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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Settlement of the West

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The settlement of the West was part national dream and part political and economic wheeling and dealing. The idea of a country spanning sea-to-sea captured the imagination of the Fathers of Confederation who envisioned the nation but also saw the economic opportunities. The enormous land base, with its agricultural land and mineral wealth, appealed to land-hungry homesteaders and entrepreneurs alike. The establishment of the Geological Survey of Canada ensured that there was excellent information available for those who wished to exploit these resources.

Settlement did not just involve homesteading. It was also an aspect of the industrial revolution that saw railways, mines and factories being developed to support towns and cities. Railways became the means to facilitate both agricultural and industrial development and it was realized by individuals such as Father of Confederation Sir Alexander Galt and Martin Nordegg. As A. A. den Otter notes in Civilizing the West: The Galt and the development of Western Canada:

In 1879, on the eve of his departure to London to take up his new post as high commissioner for Canada, he spoke glowingly of the "laborious task of opening up [the Northwest] and bringing [it] under civilization." Implicit in his settlement was the belief that a civilized economy was the basis, even the rationale, for cultural and political expansion. The schools, the churches, and even the farms were adjuncts of the railways, the coal-mines, and the warehouses.1

This was the era when "coal was king" and its presence made possible and desirable the building of the railways and settlement. While the existence of coal was known to inhabitants of Western Canada for several centuries, its exploitation was delayed by a lack of demand. The First Nations used coal for ornamentation, but apparently not for heating purposes. European immigrants saw more potential in the material, but their numbers were small at first. As early as 1798, coal had been brought to the fur trade post at Edmonton House for the use of the blacksmith. It was not until settlers started to arrive in the region in the 1870s that the market for coal began to expand. Nicholas Sheran established the first commercial coal mine at Lethbridge, then called Coalbanks, in 1874. Between 1875 and 1880, coal was also mined to serve the expanding community at Edmonton.2

The construction of railways was crucial to the development of the industry. They not only provided a transportation network for the distribution of coal, but also became major consumers, buying coal to power their steam locomotives. The establishment of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was particularly pivotal. Its location in the southern part of the region insured that the coal reserves would first be exploited there, while the company's decisions about the construction of branch lines and the selection of coal suppliers dramatically shaped the development of the industry.3

Intensive coal mining first took place in the Banff and Lethbridge coalfields. Banff had the advantage of being located directly adjacent to the CPR main line, and of superior quality bituminous and anthracite coal. Lethbridge benefited from lower production costs, originating from its relatively flat coal seams, located close to the surface. More importantly, Lethbridge had the decisive advantage of the involvement of Sir Alexander Galt, a former member of the federal Cabinet of Sir John A. Macdonald, and his son Elliott, an Indian commissioner in the West. Using political influence, the father obtained extensive mineral rights and other concessions from the federal government, and attracted substantial British investment. As a result, Lethbridge dominated the early coal market, though it was never able to exert complete control. By the mid-1890s, Galt supplied the rail market from Medicine Hat to Winnipeg. Mainly due to the rise of the mines at Canmore, Banff controlled the route from Kamloops to Medicine Hat. Neither coalfield, however, was prosperous. Instead, coal producers waited in vain for the flood of settlers that would bring a larger market, one less dependent on the machinations of the CPR.4

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.

Listen: Hear Louie Protti talk about his father's immigration experience (oral history excerpt).

Listen: Hear Mr. and Mrs. Sartor talk about her brothers' immigration experience (oral history excerpt).

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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