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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historical Overview

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FS1226How important was the coal industry to the development of Alberta and southeastern British Columbia? Coal mining was not the principal economic activity in the region. In Alberta, agriculture was the driving economic force until the 1950s. In southeastern British Columbia, metal mining was more influential. Yet, coal had a substantial impact on development in the coalfields, and on economic diversification in the region as a whole. Coal mining also resulted in the rise of a number of communities scattered across a wide area in the southern and western portions of Alberta, as well as in southeastern British Columbia. The industry was solely responsible for the early development of Lethbridge, the communities of the Crowsnest Pass, the Coal Branch, and Nordegg. At Canmore in the Banff area, the industry shared influence before 1900 with the CPR. In the Drumheller Valley, mining stimulated expansion after 1911 in an area where farming was already underway. In Edmonton, on the other hand, coal mining had less impact, providing fuel and a source of employment to a city already under rapid development.1

FS1356In Alberta, where most of the mines were located, the coal industry represented a valuable diversifying factor to a regional economy dependent on agriculture-ranching in the foothills (especially before 1912), and the raising of crops elsewhere. To these areas, mining provided a source of income and profit which helped to balance the repeated fluctuations of the agricultural sector. The industry also furnished a source of seasonal employment for farmers and farm labourers in the fall and winter when cultivation of the soil was not possible. The influence of coal mining in the region was probably greatest prior to the First World War when its economic influence was second only to agriculture. Afterwards, petroleum began to grow in significance on the Alberta side, while the coal industry faced economic problems. Yet, the local importance of mining continued in some areas until the 1950s and beyond. While certain communities such as Lethbridge diversified commercially and were able to withstand the decline of coal after World War Two, many communities suffered greatly after the closing of the mines in the 1950s. Most of the towns in the Coal Branch disappeared altogether; Nordegg shrank to the size of a hamlet; Blairmore and the other centres in the Pass struggled to survive.2

Passburg - WestIn evaluating the historical significance of sites, this study will consider not only their own particular influence, but also the extent of their association with significant periods and/or major coalfields in the industry's history. A mine site will have historic value in its own right, if it played a significant role in the coal industry in terms of production, length of service, regional impact, or other factors. However, a site can also be considered to be representative of the industry as a whole, if its development paralleled that of key stages in the industry's evolution, or if it was located in a coalfield that had a profound impact on the development of coal mining.

In terms of stages, coal mining passed through three main periods prior to its decline in the 1950s. Between the 1870s and 1898, the appearance of European settlers and railways first made the industry commercially viable. While this period was formative, it was less crucial than the golden years of the industry, which stretched from 1898 until 1913. During this time, the industry underwent its greatest expansion in production; its fundamental character emerged in terms of markets, corporate structure, and technology; and coal mining was transformed from a marginal economic activity into one of considerable importance. The following years, from 1914 to 1947, represented a time of relative stability, less vital than the preceding period, but still important in sustaining the communities and economic activity which depended on coal production. These were also the years when major coalfields, such as the Coal Branch and the Drumheller Valley, came to maturity. The years after 1947 represented the twilight of the industry, and were less pivotal.

FS1357In terms of production, employment, and local and regional impact, certain coalfields were more important than others.3 The Crowsnest Pass stands above the rest. Its impact was decisive during the crucial years of expansion between 1898 and 1913, and it continued to lead the industry in output and employment thereafter. Of slightly less importance were the Drumheller Valley and the Coal Branch. In both cases, they developed later than the Pass area, but were substantial producers and supported a network of mining sites and towns. After 1920, the Coal Branch was consistently second in output among mountain fields. The Drumheller area became the leading source of domestic coal, producing more than twice as much as any other domestic field. Lethbridge was of less overall importance than these two. It was important during the early years, but, from 1898 on, it played a less significant role in the evolution of the industry. Banff-Canmore had a similar history, developing early, but failing to match the larger fields in production after 1900, when the industry had its greatest impact. Edmonton's significance was limited both because of its output, and because its effect on local development was relatively small. In this case, no identifiable mining community emerged and the impact of the mines was absorbed within the larger local economy, with very little discernible effect. Finally, the mines in the Jasper area were of relatively short duration and small output.

William N. T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918

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