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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Anthracite, Alberta. [ca. 1887-1889] When the Geological Survey of Canada teams discovered coal in the Banff area in 1883, companies jumped at the opportunity to extract it. Demand for coal was substantial, towns along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line needed heat, and locomotives pulling freight and passenger trains required fuel to travel the difficult route through the Kicking Horse Pass. Despite the discovery of coal in the area years earlier, it was not until 1886 that the British-owned Canadian Anthracite Coal Company began mining operations in Anthracite.

Miners were recruited predominantly from the eastern United States and Anthracite boomed to 300 residents by 1887. A significant number of the men worked in the mines. The town seemed to grow almost overnight, the growing population was wild and unruly. All kinds of illicit activities became commonplace. A liquor ban prohibited legal purchase of alcohol, but this hardly stopped bootleggers from doing business. Soon after the mine opened, prostitutes began to ply their trade in Anthracite, the most popular brothel offering both illegal sex and alcohol.

Buildings at Anthracite, Alberta. [ca. 1886-1894]Much to the chagrin of local Justice of the Peace George A. Stewart, miners declared Blanche Maloney’s brothel the most popular place in town. Stewart endeavoured to protect the women and children in the community. His solution was to bring Maloney in front of the court and fine her the extraordinary amount of $200 for her liquor sale violations. The Canadian Anthracite Coal Company was also interested in curbing the liquor problem, and responded by requesting 20 Royal North West Mounted Police (RNWMP) to be stationed in the area.

When the RNWMP arrived, Anthracite was already in decline. When the mine opened in 1887, a range of unexpected problems beset the operation. Already deeply committed financially, the company was forced to allocate additional funds to finance the project. AT that point, the coal market experience a downturn and costs rose due to coal seams too steep and narrow to mine effectively. When the coal finally was extracted, approximately half of it was discarded as inferior. After years of financing a losing project, the Canadian Anthracite Coal Company closed the mine in 1890.

Coal mine, pit mouth and elevator, Anthracite, Alberta. [ca. 1887-1889]American financer W. H. McNeill saved the town in 1891, when he arranged to lease the troubled Canadian Anthracite Coal Company. By the end of the year, operations resumed and miners moved back to the area. Despite McNeill's efforts, the problems that had forced a shut down in 1890 remained.

Adding to McNeill's difficulties was the 1894 Cascade River flood. The flood destroyed bridges and several buildings, but was a mere prelude to what followed three years later. On 16 June 1897, the Cascade River flooded again, this time causing damage to an even larger area than before. The initial wave of water rose to two metres high, entering the mine and killing the entire horse and mule population left underground. As if that were not enough, the flood destroyed homes near the river, and many families moved from the area. By 1904, fewer than 100 people remained and, when McNeill moved his operation to Canmore, Anthracite became a ghost town.

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