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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Elk Valley

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The discovery of coal in the Elk Valley can be dated as far back as 1845 to one Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, a Belgian Jesuit missionary who worked with the Kootenay and Flathead Indians (Ktunaxa). DeSmet wrote to his bishop in New York that he had found a large piece of coal along a river he called Riviere des Chute (Elk River) and stated further that: "I am convinced that this fossil could be abundantly procured."

Michael Phillips, discoverer of the Crowsnest Pass, worked his way up the Elk River in 1873 and also made note of the coal exposures. Later in 1886, renowned Geological Survey of Canada geologist Dr. George M. Dawson, mapped the formations encompassing most geological ages in parts of southeastern British Columbia (BC) and southwestern Alberta and published his findings.

Shortly after that a syndicate was formed with William Fernie and Colonel James Baker, who took note of Dawson’s report, set in motion a series of manipulations that ultimately led to the formation of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP Coal).

The syndicate recognized the significance of the coal resource and helped bring about the construction of the badly needed rail link through the Crowsnest Pass area from Lethbridge to Kootenay Landing by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Development in the ElkValley area progressed rapidly during this period.

William Fernie and 20 imported Cape Breton coal miners started the area’s first mine up Coal Creek east of the present town of Fernie in 1897 in preparation for the arrival of the railroad. Coal Creek eventually bloomed into a small town with all the necessary mining structures.

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 Crows Nest Pass Coal Company grew rapidly and eventually started new mines at Michel/Natal near Sparwood in 1901 and at Morrissey about 11 kilometres south of Fernie in 1902. They capitalized on the coke market developing in the Pacific Northwest states and at Trail, BC by building no less than 1188 coke ovens by 1904.

In 1906, the CPR, who had been kept from mining coal in the Elk Valley for ten years because of the Tripartite Agreement, began construction of its Hosmer Mine nine kilometres north of Fernie. By 1908 entries had been driven, a massive tipple and boiler house/power house complex were operational, and 240 more coke ovens were added to the valley’s total. CPR’s Hosmer Mine was to be the sister mine to Bankhead; their other operation started up around the same time in Banff National Park by their subsidiary the Pacific Coal Company.

By 1908, there were four active mining areas in operation in the Elk Valley: Coal Creek, Morrissey, Hosmer, and Michel/Natal. All were underground and produced domestic and industrial steam coals and coke for the growing smelting industry.

In 1908 Spokane Railroad entrepreneur Daniel Corbin formed the Corbin Coal and Coke Company and established a secluded mining camp in the Flathead Valley. Old timers and early explorers of the Flathead area referred to the coal deposits in that mountain as "The Big Show". The bulk of Corbin’s production was shipped to the United States via the Eastern British Columbia Railway, built as an extension of Corbin’s Spokane International line.

By the start of First World War, there were two casualties to the industry in the Elk Valley. In 1909 Morrissey Mines was permanently shut down because of the difficult geology and gas outbursts. Following that in 1914 the Hosmer Mine suffered the same fate. Poor production, difficult mining conditions and revenues not meeting expenditures led to its closure by June of that year.

Elk Valley Coal Website

This article was submitted by John Kinnear. The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank John Kinnear for permission to reprint this material

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