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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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The Miners at Home: The Emergence of the Coal Towns

Italians made up about 15 percent of the mining work force in the Pass so this picture is quite representative.While in other towns a range of activities were possible to earn a living, in mining towns virtually all work revolved around the mine. Ownership of the mine, type of management, conditions of work, housing, retail—all were determined by the company. Individual workers were powerless and their well being and that of their families were dependent on their ability to continue working.

The lives of the miners were centred in the communities adjacent to each mine site. Here, miners and their families often made up the majority of the population. While coal towns were shaped, in part, by a working-class viewpoint, they were also marked by the presence of the coal companies, and frequently became the sites of the ongoing conflict between managers and workers. In some cases, an independent middle class of merchants and professionals also emerged to stand between the two starkly-opposed groups.

Domestic interior exhibit, Crowsnest Museum.Most of the towns in which the miners lived were founded by the coal companies themselves between the 1880s and 1920s.1 Exceptions were Edmonton; Canmore; and Fernie, British Columbia, which were already commercial centres before the beginning of mining. In other cases, the companies engaged in rudimentary town planning, providing infrastructure in areas where no communities existed, in order to encourage the settlement of workers and families and the emergence of a permanent workforce. Houses and stores were built and made available; land was offered for the construction of churches; educational and medical services were often furnished. The result was a series of towns, in which long rows of modest one or two storey, wood-frame, miners' houses predominated, grouped around a main street consisting of small commercial and institutional structures, built of wood or brick. Most towns remained small in size until the decline of the coal industry, their populations varying between a few hundred and about 3,500. Most of these communities stayed dependent on coal mining through their history. Lethbridge was a notable exception, becoming a much larger commercial centre for the agrarian southwest part of Alberta after 1900.2

Domestic interior exhibit, Crowsnest Museum.As suggested before, these communities were dominated at first by single men. For example, in Staffordville, a suburb of Lethbridge, in 1901, two-thirds of the population were males, and three-quarters of these men were single. A. A. den Otter has written of the masculine ethic of pride in hard physical work that emerged in these towns, and of the interest in sports and the high frequency of violence and fights that accompanied it. In the early years, drinking, gambling, and prostitution were characteristic of these places. Drunkenness was later linked to suicides, accidents, and family violence in the Coal Branch. 3

In spite of these factors, however, increasing numbers of women and families settled in the majority of communities within a decade of their formation. By 1911, the ratio of men to women in the adjacent Crowsnest communities of Blairmore, Frank, Bellevue, and Lille had risen to virtually the same level as the provincial average in Alberta, 165 to 100. This pattern was repeated throughout the coalfields. The increasing complexity of the communities was reflected in the growing numbers of children and in the efforts of the towns to provide adequate schools. The role of women became essential in the individual households and the town as a whole. Besides tending to their families, they often grew vegetables and kept farm animals to supplement the family incomes. They also frequently took in boarders and carried on the charitable and church-related activities that helped to turn these towns into communities. 4

Domestic interior exhibit, Crowsnest Museum.The ethnic diversity of the labour force has already been noted. Most towns possessed a wide range of nationalities from central and eastern Europe and the British Isles, though the particular pattern varied from place to place. Many of the cultural groups were tight-knit. Most of the Polish settlers in the Crowsnest Pass, for example, tended to come from the same agrarian area of Poland, and some probably knew each other before their arrival in Canada. In some cases, these groups remained separated in the coal camps. In Coleman, for instance, the Italians congregated in the central part of the town, while the Poles and Ukrainians were concentrated in East Coleman, and other Slavs in West Coleman. These groups tended to form institutions which sought to preserve their ethnic Domestic interior exhibit, Crowsnest Museum.traditions, and which offered a wide range of social services of a cultural, recreational, and welfare nature. There was sometimes friction between the Anglo­Saxons and the other groups. In particular, some British miners argued that they deserved preference over eastern Europeans for jobs and advancement, especially during times of crisis, such as the two world wars, or when economic prospects were bleak. 5

In spite of these factors, Allen Seager argues that the impact of shared working and living experiences was helping to forge a common identity among miners by the 1920s. They participated together in sports and recreational activities, as well as in other forms of cultural expression, such as the brass bands that emerged at Lethbridge and in the Coal Branch. They also shared common problems. The high prices charged at company stores, for instance, led miners in the Coal Branch and the Crowsnest Pass to open co-operative stores. The unions became crucial in organizing workers of all backgrounds in a common cause. Both the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the Mine Workers' Union of Canada played prominent roles in refusing to tolerate the attempts of workers to discriminate against each other on the basis of ethnicity. By the 1920s, Communists, and other militant leaders, were encouraging the formation of working class institutions, such as the Women's Leagues, which cut across traditional boundaries. 6

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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