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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historical Overview

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Rapid Expansion: The Crowsnest Pass1, 1898-1913

Blacksmith shop exhibit, Crowsnest Museum.The turning point in the industry occurred after 1897. By this time, the great economic boom, which characterized the Laurier years, had begun. The economy of the Alberta and Rocky Mountain region was being transformed by massive immigration and settlement. Railways were starting to proliferate across the countryside, opening markets to established mines, and encouraging the establishment of new producing fields. A series of new coalfields would eventually be exploited, both in the mountains and plains areas. The pivotal developments, however, took place in the Crowsnest Pass, a narrow opening in the mountains 40 kilometres north of the American border, extending about 120 kilometres from west to east, from Elko in British Columbia to Burmis in what later became Alberta, then part of the Northwest Territories.

Development in the Pass was made possible by the presence of immense coal stocks located in proximity to rapidly-expanding hard-rock mines in southeastern British Columbia. As industrial development emerged at Trail, Nelson, and elsewhere in the Kootenay region, the Crowsnest coal reserves became valuable for the first time, in order to fuel the smelters and power the steam locomotives providing transportation in the region. The key would be the construction of a railway linking the Pass with the metal mines to the west and with the emerging settlement areas of the Northwest Territories.2

Blacksmith shop exhibit, Crowsnest Museum.The railway became feasible with the conclusion of the Crowsnest Pass Agreement of 1897. This pact was the culmination of several understandings which together defined, not only the terms under which a railway would be built, but also the arrangement of mineral rights on the British Columbia side of the Pass, and the terms under which the CPR could establish freight rates for Western farmers. Four parties were involved. A group of capitalists—based in British Columbia, but also including Liberal Senator George A. Cox and others from Ontario—were interested in economic development of the Pass. The British Columbia government had granted this group substantial mineral rights and the charter to build a railway. The CPR was anxious to acquire the carrier traffic of the area and to forestall competition from American railways. Wilfrid Laurier's Liberal government was willing to support the huge corporation's plans to block American expansion, but only if the CPR agreed to negotiate a better deal for Western farmers facing high CPR freight rates. The CPR accepted these terms in return for the railway rights and a cash subsidy to build the line. The Cox group were left with substantial mineral rights, giving this group a near monopoly over mining on the British Columbia side of the Pass.3

Coleman: Coke Ovens - Pat McCloskeyThese arrangements resulted in much different coal-mining operations on the two sides of the Pass. In British Columbia, Cox's Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company held the rights to over 250,000 acres, and dominated the industry, becoming by far the largest coal producer in the whole region of Alberta and southeastern British Columbia prior to the First World War. On the eastern side of the Pass, the area was still part of the Northwest Territories and subject to federal mineral regulations. Federal policies facilitated development, but not the accumulation of large tracts of land by any one developer. The result was the involvement of a series of companies, all small in comparison to the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company, but huge in relation to previous mining operations in the Alberta region. Investment here came from eastern Canada, the United States, and in several cases from Europe. Mines were established at Frank, Lille, Blairmore, Coleman, Bellevue, Hillcrest, Passburg (Leitch Collieries), Burmis, and Lundbreck, as well as at Beaver Mines to the south.4

Expansion was rapid during the early years of the 20th century. By 1913, the Pass was producing 3.2 million short tons of coal per annum, accounting for about 70 percent of the total in Alberta and southeastern British Columbia as a whole. On the Alberta side, the main customer was the railways, especially the CPR. While coal was sold to the CPR and other railways in British Columbia, coke ovens were also erected at Coal Creek, Michel, Hosmer, and Morrissey to produce fuel for the smelters of British Columbia and the adjoining parts of the United States.5

In spite of the growth of the Crowsnest coal industry, it remained in an unstable financial state because of high costs, market limitations, and the overweening influence of the railways. The expense of mining in the mountains was tremendous. Steeply-inclined seams—often twisted, faulted, and prone to gas accumulations—made mechanization at the coal face almost impossible, resulting in dependence on large numbers of skilled miners. In addition to labour costs, the nature of the product itself entailed great expenses. Pass coal was often friable, crumbly and difficult to transport, which made complex handling and screening procedures necessary on the surface. If the coal was intended for the smelting market, large investments in coke ovens became necessary. All the surface facilities had to be constructed in difficult mountain conditions, where they were subject to snow slides in winter, and forest fires in the summer.6

Coleman - Bob OwenSaddled with high costs, producers faced a market that was limited, and controlled in large measure by the railways. The market for smelting coke was never as great as anticipated. Especially on the Alberta side of the Pass, where ovens were erected at Coleman, Lille, and at Leitch Collieries, smelters took a very small fraction of the total output. Coal operators were prevented from accessing markets outside the Crowsnest Pass by long transportation routes and high freight rates. While charging premium rates for carrying coal, the CPR was able to insist on low prices as a consumer, because the collieries had so few alternatives. Caught in this web, the coal companies tended to operate near the edges of financial stability, even during the boom years prior to 1913, and had great difficulties in the 1920s and 1930s.7

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines,  The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918.

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