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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historical Overview
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Domestic and Steam Coalfields

Monarch Mine in the Drumheller ValleyAs the Alberta economy expanded, development took place in a series of coalfields associated with both the mountains and plains sectors of the industry. These sectors became more fully distinct—the bituminous coal of the former serving mainly the steam coal market, while the lesser quality product of the plains answered primarily the needs of domestic customers. In almost every case, the fields emerging were established prior to World War One, but had their major impact afterwards. The most important of them were the Coal Branch and the Drumheller Valley, both played important roles in the industry until the 1950s.

The impetus to investment in the mountains was the government-sponsored decision to build two new transcontinental railways—the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern. Begun before World War One, both lines used the northern route through the Yellowhead Pass, a fact that shifted mining activity north into the bituminous fields along the Rocky Mountain slope west of Edmonton. Development occurred in the Jasper area near the Pass, in the Coal Branch a short distance to the southeast, and further south at Nordegg. The activity around Jasper was relatively short-lived. Mining began at Pocahontas, inside Jasper National Park, in 1911, but was halted because of poor coal, transportation problems, and other reasons, in 1921. The largest producer in the Jasper area was the Blue Diamond mine at Brule, just east of the park boundary. This operation continued until 1928, but never produced great amounts of coal, compared to the larger enterprises emerging to the south.1

Bridge in the Alberta Coal BranchThe Coal Branch was by far the most important producing field serving the northern transcontinentals. The field was located in an area south of the main rail lines in, and immediately east, of the Nikanassan Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. A series of companies invested here, beginning in 1909. The key to development was the construction of a branch line from the Grand Trunk Pacific in 1911, which gave the area its name. The line ran from Edson south to Coalspur, where coal production began in 1912, and from there further south along an eastern arm to Lovett, and along a western section terminating in Mountain Park, where mining also began in 1912.2 By the early 1920s, mining was underway at Cadomin, Sterco, Robb, Mercoal, Luscar, and Coal Valley.

The Coal Branch became a significant producer of coal, second to the Crowsnest Pass among mountain fields. Peak production was reached in 1929 when approximately 1.5 million tons were mined, about 22 percent of the total in the province of Alberta. The field actually served a mixed market. The mines on the western arm—at Cadomin, Luscar, and Mountain Park—produced good quality steam coal for the railways. These operations accounted for more coal than all the other Coal Branch mines combined. The mines on the eastern arm produced lower quality coal, selling much of their product to home fuel consumers and, starting in the 1920s, to thermal power plants in Saskatchewan.3

The last centre to be developed to supply the new transcontinentals was Nordegg, located about 70 kilometres south of the Coal Branch. The figure of Martin Nordegg was central here. A German investor searching for opportunities, he became interested in the local coal reserves and, eventually, forged an alliance with the Canadian Northern Railway, which was in need of a reliable source of fuel in the foothills region. The two parties formed Brazeau Collieries in 1909 and agreed to share the costs of establishing a colliery and laying tracks to link the coal source to the main line of the Canadian Northern. The first coal went to market in 1914 when the rail link was finally completed. Nordegg became a significant producer, its output reaching almost one-half million tons in the peak year of 1923. The colliery continued to serve mainly the railway market until its closure in 1955.4

Lethbridge City Mine (Mine No. 192)After 1900, the plains coal industry also started to expand. This sector was largely pioneered in Lethbridge. While coal production there had originally served the steam market, relatively poor quality coal left Lethbridge vulnerable to competition and it was quickly pushed out of the railway trade after 1898, when higher quality Crowsnest Pass coal became available. Galt and other Lethbridge-area producers became mainly dependent on the demand for home heating fuel. By the eve of World War One, demand was increasing from the burgeoning towns and cities of Alberta, and other domestic coalfields began to develop. The plains branch of the industry was of substantial importance thereafter, never matching the steam coal sector in production, but consistently employing more workers after 1920.5

Sir Alexander GaltA structure of capital organization emerged in the plains coalfields which was quite distinct from that in the mountain coal centres—and also unlike that of the large Galt operations at Lethbridge. The typical plains mine had lower production costs than mountain operations, resulting from the fact that prairie seams tended to be comparatively flat and located near the surface. The situation encouraged the greater use of mechanized methods underground, reducing labour expenses. Taking advantage of these conditions, the typical plains company was much smaller than its mountain counterpart, and was controlled by Alberta-based entrepreneurs rather than outside investors from the United States, Europe, or eastern Canada. The number of operations was much larger than in the mountains and foothills regions. While small operations dotted the prairies, the largest concentrations of investment, besides that at Lethbridge, were in the Edmonton and Drumheller Valley areas.6

Edmonton was one of the earliest areas where coal was utilized. Commercial coal mining emerged there by the late 1870s. By the early 1900s, production was centred on the area's east side, where chemical and petroleum refining was later located. Mines were also opened north of the city, and further east and west. Most of the coal was low-grade bituminous and lignite, used mainly for domestic purposes, and in milling and other local industries. Production peaked in the early 1920s, at a rate of slightly more than half a million tons per year, much below the expanding output of the Drumheller Valley. Competition was felt from coal mined in the Coal Branch, and from the introduction of natural gas from Wainwright after 1923.7

Edmonton's mines began to decline rapidly after the city restricted their activities in order to minimize damage to the urban environment. By 1923, mining under city streets had led to pavement breaks, ruptured water mains, and injury to private property. The city fought back with law suits, and in 1931, when the province took over control of natural resources from the federal government, Alberta passed legislation prohibiting mining in towns or cities, in areas underlying or adjacent to any street or public place. These provisions eventually contributed to the complete demise of the industry after World War Two.8

Development in the Drumheller Valley was relatively late. The coal seams here were highly visible in the steep cliffs overlooking the Red Deer River. After 1900, homesteaders began to flock into the valley, but coal mining did not begin until after the arrival of the railway. The coming of the Canadian Northern set off an explosion of activity, beginning with the first commercial mine in 1911 at Newcastle, in the west end of present-day Drumheller. The Drumheller field eventually became the leading producer of domestic coal. By 1925, it was yielding 1.1 million tons of coal per year, a rate of production that it maintained until the 1950s. Taking advantage of cheap costs and employing aggressive marketing techniques, the coal industry here supplied much of eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan and spawned a series of local communities directly dependent on it for their survival, including Midland, Newcastle, Nacmine, Rosedale, Wayne, Lehigh, and East Coulee. These strongly-worker oriented communities contrasted with the town of Drumheller, an administrative and commercial centre where most of the valley's mining entrepreneurs lived.9

By the First World War, the market for coal coming from Alberta and southeastern British Columbia had assumed most of the characteristics it would retain until the 1950s. Coal from the region served customers in the geographical area of the Canadian prairies and eastern British Columbia. Steam coal was sold to the railways from Winnipeg in the east to Kamloops in the west. Domestic coal supplied the emerging thermal power plants in Alberta and the home heating needs of that province, much of Saskatchewan, and the western part of Manitoba. In the latter two provinces, this coal was in competition with Saskatchewan lignite, which was cheaper but also of lower quality.10

Further geographical expansion of the market was blocked. On the west coast, Vancouver Island coal held sway. The production of Alberta and southeastern British Columbia could not displace American coal in the American Pacific Northwest, with the exception of certain border areas adjacent to the Crowsnest Pass. Alberta coal was not sold in central Canada, the largest Canadian market, where consumers preferred anthracite from Pennsylvania because of its higher quality and lower transportation costs.11

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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