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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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No economic activity could have taken place in Western Canada without extensive surveys not only of the geography but also of the resources. By the mid-nineteenth century, there had been two government enquiries and two scientific expeditions. These supported the fervor to create a nation, which spurred the Fathers of Confederation.

Dr. George Mercer Dawson (third from left)The surveying of the Crowsnest Pass illustrates the importance of the surveys to settlement and industrial activity. The best description is found in George M. Dawson's "Preliminary Report on the Physical and Geological Features of that portion of the Rocky Mountains between Latitudes 49° and 51° 30'." Dawson, who is best remembered for his extensive exploration work with the Geological Survey of Canada, spent a total of twenty-nine weeks during 1883 and 1884 surveying the Rockies, and his report is probably the most comprehensive analysis of the region's natural history to date. He outlined the general character of the Pass in the following words:

It [the Crowsnest Pass] follows up the Middle Fork of the Old Man, or Crow Nest River to its source, beyond the Crow Nest Lake, crossing a low summit to the headwaters of a branch of Michel Creek, a tributary of the Elk. Another summit is crossed between Michel Creek and Coal Creek, also a tributary of the Elk. Coal Creek is then followed down to the Elk. After reaching the Elk, the trail runs along the east bank of the river to the canon where a bridge has been thrown across. The wide Kootenay valley is finally entered at a point a few miles north of the western end of the North Kootenay Pass.

Early survey teamGeologically considered, Dawson noted that the eastern section of the Pass was part of the great eastern Cretaceous or Crow Nest Trough. The trough was approximately seven miles wide and its eastern margin was defined by the Paleozoic limestone outcrops of the Livingstone Range. Rocks of similar age were also found in the Elk River Valley which formed the western limit of the Pass. When descending that portion of the river south of 49 30', Dawson reported that the mountains to the east were composed primarily of Cretaceous rocks, while those on the west, the Lizard Mountains, were evidently made up of rock of the Paleozoic series.

The geology of the mountains within the Crowsnest Pass, both general and structural, was a topic later explored by several eminent geologists. In 1911, W. W. Leach of the Geological Survey of Canada ("Geology of the Blairmore Map Area") analyzed in great detail the strata represented in the Pass and concluded that the most prominent horizon markers were: firstly, "a massive, very hard cherty conglomerate at the base of the Dakota formation and immediately overlying the coal-bearing beds"; secondly, "a thin bed of bluish, shaly limestone, associated with seal-brown weathering clacareous sandstones, and occupying a middle position in the Dakota formation"; thirdly, "the volcanic breccias and ash beds overlying the Dakota and overlain by the Benton shales"; and finally, "a bed of very hard, siliceous light-weathering sandstone, about 20 feet thick, which occurs about 500 feet above the base of the Benton shales."

The location of the coal-bearing strata within the Crowsnest Pass Presents a curious phenomenon. On the western side of the Pass the more substantive lodes are found within the Fernie-Michel-Corbin coal basin, whereas on the eastern side they are restricted to the region between Coleman and Lundbreck. There exists, then, an eighteen mile gap between Coleman, Alberta and Michel-Natal, British Columbia in which little or no coal is to be found. Dawson, in 1883-1884, was the first to note this apparent anomaly. When discussing this series of volcanic ridges located within the Crow Nest Trough, he stated that "the rocks met with west of the volcanic series, to the end of the Lake [Crowsnest Lake], probably represent those underlying the coal horizon." He noted further that the first outcropping of coal west of the Crowsnest Volcanics was located near the western summit of the Pass. "Marten Brook ... is interesting," he wrote, "on account of the occurrence of coal on it. In a section at the trail-crossing, on the west side, is a seam showing a thickness of at least three and possibly four feet of very fair coal. . . ." The attitude of the Galt Mine No. 3 as photographed by Dr. George Mercer Dawson about 1893.coal deposits also differs from east to west. In Alberta, the seams are broken due to faulting and appear as outcrops pitching to the west. The degrees of slope vary from 30° at McGillivray Creek to 85° near Frank. In British Columbia, on the other hand, the coal measures generally assume the form of a flat-bottomed basin, and where local faulting has occurred, the angle of the dips are rarely more than 40°.

Of the many geological features found within the Pass, few have attracted more attention than have the Crowsnest Volcanics. In 1902, W. W. Leach of the Geological Survey of Canada noted the usefulness of the volcanics as horizon markers, and to this day they continue to serve as a topic of both scientific and popular inquiry. The work by J. D. Mackenzie, entitled simply_ The Crowsnest Volcanics, is probably the most comprehensive of the many articles written in a scholarly vein. Summarizing the conditions of deposition, Mackenzie concluded that:

At the time when the deposition of the Crowsnest volcanics began, the area they now cover was occupied by a shallow sea probably of fresh water containing islands. "There is no recognized evidence to show whether the vents emptied into the air, or were submarine; any cones that may have been built up above sea-level would naturally be destroyed during the incursion of the sea in Benton time. The thickness of the deposits in relation to their lateral extent seems to indicate that the beds are due to the simultaneous effect of several small volcanoes of moderate activity, rather than to the action of one large vent. The eruptions were of the explosive type, unaccompanied by flows except very locally, and took place in continual sequence during a relatively short period of time. By far the greater part of the ejected material fell into the sea, and there was deposited in more or less well stratified beds.

From a layman's point of view, the most interesting aspect of the volcanics' deposition was the magnitude of the eruptions. In this connection, Mackenzie compared the eruptions of Mount Katmai in Alaska and Tomboro on the island of Sumbawa with those of the Crowsnest field and concluded that it was not unlikely that fragments the size of a brick traveled through the air to a distance of fifteen miles from the volcano. He also hypothesized that "much of the finer ash and dust from the . . . eruptions were carried out of the zone of deposition of the larger fragments by air and water currents."

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.

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