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     Rockies, Coal Branch and Nordegg:  Overview

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The CPR built a railway
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The Rocky Mountains developed in a period of mountain building in the Tertiary Age (66 million years ago) as sedimentary rock was thrust up. The area is rich in coal deposits and, in the interior of British Columbia, with metal deposits. It, thus, as early as the 1860s (1864 Gold Rush with deposits in Mount Fisher), became an area of intense economic activity, first with the establishment of British Columbia and, then, with the establishment of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the prairie provinces. 

Canadian Pacific Railway train and steamboat at Kootenay Landing, British Columbia - two common means of transport used during the coal-mining boom.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Besides the east/west linkages (Alberta/BC), there were also important north/south trails connecting with the US (for example, Montana) that allowed miners access from the south. For example, the Wild Horse gold workings were developed by the American Robert C. Dore and his first claim, exhausted in three years, produced $521,700. Preceding the coming of the railways, steamboats carried miners in the mining boom of 1893-98 connecting Jennings, Montana, and Fort Steele. By 1900, their usefulness had ended as rail became the dominant means of transport. 

According to historians Howard and Tamara Palmer, this north/south linkage so concerned the CPR that they decided to push for a railroad from Lethbridge to the Crow's Nest Pass and obtained a subsidy from Sir Wilfred Laurier's government in 1897 to do so 1. The railroad was completed in 1898 and signaled major economic development and settlement in the region 2 . Calgary, as the closest southern Alberta urban centre benefited from these developments. With the building of the more northern rail route in the early part of the 20th century, Edmonton developed as the hub and became the destination for immigrants. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway saw its line as the means of opening up the agricultural land around Grande Prairie as well as a linkage to Jasper Park as a draw for tourism.

Early 20th century miners at Bellevue, in the Crowsnest Pass area of Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Mining was thus instrumental in the development of communities in both the BC and Alberta portions of the Rockies. The railways needed fuel to run and coal mines were developed to do this, as well as to meet industrial needs (for example, the smelters in Trail, BC) and domestic needs. The largest deposits are found in Alberta and BC and their exploitation paralleled the settlement of the West. From the beginnings, these developments were characterized by cycles of boom and bust, particularly with the gold mines. Entrepreneurs and miners were mobile, moving from California to Dawson City following gold strikes. Diggings were begun and abandoned and remnants of mine works and cemeteries can be seen by the visitor to the area 3. According to the Palmers in Alberta: A New History, "Coal production increased more than tenfold from 242,000 tons in 1897 to almost three million tons in 1910, and then to over four million tons in 1913. By 1911 coal mining employed 6 per cent of the non-agricultural workforce in Alberta." 4 As well, western Canada, by 1911, was the largest coal producing area of the country. 

Key mining communities in the Rockies include: 

  • Cranbrook (formerly Joseph's Prairie)-Crow's Nest Pass Railway arrived in 1895 5 

  • Kimberley-known for the tin producing Sullivan Mine

  • Golden-initially called Golden City during the building of the CPR in 1883

  • Fort Steele (formerly Gailbraith Ferry)-marginalized after the CPR bypassed it for Cranbrook

  • Fernie Fire of 1908. Photo courtesy of Glenbow Museum.Fernie-50 miles from Bellevue, was the first settlement as a result of the arrival of the railway in the 1890s, and the site of many mine disasters including the Coal Creek explosion on May 22nd, 1902 which killed 128 of 800 men on shift and, again, on July 31st, 1908 when another explosion happened trapping 23 miners; at the same time, a major fire at the Cedar Valley Lumber Company burned out of control and destroyed the town of 6,000; only surviving buildings were the Crow's Nest Pass Coal company offices, the Western Canada Warehouse and the Great Northern's depot and water tank

  • Elko-leading to Tobacco Plains to the south and east to the Crow's Nest Pass-was the base of the search for the Lost Lemon Mine and for gold prospecting in Alberta and BC

  • Michel and Natal-significant mine communities also affected by disasters: 1902, site of a fire in the mine that destroyed half of Michel; January 9th, 1904, another gas explosion in which seven men were killed; August 1st, 1908, the Fernie fire also threatened Michel but did no serious damage; finally, on July 5th, 1938, a thunderstorm appears to have caused an explosion in mine No. 3 with three fatalities

  • Crowsnest-mining began in 1899, after the coming of the railroad, the Crow's Nest Branch of the CPR; also known for its bootlegging after the July, 1915 provincial election that saw the introduction of prohibition. Summit Hotel straddles the Alberta-British Columbia border in the town of Crowsnest.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Not only locals were served but also the American market making bootlegging "big business." Emilo Picariello ("Emperor Pic") was one of the Italian immigrants who profited from the trade and was known in the 1920s as the "Al Capone of the Pass" though he was also known for his generosity to the poor.  The town of Crowsnest, no longer in existence,  was situated on the Alberta - British Columbia border.

  • Coke ovens at Coleman.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Coleman-founded in 1903 and designed as an ideal community, its mining tragedies included April 3, 1907 (three deaths), November 23, 1926 (10 deaths)

  • Greenhill Mine at Blairmore, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Blairmore-begun as the community of Tenth Siding, renamed Springs and, then, re-named Blairmore in 1898; the Greenhill Coal Mines have been disaster free and the community prospered

  • Photo of the coal-mining town of Frank, Alberta, taken on April 30, 1903, a day after the infamous rock slide.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Frank-renowned for the Frank Slide, which happened at 4:10 am on April  29th, 1903; 90 million tons of rock broke away from the side of Turtle Mountain and crashed to the valley floor; destroyed the local coal company plant and houses; 76 people were killed and their bodies were never found.

  • Hillcrest-halfway between Frank and Bellevue was the village of Hillcrest and its mine, which became infamousHillcrest Mine.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. on Friday, June 19th, 1914 when 228 miners started the morning shift at 7 am; the mine had been opened in January, 1905 by a Montreal syndicate headed by Charles Plummer Hill; at 9:30 am a series of blasts occurred in No. 1 tunnel, 500 feet below the surface; besides the strength of the explosion and damage done to tunnels, poison gas (black damp) spread to adjoining tunnels and rooms; 188(189) men were killed

  • Bellevue-east of the Frank Slide, was founded about 1900; on December 9th, 1910 a mine disaster killed 30 men; miners were unhappy in the way the insurance company, Trust and Guarantee Company, settled their claims

  • Leich Collieries-an established and initially prosperous coal mining operation 

  • Canmore-was the Canadian Pacific Railways' first divisional point 68 miles west of Calgary and the depot was completed in 1884. The first train went through Canmore on its way to Craigelachie at Eagle's Pass for the historic driving of the last spike on November 7th, 1885. In 1889, its population, at 450, exceeded that of Banff (270) and Anthracite (167).  The No. 1 Mine started in 1887.

  • Anthracite-coal was discovered in 1886 and a town developed in 1887; the mine was located 10 miles west of Canmore; when sales declined, the mine closed; it was resued by an American,  by H.W. McNeil; in 1892, he also controlled the No. 1 Mine and the Cochrane Mines in Canmore. The Anthracite Mine closed in 1904.  

  • Mine entrance in Bankhead, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Bankhead-the town of Bankhead was built in 1904 within Rocky Mountain Park (later, Banff National Park) and the town consisted of a coal mine and 900 residents.  The town derived its name from the tipple, also called a bankhead.  Bankhead mine closed in 1919.

A street in Bankhead, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.The mines at Canmore and Bankhead developed on the CPR line.  According to Ben Gadd, writing in Bankhead:  The Twenty Year Town (Ottawa:  Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1989), the town was planned carefully and was designed by the CPR as a model town.  Cascade Hotel, Bankhead, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Houses had indoor plumbing and in 1905 electricity.  Neither Banff nor Canmore had these luxuries.  By 1908, there were 114 buildings of which about 100 were houses.  According to Gadd, the Italians came primarily from northern Italy, Turin and Milan. These included the D'Amico family, Morello family and Mike Perotti.  But the model town did not guarantee that things went well in the mine.  Narcissus Morello died in April, 1920, in one of the various mining accidents that killed 15 men over the years.  He is entombed in a coal chute deep inside Cascade Mountain as a result of the collapse of the coal face they were working on.  The Dominion Parks Commissioner ordered the CPR to remove the entire town from the Park in 1922.  Moving station from Bankhead to Banff, Alberta, 1928.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.Opinion is mixed as to whether mining was no longer considered appropriate within the Park or whether this was the result of strikes in 1919 and 1922.   According to a Calgary Herald article in 1926, a local contractor moved 38 houses, six miles in 40 days.  Mine manager's house and office, Bankhead, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. The beneficiary was the townsite of Banff, which was becoming a tourism attraction.  The miners moved on to other mining communities including Coleman, Bellevue, Hillcrest and Blairmore in the Crow's Nest Pass, Nordegg and the Coal Branch, as well as Drumheller and Lethbridge.  

The mines in the southern part of the Rockies developed as a result of the coming of the railways to the southern part of Alberta/British Columbia. Two major railways were being constructed along the northern route toward Jasper, and both intended to be transcontinental.  These were the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) and the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) of Mackenzie and Mann.  Both had intended to use Yellowhead Pass, although the GTPR attempted to change their originally filed plans with the federal Department of Railways and Canals, to prevent the CNR from using the Pass. 

As the railways expanded, new mines had to be developed. D. B. Dowling of the Geological Survey of Canada,  in 1906, reported on a number of coal deposits in the Rockies. Dowling's work also included assessment of the commercial value of mineral seams, and he produced extremely detailed maps of the areas he covered.  In 1909, John Gregg discovered coal in the Athabasca Valley near Brulé and Hinton.  MMiners of Blue Diamond coal Company, Brule Mines, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.artin Cohn (later known as Martin Nordegg) was a brilliant entrepreneur.   Born in Berlin, he trained as a scientist (photo chemistry), but was dissatisfied with the economic potential of Germany and traveled abroad. According to Anne Belliveau, Nordegg historian, Martin Cohn was sent to Canada by the Deutsches Kanada Syndikat, a group consisting largely of bankers and influential businessmen.  In 1906, he came to Ottawa where he connected with Colonel Onésiphore Talbot, Liberal Member of Parliament for Ottawa, whom he had previously met in Germany and taken on a tour of the Technical Institute in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburgh. Talbot connected his friend with A. P. Low, the Director of the Geological Survey of Canada. While Nordegg was initially interested in investments in eastern smelters, a visit to Sudbury with Alfred E. Barlow of the Geological Survey, proved that there were few remaining opportunities. Barlow offered to work with him and, together, they looked for opportunities in the newest growth area-western Canada. 

Nordegg discovered the survey reports of George Dawson (Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1895-1905), which mentioned coal strata in the Yellowhead Pass. After hearing parliamentary debates about the new transcontinental railways to cross the Rockies at the Yellowhead Pass, he sensed the opportunity. Barlow introduced him to Dowling, who had surveyed the area. Dowling showed Nordegg that it would be too expensive for the new railways to get their coal from Vancouver Island or Canmore and that new deposits would have to be exploited.

Having fixed on this area for investment, Nordegg met Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior and Member of Parliament from Edmonton, and his course was confirmed 7. Mine entrance, Bankhead, Alberta, 1912.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.He was a shrewd political lobbyist and knew how to interpret political trends for profit. Nordegg, through an introduction by Senator Lougheed, connected up with R. B. Bennett to help him to defeat an Edmonton group of investors to develop the Rocky Mountain Collieries in the Kananaskis field.  On May 1st, 1907, Nordegg set out by train for the West. Nordegg fell in love with Winnipeg and was impressed that in 40 years a village of 240 had become a thriving city of 100,000. He traveled with Dowling to Calgary and, then, Morley.  They went on to Brazeau River country to find the coal fields he knew were there.  On the way, they visited the coal fields in Canmore and Bankhead so that Nordegg could learn about local mining conditions in western Canada. 

Dowling and Nordegg returned to Ottawa to stake claims and find development capital.  Working with the lawyer Andrew Haydon, Nordegg registered a company under a Dominion charter  under the name German Development Company Ltd 6. This company, which included a number of Ottawa businessmen as well as the original German investors, absorbed The Deutsches Kanada Syndikat, and had capital of $1 million.  This information is based on research done by Anne Belliveau on company materials given to her by her Father, who was the Technical Operations Manager of Brazeau Collieries.  Nordegg headquartered his company at 19 Elgin Street in Ottawa as well as having a Toronto office.

In 1908, Dowling suggested Nordegg hire James McEvoy, who previously had worked with the Geological Survey, and who knew the territory.  In 1908, one more field was staked, and work was done to ready their existing fields.  Nordegg then went looking for a railway to buy the coal that had been staked.  The CNR was interested.Brazeau Colliery in Nordegg, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.  When the German Development Company joined forces with the CNR in 1909 to create Brazeau Collieries Limited, they amalgamated all eight of the (combined) coal claims, which stretched from Grand Cache area to Kananaskis.  The Nordegg Field was not discovered until 1911 and was not a part of this original set of claims and, by that time, Brazeau had already begun mining at the South Brazeau/Blackstone field and a railway was being cut.  With the addition of the Nordegg field, Brazeau Collieries had almost 60 square miles of coal holding and the Nordegg field was 30 miles closer to the main Calgary/Edmonton rail line.  Development of all Brazeau Collieries' coal fields was to begin with the Nordegg field and this would eliminate the toughest and most expensive miles on which to build a railway.

Nordegg's close connection with the town of Nordegg ended with the breakout of World War I.  As an enemy alien, he was forced to sell his interests in the mining enterprises that he had established. Perhaps it was his great love of the West that, in April, 1909, prompted him to change his name to Nordegg for reasons unknown. A commentator has said that "Nord" and "egg" means in some German dialects, "north corner." He established a model town of that name and the Brazeau Collieries to exploit the area's coal and bring it to market. 

But it was not just Nordegg who was interested in the coal in the area of Jasper. Entrepreneurs from the US, Britain, France/Belgium and Eastern Canada were also interested in exploiting this important resource. Toni Ross writes in Oh, The Coal Branch:

A delegation of 80 businessmen from Edmonton headed by Hon. G. H. Bulyea, Lieutenant Governor visit the marl deposits. They lunch at the Capital Hotel in Bickerdike and have dinner at the Boston Hotel in Edson. Edson greets them with an arch across Main Street with a banner which reads "The gateway to Grande Prairie and Peace River Districts. 8

Mountain Park, Alberta, in the early 1920s.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.An important Coal Branch development was at Mountain Park, which was on the eastern border of Jasper National Park. This was the first community on the western line of the Coal Branch and was established in 1911. Prior to this, in 1904, the railway had acquired Prairie Creek, later to be renamed Hinton. The community had been established by the American prospector John Gregg (also known as John James Greig), who had married Mary Cardinal, the daughter of Stoney Chief Michael Cardinal. She guided him to coal deposits, known by First Nations, in the Nikanassin Range. With railway surveyor Robert Wesley Jones, Gregg registered his stake in 1909.Mr. John Greig discovered Luscar and Mountain Park.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. A backer of the development was Christopher John Leyland, a British industrialist. The Mountain Park Coal Company Limited was incorporated in 1911 and Gregg sold his shares to Leyland and his partners, who set up the company. The Company initially tried to build their own rail link to Coalspur but this proved challenging and expensive and, in 1912, they undertook an agreement with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to do it. Eventually, another British industrialist, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Mitchell, beca me involved in the mine. The Coal Branch communities and mining camps that developed included:

  • Mountain Park
  • Cadomin
  • Luscar
  • Bickerdike
  • McLeod River
  • Erith
  • Weald
  • Embarras
  • Robb
  • Coalspur
  • Diss
  • Sterco
  • Foothills
  • Lovett
  • Coal Valley
  • Shaw
  • Mercoal
  • Leyland

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