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Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Feature on Michael, Natal and Sparwood, British Columbia, June 1975.The Michel Creek Valley is home to the largest soft coal deposits in North America, and supported multiple mining settlements in the early 20th century. However, when mines in the area began shutting down in the mid-1950s, Sparwood, with its vast resources, was one of the few communities that continued to produced coal. Even considering its mining town status, there is a unique beauty surrounding Sparwood, which bills itself as "the Clean Coal Capital of the World."

Since its development in 1939, Sparwood was set apart from the nearby communities of Natal, Michel, and Middletown. When the Crow’s Nest Coal Company (CNP Coal) built Sparwood, its intent was to create a clean environment for its mine managers. The coke ovens built in Michel were notoriously dirty, billowing out smoke and soot 24 hours a day. The houses in the area looked dirty, the paint was allowed to chip and peel, and the nearby "tar creek" was filled with coal waste from the tipple. From its inception, Sparwood was to be clean and quiet, a feasible exercise as it was located five kilometres upwind from the nearest mines and coking ovens.

Sparwood Tourism Information Centre, Elk Valley, British Columbia.In the 1950s and early 1960s, the neighbouring communities of Michel, Natal, and Middletown were in serious decline when markets demanded oil and gas instead of coal. Years of neglect were apparent and few residents had the resources or will required to keep up their homes. The area was dilapidated and given the burgeoning interest in British Columbia tourism, the government opted to remove the three unattractive settlements.

The urban renewal scheme was supposed to be an easy process of transferring residents to Sparwood. Mining families welcomed the news of clean, new homes. However, when residents learned of prices, hope turned to anger. High costs of the new homes, and low assessment prices for their old ones, meant many could not afford the move. For the first time, mining families had to think about mortgages and to touch their life savings, as a result many were set on remaining in their old communities.Sparwood Tourism Information Centre display of mining equipment, Elk Valley, British Columbia.

Opinions changed when Kaiser Steel of California expressed interest in mining in the Mill Creek Valley. The company required a town capable of industrial expansion, and Michel, Middletown, and Natal were not viable options. The company had good jobs available, and only wanted the best workforce. They built new homes and lured miners to Sparwood. By the end of the 1970s, Michel, Middletown, and Natal were finally reclaimed.

Today, Sparwood is a thriving community of approximately 4,000 people. The coal industry remains a big part of the town with walking tours and preserved vehicles reminding visitors of the mining history in the area.

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