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     Rockies, Coal Branch and Nordegg:  World War II and After 

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Early Years

World War I and
Interwar Period 

World War II
and After

 Cultural Life


  Heritage Trails presented by CKUA Radio Network.
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Highway #3, from
Crowsnest Pass to
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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

While World War I saw Martin Nordegg being ostracized as an "enemy alien," in World War II, it was the turn of the Italians. Toni Ross writes in Oh! The Coal Branch that the mines were militant about enforcing enemy alien provisions. She notes: 

A meeting of residents in this district met at Sterco on Sunday afternoon, June 2nd, 1940 when 55 British subjects were in attendance to discuss the employment of enemy aliens to fill the positions left open by men joining the C.A.S.F., and it was moved that a petition be sent to the management as follows:

1. No enemy aliens or any naturalized since 1939 be employed for the duration of the war;

2. Preference be given to British subjects as foremen;

3. Positions vacated by men enlisting in the C.A.S.F. be filled by British subjects.

The motion was carried unanimously.

Methods of combating fifth column activities were discussed and it was decided to report all anti-allied activities. ¹ 

As with other communities in Alberta with a significant population of Italian immigrants (Venice, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Drumheller), this divided the community into "them" and "us" and reinforced the position of power of immigrants from Great Britain. For many Italians who had emigrated near the turn of the century, that their loyalty should be questioned was hurtful and that their livelihood should be at stake was patently unfair. Ross goes on to note that local places of business were not as militant and, of course, Italians owned key businesses, for example D. Giovinazzo owned The Palm Café and Confectionery as well as the Luscar Meat Market.  ² 

Brazeau Collieries in Nordegg, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.While Alberta's coal mines had been plagued by accidents from the beginning, in the 1940s, it was the turn of the Brazeau Collieries and this was an enormous blow because the mines had been designed according to high standards and had been well run.  "  October 31, 1941, a gas explosion killed 29 miners. Brazeau Collieries was found criminally responsible and fined $5,000. The mines remained closed for six weeks and new practices were implemented including the province's first pneumatic pick system. But demand for their coal remained high during the war and shortly after. This was not the case for other mining operations. By the 1920s, for many mines, profits were declining. There were too many mines and too much coal being produced and, in 1925, as a result of an Alberta government Royal Commission on Coal, it was recommended that the number of mines be restricted. Operators cut wages by 35-50% and locked out workers who would not accept reductions. 

International Coal Company surface plant, Coleman, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.As we have seen, mining operations in the Crow's Nest Pass and the Coal Branch  had their struggles in the 1920s and 1930s but they continued to operate and provide employment to their communities. Management incompetence and accidents did not generally force closures. It took the development of another hydrocarbon, petroleum, to unseat coal from its dominance as the principal energy fuel. Oil and gas had emerged as important energy resources from the 1920s with the tapping of the Turner Valley fields near Calgary.  Dismantling of houses at Mountain Park, Alberta.  1950.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.It was the coming in of Leduc #1 in 1947 that signaled the death knell of the majority of mining communities in the province of Alberta. Train locomotives were converted to diesel and domestic and industrial users converted to oil and natural gas.  Toni Ross' Oh! The Coal Branch provides a moving account of the closure of one mine after the other and the impact on the miners as they moved from one community to the next within the Branch before, finally, moving on to Edson and Edmonton. She quotes an article by Marjorie Jones titled "Miners at Mountain park Mourn Over Town's Death" (July 24, 1950):

In a few more days Pete Cheisa [Chiesa] will no longer be able to look up at ever-changing Mt. Cheviot and feel at home.
Mountain Park's oldest miner is making his last rounds at his last job as a watchman in this dying town.
At the end of July his work will be finished.  So will the town.
The Mountain Park Coal Mine whistle which first blew 39 years ago, blasted its last on June 20, when the mine was shut because of lack of orders, but its echoes still ring in the mountains.
Reluctant ears of 110 miners whom it threw out of work, and their worried wives, hear it yet.
As they pack to leave they hear it.  As they say quick goodbyes to neighbours who in 30 years are more like family than friends they hear it. . . . . 
Mr. Chiesa watched those houses going up and lived in one of them. Seeing most of them torn down one by one makes even his leathery old face a bit wistful.
"These are sad days for me," he says.
But he's better off than many of the men.  He'll have his mine pension to fall back on.  It's men between 50 and 60 who are the hardest hit and those with large families.  Younger men can adapt themselves to new jobs and surroundings but everyone is in the same predicament for housing.  They must find a place to live.
The company has sent eviction notices to everyone.  Those in company houses have been asked to get out by July 21 and those owning their own little homes on company property must also move.  They must sell or tear them down.
Either way they stand to lose.  They can't move them over narrow mountain roads.  if they sell, they may get $140 for them, some are going for less. If they dismantle them they must rebuild someplace else. (pp. 160-61).

Early development of Leitch Collieries, Passburg, Alberta.  Leitch Collieries have been designated as a Classified Historic Site.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.This served as an impetus for many Italian families to leave the Crow's Nest Pass and Coal Branch and move to urban areas including the cities of Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. There are now many "ghost" towns and remnants of mine works like industrial sculpture in the mountain landscapes. While there appears to be increased interest internationally in Alberta coal, most former mining communities have now turned to tourism as a means of economic redevelopment. A number of the mine workings are now historic sites and many community structures, for example, in Blairmore and Coleman are designated historic resources.  Community museums in Coleman, Canmore, Nordegg and other communities preserve the artifacts and records of these lives.

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