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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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From L-R: No's 2 and 1 drift mine entrances in 1888. These drift mines were the first to be opened by the North Western Coal & Navigation Company, Limited of Sir Alexander Tiloch Galt. Selection of the site was made by William Stafford, Senior, Mines Superintendent with the Galt company. The decision dictated the location of the Town and the later City of Lethbridge. It was on 13 October 1882 that Stafford and a crew of 15 Nova Scotia miners began to drive these entries. By December coal was being taken from the mine and was being picked up by North-West Mounted Police work parties with wagons for use at Fort Macleod.The initiative of capitalists was crucial to the development of the coal mining industry in Western Canada. Mining entrepreneurs did much to determine the timing and extent of investment, the technology employed, the emergence of mining communities, relations with labour, and the distribution and marketing network that evolved to serve the industry. Their control, however, also was limited, firstly by the dispersed pattern of ownership in regional coal mining, and secondly by the fact that owners operated in an economic environment largely controlled by outside forces, especially the railways and the state.

From the beginning, the decisions of entrepreneurs were taken amidst the interplay of other factors crucial to the industry's success. The establishment of coal mining depended on the emergence of a market, and this, in turn, was a function of the coming of the CPR to the prairies. The role of the state was central in encouraging the construction of railways and, sometimes, in favouring particular mining entrepreneurs. The decisions of these individual entrepreneurs, however, were pivotal in shaping the development of the industry. In the early years, Alexander Galt became the leading figure in regional coal mining byFrank Slide Interpretive Centre using his political influence to gain favourable terms from the federal government, and by using his business contacts to attract extensive British investment. The pattern was repeated in the Crowsnest Pass, where the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company played a major role, thanks in part to the extensive mineral rights granted by Laurier's Liberal government. In both Lethbridge and the Pass area, outside investment became crucial because of the shortage of indigenous capital in the region 1 This reliance on funding from eastern Canada, the United States, and European sources continued as the industry expanded into the more northerly mountain areas of Nordegg and the Coal Branch, after the construction of the northern transcontinentals, shortly before the First World War.

Railways were also crucial to the development of coal mining on the plains, where quite a different capital structure emerged. While large-scale investment was attracted to the mountain fields, plains coal mining was dominated by numerous small operations, mostly Alberta-based. The situation was based on the nature of the coal reserves themselves, which were scattered across southern and central Alberta and easily accessible, even to the local settlers who often dug coal for their own use. The market for domestic coal was also spread across many communities in Alberta, and could easily be tapped by small, local companies operating with limited funding. The dichotomy between the mountains and plain branches persisted throughout the period. In 1917, there were 223 operations in the domestic coal sectors producing less than 10,000 tons each, and only one—the Galt firm at Lethbridge—exceeding 200,000 tons in output.

In contrast, no steam coal producer in the Crowsnest, Banff-Canmore, or Coal Branch areas produced less than 10,000 tons, and six produced more than 200,000 tons. In 1948, there were about 175 mines in Alberta, but three-quarters of production came from fewer than 50 large operations operating mainly in the foothills and eastern parts of the Rockies, and producing mainly for the railways. The Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company continued to operate a large concern on the British Columbia side of the Crowsnest Pass.2

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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