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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Nicholas and Marcella Sheran

Nicholas SheranNicholas Sheran (1841-1882) packed a lot of living into his 41 years. Born in New York City, he apprenticed as a printer, then spent several years on Arctic whalers. He served in Company C of the 99th Regiment, New York National Guard, as a second lieutenant and saw service during the Civil War. During his time in the Army, Sheran met a soldier named Joseph Healy and, after hostilities ceased, he accompanied him back to Montana. There he became involved with John Jerome Healy, Joseph's older brother, and even in 1866 somewhat of a legend on the Montana frontier. Sheran became an Indian fighter, prospector and trader.

The beginning of coal mining in the Lethbridge district. Nicholas Sheran grubbed coal briefly near Fort Whoop-Up from June to October 1874, then quarried and mined the seam at The Coal Banks from November 1874 until his death by drowning in may 1882. The coal mine he started continued to operated until September 1941.About June 1874 he came to Fort Whoop-Up, an American whiskey-trading post established in 1869 by Alfred Baker Hamilton and Johnny Healy. Sheran likely was familiar with the place and may have visited the post on occasion. He drew on the boating skills acquired as a boy on Arctic whalers and established a ferry service, consisting of two flat-bottomed rowboats, across the Belly River about 750 m northwest of the fort. He grubbed coal from a 45-cm seam in his spare time, selling the surplus to the Whoop-Up traders.

The North-West Mounted Police established the first Fort Macleod on an island in the Old Man's River on 13 October 1874. Sheran saw a larger market for his coal and moved downriver to The Coal Banks when a 1.5 m thick seam was exposed. By December NWMP work parties were hauling coal from Sheran's mine.

This 1883 photograph by Dr. G. M. Dawson of the Geological Survey shows the ferry started by Nicholas Sheran in 1874, the cabin and coal shed build by him, and the mine entry opened by him in 1881.Sometime in 1877 Marcella Sheran (1844-1896) left New York and travelled to Fort Benton, then on to the Belly River country in the North-West Territories. [It has been impossible to document any of this as her name simply does not appear in obvious sources such as the Fort Benton Record or the Macleod Gazette.] After her arrival, she proved to be a valued partner to her brother as she had a sharp business sense and some book-keeping ability. She married Joseph McFarland of Fort Macleod on 4 July 1878 and went to live on his Pioneer Ranch.

In spite of vociferous opposition from his sister after 1878 Nicholas Sheran lived common-law with a Peigan Indian woman called Mary Brown. Two children were born of the union: Charles, in February 1880; and William, in November 1882; Sheran never saw the second boy as he [Sheran] had drowned at Kipp's Crossing of the Old Man's River the previous May.

Marcella Sheran McFarland managed her brother's estate with considerable skill until her death from pneumonia in October 1896.

For additional information on Nicholas Sheran and his sister, Marcella, see Johnston (1983).

Lethbridge Its Coal IndustryThis article is extracted from Alex Johnston, Keith G. Gladwyn and L. Gregory Ellis. Lethbridge: Its Coal Industry (Lethbridge, Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, 1989), Occasional Paper No. 20, The Lethbridge Historical Society. The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium (of which the City of Lethbridge is the lead partner) would like to thank the authors for permission to reprint this material.

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