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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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National Policy
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1934, the steam locomotive No. 7346 is spotting boxcars at the Murray mine for the next day the mine works.The settlement of the Canadian West was part of a national strategy that saw massive immigration as a tool for nation building. The railways became the visible symbol of a united Canada. Immigrants were the means to make this happen and they came from the Old World believing that "the streets were paved with gold." Work in the coal mines, while difficult, provided an opportunity to earn ready cash, which, for example, homesteading did not allow. Therefore, work in the mines was attractive for immigrants who wished to make money and return to their homelands.

Beginning in the 1890s, immigrants arrived to work in railway camps and mines in Western Canada from the Drumheller Valley in southern Alberta to the Elk Valley in southeastern British Columbia. They made up 90 percent of the work force in the mines.

The experience in the Crow's Nest Region is typical for each of the coal mining communities. Predictably, local and national interest in the Crowsnest region increased soon after the Pass was opened to trans-montane traffic. George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada visited the area in 1881, 1883 and 1884. In 1886, John R. Craig of the Oxley Ranch near Granum visited the Pass to record his experiences in a book entitled Ranching with Lords and Commons. The work was written in the hope that someday it might have some historical value. Craig's narrative of the ascent was both graphic and dramatic:

The main trail [from Lee's Lake] is nothing to boast of. Up hill and down dale, regardless of gradient, makes a wagon journey rather a perilous adventure; but even the danger can hardly distract from the grim grandeur and multiplying variety of the landscape.


[After the Gap where] a pioneer in a log cabin by the mouth of the sulphur spring holds possession and proposes establishing a sanitarium . . . the road is bad . . . too bad for description. In ten miles it fords the Old Man River [Crowsnest] river six times; then comes a short distance of passable traveling. The wagon trail comes to a sudden end on the shores of a Lake [Crowsnest] which stretches from side to side of the pass. . . . The vehicles can proceed no farther. ...


The party with the ponies . . . tried the trail around the lake. A rocky bridle-path winds off to the right; but, narrow as it is, it can find no room to pass along the shore and is forced to climb over a shoulder of the mountain. Up and down it goes at most impracticable angles, now overtopping the fir trees that spring from the edge of " the lake and then almost dipping into the clear water beside their roots. ... A little farther on a torrent crosses the trail with a deafening roar. Pouring out of a cavern in the overhanging cliff the little river thunders down in a waterfall. The path now rises steeper and rockier than ever, till one is glad to climb with hands as well as feet, leading the ponies. After an equally sharp descent the trail loses itself in a dense growth of fir. ... I thought at times [the ponies] would fall over those fearful chasms; it is an inhuman pass.

Craig was more subdued when he commented on the return journey. "It is nothing when you get used to it;" he remarked, "you won't mind going back."

Peter and Joseph Pisney, Certificate of TitleIn October 1888, C. E. D. Wood, editor of the Macleod Gazette, undertook a similar journey. Accompanied by a small party of ladies and gentlemen "who were hurrying southward and westward in pursuit of pleasure," he traveled to the source of the Crowsnest River and later recounted his adventures in the pages of his newspaper. Although the articles tend towards the hyperbolic, they are nevertheless of considerable interest. The passage describing the trail from the Sulphur Springs to Crowsnest Lake is one of the more lucid:

The trail . . . cannot by any strength of the imagination, be called a good one. . . . The wagon road keeps in the valley for some five or six miles, when Rocky Point is reached. Here the valley is narrower, and is covered with a dense growth of brush. The pack trail leads through this brush, but a wagon road has not yet been there. A succession of steep grades brings us 1,000 feet up the side of a mountain, along which the trail runs in an alarmingly sidling manner. . . . The descent from this height is by two very steep hills, with a short level bit of road between them. ... A succession of hills ... a bad slough or two, and the tents of the advance guard [camped at the foot of the lake] are in sight. . . .

During the closing years of the 1880s, the worth of the Crowsnest Pass as a means of traveling with a large group was also established. In August 1888, "D" Division of the North-West Mounted Police, under the command of Superintendent Samuel B. Steele, made its way from Fort Steele, British Columbia to Fort Macleod, Alberta via the Pass. While the particulars of the journey are best documented in Steele's 1888 report to the Commissioner of the Mounted Police (published in the Sessional Papers of Canada), a somewhat shortened version of the story can be found in the Superintendent's memoirs entitled Forty Years in Canada. Steele was particularly enthusiastic about the potential of the Pass. "In my report to the commissioner on the doings of the year," he wrote, "I laid particular stress upon the value of the coal lands in the pass, its suitability as a railway route, and the lightness of the work in comparison with that of the Kicking Horse Pass." The labours of John George "Kootenai" Brown, one of southern Alberta's more colourful pioneers who accompanied the men of "D" Division on their trans-montane journey, are very nicely outlined by Rodney William in his book entitled Kootenai Brown—His Life and Times 1839-1916. William concluded that had it not been for the judicious actions of "Kootenai" Brown, "a quick [and] trouble-free passage through the Pass" would not have been possible.

The Great Divide.In 1914 the Crowsnest series of passes, Phillipps, Crowsnest, Tent and Ptolemy, were examined by the Commission Appointed to Delimit the Boundary between the Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. The boundary commission was the last major survey party to explore the reaches of the Pass and its Report published in 1917 is one of the most informative in terms of both the study of topography and the naming of sites and features.

Thus, the development of this region of southern Alberta and southeastern BC was a part of a national strategy that would see a nation spanning the continent from East to West. It was also based on the mapping of the country and the surveying of resources. The final component was the encouragement of immigration for farming, ranching and industrial development. Lethbridge was conceptualized as an industrial city modeled on Pittsburgh and the coal mines and railways became the vehicle for the development of the West.

This article is extracted from Les Hurt, Bibliography of the Crowsnest Pass (Unpublished Report: Historic Sites Service, Alberta Community Development, no date). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank Les Hurt and Alberta Community Development for permission to reprint this material.
 

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