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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historical Overview

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1914-1947: The Struggling Industry

The end of the pre-war economic boom in 1913 marked a turning point in the fortunes of coal mining. Without the stimulus of continued immigration, settlement, and expansion, the industry began to falter. The impact was felt first in the Crowsnest Pass where a number of mines shut down before 1914. It was postponed by the increased demand of the later years of the war when coal was needed to power troop and supply trains, and to fuel smelters producing metal for armaments. By the early 1920s, however, production had plummeted in both plains and mountain sectors. By 1925, over 1000 mines had opened in Alberta, but more than 400 had closed permanently.1

The problem was related to the nature of the regional economy and to technological change. The economy, based on agriculture, could support only limited growth in demand. While the population of the prairies increased slowly during the three decades after World War One, it was never great enough to stimulate large-scale industrialization, the key to greatly increased demand for coal. Faced with difficult economic times, the biggest single customer, railways, undertook a policy of retrenchment in the post-war period. The process began with the amalgamation of the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific into the Canadian National Railways (CNR) in 1919. It continued in the 1920s with the refusal of the CPR and the CNR to sustain the same level of coal purchases. Meanwhile, hydro-electric power and petroleum were beginning to make major inroads into the market for fuel. Industry in the Kootenay region began switching from coal to hydro-electric power after 1918. In Alberta, the development of the petroleum industry in Turner Valley and elsewhere resulted in some thermal electric plants shifting from coal to natural gas.2

As traditional markets reached their limits, coal producers looked outward. The greatest untapped Canadian market was Ontario, the nation's industrial heartland. Here Pennsylvania coal was still king. Canadian coal producers from Alberta and Nova Scotia alike sought a political solution to overcome the disadvantage of long distances and traditional customer preferences. Pressure grew in the 1920s for a policy that would make Canada self-sufficient in coal. The campaign in Western Canada, and particularly in Alberta, became part of a larger demand for fairness from Ottawa, thought to be habitually favouring Ontario at the expense of the West. Eastern manufacturers, it was argued, benefited from high protective tariffs which increased the cost of imports in Western Canada. Natural justice entailed that Western coal, receiving only modest tariff protection in the 1920s, be granted further advantages in eastern markets, even if the result was higher coal prices for Ontario consumers.3

The agitation in Alberta focused mainly on freight-rate reform to reduce the cost of transportation to eastern Canada. Starting in the late 1920s, the federal government adopted a policy of freight-rate subventions, or subsidies, on coal. Small increases were also made in the tariff on American coal after 1930. These measures were never sufficient to overcome the greater costs of transportation from the West. Although transport subsidies were still in place in 1960, the federal government was never willing to act decisively on the issue because of the political influence of central Canadian voters interested in cheap fuel.4

In spite of these difficulties, the period between 1914 and 1947 was actually one of limited expansion in output, broken by numerous fluctuations. After the low point in the early 1920s, production rose to a new high in 1928. The industry was hit hard by the economic depression starting in 1929. For plains producers, the situation was worsened during the next ten years by competition and price-cutting struggles between the numerous companies in the field. In the steam coal industry, production reached a low point in 1931, followed by slow recovery during the rest of the decade. During World War Two, production recovered to meet increased demand and the federal government was hard-pressed to meet its coal requirements, prohibiting strikes and restricting the right of miners to work in other jobs.5 With the end of the war, however, the industry faced an uncertain future in changing times.

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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