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Introduction

Early Years

World War I and 
Interwar Period

World War II
and After

 Cultural Life

Pioneers

  Heritage Trails presented by CKUA Radio Network.
Stories of mining in
Southern Alberta and
the formation of
the Galt Mine in
Lethbridge.

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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

The natural environment of Southern Alberta is largely prairie and it is this land that attracted settlers who came to farm and ranch.  A number of factors contributed to making it an attractive destination for settlers:

  • land that could be tilled;
  • ready availability of water through several river systems including the Milk and Oldman Rivers;
  • moderate climate that included Chinook winds bringing warm air over the mountains.

But there were also extensive resources of coal underfoot, which were formed in the Cretaceous period (about 70 million years ago) when that region was the western shoreline of an inland sea that covered central North America.  Subtropical plants flourished and it was this rich vegetation that was converted into coal through the passage of time and natural processes.  These included the covering of the vegetation by gravel and mud, which compacted it, and chemical processes involving heat and absence of air.  Thick seams of bituminous coal (1.2 to 1.8 metres) developed and these provided an important energy resource that resulted in the foundation of the economy of the City of Lethbridge as well as of neighbouring communities such as Coalhurst.

John Lizzi is seated in the first row. Mr. Pete Lazzarotto is first in the 2nd row and Mr. Saccardo is sixth. Photo courtesy of the Coalhurst History Society as reproduced in our Treasured Heritage: A History of CoalHurst and District, 1984.Italian immigration was directly related to the exploitation of this resource and, in southern Alberta, is similar to the pattern of immigration to the Rockies, Nordegg and the Coal Branch, as well as Edmonton and Calgary.  The railways needed fuel to run and coal mines were developed to do this, as well as to meet industrial and domestic needs.  The largest deposits are found in Alberta and BC and their exploitation paralleled the settlement of the West.  According to Howard and Tamara Palmer 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."1 As well, western Canada, by 1911, was the largest coal producing area of the country.

Alex Johnston and Andy A. den Otter in their Lethbridge: A Centennial History note that an Irish-American settler, Nicholas Sheran, opened the first commercial coal mine in the area of the Coal Banks, which is now Lethbridge.2 The coal seams were seen as outcroppings on riverbanks.  InPay Statement of the Lethbridge Colliery, 1934. Photo courtesy of the Coalhurst History Society as reproduced in our Treasured Heritage: A History of CoalHurst and District, 1984. 1881, when the Canadian Pacific Railway chose the southern plains as the transcontinental route, the ready availability of coal became an economic driver for the development of the region.  Sir Alexander Galt, a Montreal promoter and the father of Elliott T. Galt, the local Assistant Indian Commissioner in southern Alberta, hired Captain Nicholas Bryant to prospect for coal in the same year.  He confirmed the deposits noted by George M. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada. In 1882, Sir Alexander brought together investors to form the North Western Coal and Navigation Company, Limited (NWC&NCo).3 These included prominent men from Britain and the US such as William Ashmead Bartlett Burdett-Coutts, William Lethbridge and William Smith.

The CPR tracks were 175 kilometres from the Coal Banks works so coal had to be transported by barges and steamers.  This did not prove economic and a government subsidy was sought and obtained including railway and coal lands.  The prairie town of Lethbridge soon became an established community with a range of social institutions, businesses and residences.  The town of Lethbridge was incorporated in 1891.  The first mayor was Charles Magrath and he was a great booster for the region.  Johnston and den Otter note:

He fearlessly predicted that the abundant supply of energy, combined with a future railway to the minerals of the Crow's Nest Pass, would attract smelting and reduction industries to Lethbridge, while nearby sandstone, clay and water would lure other factories as well. In short, the newly-elected mayor was confident that because a progressive firm was developing the region's great coal reserves, Lethbridge would soon outstrip Winnipeg in size and become a leading industrial city.4

Lethbridge prospered at the beginning of the 20th century and miners believed their wages were not keeping pace with the economy.  In February, 1906, the miners of the Galt and Ashcroft collieries joined the United Mine Workers of America.  They drew up their demands, which were rejected, and, on March 9th, 1906, they called a strike.  While initially peaceful, when the company hired 100 strikebreakers, the miners attacked police who were protecting the strikebreakers.  Eventually, a mediator, W.L. Mackenzie King, was brought in to find a settlement and the mines reopened in December.  

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Copyright © 2002 Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D. and The Heritage Community Foundation

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