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Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Historical Overview

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Collapse and Rebirth

After the brief upturn during World War Two, the industry reached its darkest moment with the discovery of oil at Leduc in 1947. With cheap supplies of petroleum now available, the CPR announced in 1949 that it would convert its locomotives to diesel fuel. Within eight years, both transcontinental railways had made this change and the Alberta steam coal industry was almost completely shattered. While some collieries in the Crowsnest Pass and Cascade (Banff) fields survived, the mines at Nordegg and in the Coal Branch all closed. Meanwhile, electrical generation plants in Alberta were shifting from coal to natural gas, and domestic consumers were switching from coal to petroleum for home fuel. As a result of these factors, producers of domestic coal failed in large numbers. By 1960, coal production in the province of Alberta had fallen to less than one-quarter of what it had been a decade earlier.1

Simulated mine entrances to No's 2 and 1 drifts, constructed in 1967 as a centennial project by the Gyro Club of Lethbridge.This near collapse did not mean the end of coal mining in Alberta and the Rocky Mountain area. In the late 1960s, a recovery began which resulted in the emergence of what was virtually a second industry, with new companies, markets, and technologies. The comeback began with increasing demand for coal to fuel thermal electric power plants in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Beginning in the 1950s, the shift to thermal plants accelerated after the oil crisis of the 1970s seemed to put the supply of petroleum in question. Meanwhile, a new market was emerging for metallurgical coke to power the steel mills of Japan and other Pacific nations.2

Increasing demand stimulated intense mining development in the Crowsnest Pass, in the Coal Branch area, further north at Grand Cache, and on the Alberta plains at Wabamun, Forestburg southeast of Edmonton, and at Sheerness east of Drumheller. In some cases, old mines were reopened, but much of the activity was in new areas, by newly-formed companies using surface-mining techniques. While strip mining had been practised in Alberta since the Great War, after 1945 the development of large draglines and other machinery made it practical in many cases for the first time. Giant companies such as Manalta Coal and Luscar were able to remove huge quantities of coal without the high labour costs attendant on tunneling and hand­work. Because of the different characteristics of this industry, and its relatively recent history, it will not comprise a major focus of this report. Nonetheless, it was responsible for a tremendous expansion in production. By 1989, Alberta was the leading Canadian producer of coal with an output equivalent to about 27.9 million short tons, more than three times greater than the previous high point reached in 1950.3

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.

Listen: To hear a miner's perspective on the impact of oil and gas on the coal mining industry listen to John Carmata's oral history excerpt.

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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