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Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Boom and Bust Towns
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One of the important constructs for the Bellevue Mine included the Power-House seen here.The economy of mining towns was precarious and dependent on economic cycles based on the increase or decline in demand. When coal prices and demand were high, mining companies expanded, opening more mines and establishing new settlements. Jobs were plentiful, and companies hired all of the able-bodied workers they could find. The call for employees extended beyond Canada, and ultimately many immigrants found work. A coal miner could make a decent living, providing coal prices were good. With few worries about their income, miners often spent their money freely. As a result of the spending, businesses prospered, new enterprises were started, and many new settlements thrived.

Sudden downturns brought on difficult times. Mining towns were dismal when coal markets were in decline and mining companies wielded their sizable power, threatening mine closures and layoffs. The threat of unemployment pushed stressed miners to turn to unions for support—an approach that often resulted in labour unrest and strikes. Once a strike happened, the future of the mine could be in doubt.

Old miner's cabin in the Crowsnest Pass.Bankhead is an example of a town effectively ended by labour disputes. Opened by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1904, the Bankhead Mine was created to supply the company with fuel in the Canmore area. In its first year, the town boomed, employing 135 new labourers underground, and another 39 on the surface. The following year, the enterprise grew and the figures doubled. In the next decades, relative success was maintained. In the midst of such success, miners chose to refuse to work, as a method of gaining rights. After two months of picketing, the company issued an ultimatum—end the strike or the mine would close. Workers held out only to discover the threat was real. On 15 June 1922, the Bankhead Mine was shut down for good.

A 1946 Royal Commission on Coal Report summed up: "Markets, rather than resources, are the fundamental problem of the Alberta coal mining industry." The fate of the towns explored in this section illustrates the utter dependence on the market value of coal. In some settlements, success was rapid, while others, deemed unprofitable, were abandoned as quickly as they were established.


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