alberta and Dr. Gordon on the British Columbia side under the general supervision of Dr. F. H. Mewburn. Crow's Nest Lake, just east of the cave, was a very large camp from which the blasting work around the lake was directed. Joe Bricker and Henry Johnson Sr. had a store there and a Mrs. Taylor ran a boarding house. Dr. Roy's headquarters were here also.

An equally enlightening commentary on the social conditions within the Crowsnest Pass can be found in the monthly and annual reports of the North-West Mounted Police. As the mounted police were charged with maintaining law and order along the construction line, they were able to view firsthand the squalor and seediness which characterized most construction camps. Writing to his superior on 2 November 1898, Inspector G. E. Sanders of the Crowsnest Lake Detachment, told of the conditions within the Pass in the frank and uncluttered language typical of most police reports:

At Crow's Nest Lake a thriving village sprang up and flourished during the months of December, January and February. Its inhabitants, outside of the Canadian Pacific Railway officials and contractors, being composed of illicit whisky vendors, gamblers, thieves and prostitutes, all bent upon fleecing the poor railway man of his hard earned gains.

The main work of the police was to keep these people within bounds, and it was done in an effective manner. ... By the end of February Crow's Nest Lake was a deserted village, and Fernie (on Coal Creek), forty miles further west, became the centre of attraction, and it was certainly for a time the hottest town on the road. Elk Rivet Crossing, Wardner, Cranbrook and Moyie City in turn became points where a large number of men congregated and where a lucrative business was done in the dispensing of ardent spirits, and by the sharks and adventurers who moved up and down the line seeking whom they might devour.

Despite the depressing working conditions and the occasional labour dispute within the Pass, the railway from Lethbridge, Alberta, to the south end of Kootenay Lake (Kootenay Landing) was completed in only sixteen months. The total cost of the project was 19 million dollars, minus the government subsidy of $3,381,000.

The railway yards in Lethbridge were extensive including running sheds, roundhouses and machine sheds to service the trains as well as coal storage sheds.  A range of workers were required including the group pictured, which appear to be round house and machine shop workers.  Italians easily moved from mine to railway work and back. Michele (Mike) Ferrara, after serving in the Italian Army in the First World War, emigrated with his brother and worked in Massachusetts and Ohio, moving on to railway work between Sweetgrass Montana, and Champion, Alberta.  In 1925, he settled in Coleman.Not unexpectedly, the completion of the Crow's Nest Pass Railway in November 1898, accelerated the rate of prospecting within the Pass. Coal mining companies sprang up quickly in both Alberta and British Columbia, although, generally speaking, development was much faster in the latter. To service these mining operations, most of which were located some distance from the main line, additional branch lines had to be constructed. Ronald Howard Meyer in his M.A. thesis entitled "The Evolution of Railways in the Kootenays" has provided a most thorough analysis of spur line development within the British Columbia portion of the Pass. The text of his thesis is supplemented by several easily read maps. In addition, he accounted for railway abandonment in more recent times. He noted, for example, that approximately forty-five miles of track lay east of Fernie between 1900 and 1920 were abandoned in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s as both coal and railway companies began to streamline their operations.

For the Alberta portion of the Pass, there exists no study comparable to that of Meyer. Cousins ("A History of the Crow's Nest Pass") briefly mentioned that a six mile spur line was constructed from Lille to the CPR line at Frank in 1903 and that railway connections to the two Leitch Colliery mines were operable by 1908. It is clear, however, that considerably less track was laid in Alberta than in British Columbia--probably in the order of one mile to 2.5 miles.

The connection between railways and the Alberta coal mining industry in general was analyzed by Andy A. den Otter in a well-researched and well-written article entitled "Railways and Alberta's Coal Problem, 1880-1960." While he was critical in his assessment of the railways motives and performance, his conclusions rang true as far as the Crowsnest Pass region was concerned. "While the collieries furnished inexpensive fuel," he argued, "the railways never reciprocated by providing low rates to permit operators to break out of the limited regional market." Thus, when these markets disappeared, so too did the coal industry.

A Canadian Pacific steam engine and caboose are seen crossing the slide area. The Crowsnest route was interrupted by the Slide and, for a time, this involved a combination of rail and car barge journeys (rail from Revelstoke to Arrowhead, by steamer or car barge down the Arrow Lakes to Robson West and then by rail to Nelson and Proctor with another steamer and car barge trip to Kootenay Landing). New lines were built over the top of the rubble and, over the next 50 years, tons of limestone were taken out for constructions purposes all over the prairies.In exchange for the $11,000 per mile subsidy granted to the CPR for the construction of the Crowsnest Pass line, the Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier also insisted that the railway lower its westbound rates on 11 specified commodities and its eastbound rates on grain and flour. The reductions were set at 10 percent for the goods inbound to the prairies and at three cents per hundred-weight for the two products outbound to the Lakehead. The Pass itself was affected only marginally by what eventually became known as the Crowsnest Pass freight rates—it was hoped that the West in general would prosper because of the reduced rates—but their association with the building of the railway remains. Of the numerous books, articles and government reports that have been written on the topic, the four listed below rank among the best: A. W. Currie, "Freight Rates on Grain in Western Canada;" V. C. Fowke, An Historical Analysis of the Crows Nest Pass Agreement and Grain Rates: A Study in National Transportation Policy; Theodore Herbert, The Economic Aspects of the Crowsnest Pass Rates Agreement; and J. L. Mc-Dougall, Canadian Pacific.

For firsthand accounts of travel on the Crow's Nest Pass Railway shortly after the line was opened, the reader is referred to the following works: "An excursion over the Crow's Nest Pass Line," in British Columbia Mining Record; George Bolton, "Work and Adventures in the Crowsnest Pass;" and George T. Moir, Sinners and Saints; a true story of early days in the farthest West, by an old-timer, written and told by himself.

Just as the Crow's Nest Pass Railway fostered the development of extensive contacts between southern Alberta and the Kootenay district of British Columbia, so too did the road and highway network which developed during the next few decades. William James Cousins ("A History of the Crow's Nest Pass") appears to have been the only researcher to have dwelt on this topic. He concluded that most of the construction work took place during three distinct periods. From 1910 to 1912, a motor road was built and improved from Lethbridge to Fernie. During the depression of the 1930s, numerous government-sponsored road improvement projects were undertaken in and around the Pass. And finally, in the early 1950s, a "first class paved highway" was constructed through the Alberta Pass towns.

This article is extracted from Les Hurt, Bibliography of the Crowsnest Pass (Unpublished Report: Historic Sites Service, Alberta Community Development, no date). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank Les Hurt and Alberta Community Development for permission to reprint this material.

Heritage Trails No. 339—Coal Mining: More Crowsnest Pass

When the Canadian Pacific Railway completed their line through the Crowsnest Pass in 1897 it led to major coal mining development in the area. Listen as historian Pat Myers talks about the development of the coal mining industry in the Crowsnest region.

Click here to listen!

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