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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Morrissey
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Hunters' cabin in Crowsnest Pass area, British Columbia. L-R: Andy Good; James Cramp; "Bear Hunter" Morrissey. Hamlet of Morrissey was named after "Bear Hunter" Morrissey. When the Canadian Pacific Railway completed the Crowsnest Branchline in 1898, Elk Valley boomed in anticipation of supplying coal for the railways. It was this potential that brought the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP Coal) to establish roots at the turn of the century. One of the first mines the company established was in a beautiful area intersecting the Morrissey Creek and Elk River. The town of Morrissey grew around the first mine and prospered early on. It grew so large that by the end of 1903, there was a sizeable residential and business community, and could support a local paper.

However, when the growth ended, problems began plaguing CNP Coal. Worker safety became an issue in 1904, when a group of men died at their No. 1 mine. Not an isolated event, a series of deadly blasts eventually forced the company to close the mine and relocate to Carbonado, 1.6 kilometres up the Valley.

Despite the new location, problems continue to plague CNP Coal. A 1904 analysis at Morrissey revealed a potential fortune in coal. This particular coal contained 79 percent fixed carbon and was almost ash free—two properties that made it ideal for coking. With high demand for coke at the time, the company assumed they had valuable deposits and ordered 240 beehive ovens. Time proved their assumptions were wrong. The coal was too fine and inconsistent to use on locomotives, and too high in carbon to produce coke. When the No.1 mine shut down, CNP Coal hoped for better luck at Carbondo. Unfortunately, the coal at the new location proved no better, and further outbursts killed more men. Faced with a losing cause, the company ceased coal production in the Morrissey Valley in 1904.

Five years later, the Elk Valley community resurrected Morrissey. The First World War well underway by 1915, the British Columbia government announced that it would intern German and Austrian miners on Vancouver Island. Wartime patriotism was high throughout the province, and particularly in the Elk Valley, where many Canadian miners objected to working with immigrants from enemy countries. Their fervour was joined by miners of British, Belgian, Russian, and Italian descent, and together, they demanded internment of all those who were from enemy countries.

The government relented and established the Morrissey mine site as a permanent internment camp. By 2 October 1915, the preparations were completed and the prisoners were moved from Fernie—which had been the temporary internment location—to the Morrissey camp.

Coal Creek, British Columbia. Houses brought from Morrisey, British Columbia. Catholic Church on left, school and Presbyterian Church to left of centre. It is questionable why the prisoners needed to be interned at all. Fernie's local paper, the Free Press described the prisoners of war (POWs) as a peaceful group, not to be considered dangerous. Of the approximately 160 prisoners, many came from countries subject to the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Although Ukrainians, Slovenians, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats and Poles may have held similar negative opinions of Austria-Hungary, they were still branded as enemy aliens.

Life at the Morrissey camp became increasingly difficult as the war continued. Not only were the men kept behind barbed wire, but many complained of mistreatment by guards. The Hague Convention of 1907, specifically outlines guidelines for treatment of war prisoners, nonetheless, several of those conventions are said to have been broken. Adding to the already tense situation was the Coal Creek mine explosion of April 1917, which many Elk Valley residents believed was the work of previously released "enemy" miners.

The prisoner camp was finally closed in September 1918, during the spectacular collapse of the German and Austrian war effort in Europe. Once free, many former POWs chose not go back to Elk Valley mines where they once held jobs, and left the area permanently. Those who stayed, developed an understanding with fellow residents not to publicly discuss the experience.

There is little left of the Morrissey site today. Most of the buildings have been hauled away, the only visible remnants are coke oven skeletons.
 

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