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
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."
In 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 BrownHis 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.
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
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