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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Dry goods and grocery store, Lethbridge, Alberta. [ca. 1886]Alex Johnston and Andy A. den Otter in their Lethbridge: A Centennial History note that an Irish-American settler Nicholas Sheran opened the first commercial coal mine in the area of the Coal Banks, which is now Lethbridge.1 The coal seams were seen as outcroppings on riverbanks. In 1881, when the Canadian Pacific Railway chose the southern plains as the transcontinental route, the availability of coal became an economic driver for the development of the region. Sir Alexander Galt, a Montreal promoter and the father of Elliott T. Galt, the local Assistant Indian Commissioner in southern Alberta, hired Captain Nicholas Bryant to prospect for coal in the same year. He confirmed the deposits noted by George M. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. In 1882, Sir Alexander brought together investors to form the North Western Coal and Navigation Company, Limited (NWC&NCo).2 These included prominent men from Britain and the US, such as William Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts, William Lethbridge and William Smith.

Camillo Bridarolli: Oral History Excerpts

Mr. Bridarolli gives an idea of the Italian make-up of Lethbridge, and the occupations that employed the majority of them.

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The CPR tracks were 175 kilometres from the Coal Banks works, so coal had to be transported by barges and steamers. This did not prove economic, and a government subsidy was sought and obtained, including railway and coal lands. The prairie town of Lethbridge soon became an established community with a range of social institutions, businesses and residences, and incorporated in 1891. The first mayor was Charles Magrath and he was a great booster for the region. Johnston and den Otter note:

He fearlessly predicted that the abundant supply of energy, combined with a future railway to the minerals of the Crow’s Nest Pass, would attract smelting and reduction industries to Lethbridge, while nearby sandstone, clay and water would lure other factories as well. In short, the newly-elected mayor was confident that because a progressive firm was developing the region’s great coal reserves, Lethbridge would soon outstrip Winnipeg in size and become a leading industrial city.3

Farm house, Lethbridge area, Alberta. Lethbridge prospered at the beginning of the 20th century and miners believed their wages were not keeping pace with the economy. In February, 1906, the miners of the Galt and Ashcroft collieries joined the United Mine Workers of America. They drew up their demands, which were rejected, and, on March 9th, 1906, they called a strike. While initially peaceful, when the company hired 100 strikebreakers, the miners attacked police who were protecting the strikebreakers. Eventually, a mediator, W.L. Mackenzie King, was brought in to find a settlement and the mines reopened in December.

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