Michel Creek Valley is home to the largest soft coal deposits in
North America, and supported multiple mining settlements in the
early 20th century. However, when mines in the area
began shutting down in the mid-1950s, Sparwood, with its vast
resources, was one of the few communities that continued to
produced coal. Even considering its mining town status, there is
a unique beauty surrounding Sparwood, which bills itself as "the
Clean Coal Capital of the World."
Since its development in 1939, Sparwood was set apart from
the nearby communities of Natal, Michel, and Middletown. When
the Crows Nest Coal Company (CNP Coal) built Sparwood, its
intent was to create a clean environment for its mine managers.
The coke ovens built in Michel were notoriously dirty, billowing
out smoke and soot 24 hours a day. The houses in the area looked
dirty, the paint was allowed to chip and peel, and the nearby
"tar creek" was filled with coal waste from the tipple. From its
inception, Sparwood was to be clean and quiet, a feasible
exercise as it was located five kilometres upwind from the
nearest mines and coking ovens.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the neighbouring communities of
Michel, Natal, and Middletown were in serious decline when
markets demanded oil and gas instead of coal. Years of neglect
were apparent and few residents had the resources or will
required to keep up their homes. The area was dilapidated and
given the burgeoning interest in British Columbia tourism, the
government opted to remove the three unattractive settlements.
The urban renewal scheme was supposed to be an easy process
of transferring residents to Sparwood. Mining families welcomed
the news of clean, new homes. However, when residents learned of
prices, hope turned to anger. High costs of the new homes, and
low assessment prices for their old ones, meant many could not
afford the move. For the first time, mining families had to
think about mortgages and to touch their life savings, as a
result many were set on remaining in their old communities.
Opinions changed when Kaiser Steel of California expressed
interest in mining in the Mill Creek Valley. The company
required a town capable of industrial expansion, and Michel,
Middletown, and Natal were not viable options. The company had
good jobs available, and only wanted the best workforce. They
built new homes and lured miners to Sparwood. By the end of the
1970s, Michel, Middletown, and Natal were finally reclaimed.
Today, Sparwood is a thriving community of approximately
4,000 people. The coal industry remains a big part of the town
with walking tours and preserved vehicles reminding visitors of
the mining history in the area.