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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Bibliography of the Crowsnest Pass

By Les Hurt

Crow's Nest Pass RailwayTo circa 1910, the history of the Crowsnest Pass was an exciting story of discovery, exploration and development. The first intrusions by prospectors and miners into the mountainous region of south-western Alberta and south-eastern British Columbia were set against the romantic background of early missionary endeavours and the equally adventurous mapping and survey expeditions. Father Pierre-Jean de Smet was the first white man to come near the Pass (1845), while Thomas Blakiston of the Palliser expedition (1858-1860) was the first person to note it by its recognized name and mark its general direction. After the Crow's Nest Pass Railway was completed from Lethbridge to Kootenay Landing on the southern end of Kootenay Lake in 1898, exploitation of the immense coal reserves proceeded at a fast and furious pace. From 1897 to 1911, no less than twelve mining companies began operations within the Pass, and in terms of output their performance was indeed noteworthy. According to the 1911 Annual Report of the Alberta Coal Mines Branch, of the 649,745 tons of bituminous coal mined within the province, a total of 528,119 tons were extracted from within the Crowsnest Pass. 

Mohawk Tipple - Bob OwenThe boom mentality which prevailed throughout the Crowsnest Pass mining industry during the first decade of the 20th century gave way shortly, however, to depression and decline. The defeat of the Laurier government in 1911 seemed to bring with it a significant reduction in investment capital and consequently mines were either closed or their hours of operation curtailed drastically. The West Canadian mine at Lille was abandoned in 1913, while similar operations at Hosmer, Passburg, Burmis, Frank and Blairmore were liquidated within the next five years. The social consequences of the depression in the mining industry were also catastrophic. Besides unemployment, land values fell, which put an additional financial burden on those who were forced to leave. And the first real effect of World War One on the Crowsnest Pass mining industry, namely, the loss of European export markets, merely exacerbated the situation. The economic climate improved slightly from 1916 to 1918, but with the post-war recession the problem of high unemployment was once again resurrected. At this point, an entirely new factor entered into the picture. With the founding of the One Big Union in 1919, and because of its sub sequent crusade in the Crowsnest Pass, there was a decided swing to the left on the part of the Pass miners.

Speaking generally, the period from the mid-1920s to 1939 was not markedly different from the recession which followed the First World War. As the markets for coal began to decline, the operators of the mines were forced to cut back on their operations, and the strikes called to protest the reduction in wages and hours of work did little to rectify the situation. At the Coal Creek Colliery on the British Columbia side of the Pass, nearly four hundred men were permanently dismissed in the fall of 1929. The deepening depression of the 1930s aggravated the situation. From 1929 to 1931, production at West Canadian, McGillivray Creek and International Coal and Coke Company collieries fell by an average of 48.8 percent. And the infamous Pass strike of 1932, called to protest, among other things, the rumours of a proposed wage reduction, revived the spectre of a socialist-dominated union movement. Indeed, it has been suggested that the most important legacy of the 1932 strike was the election of a workers' slate to the Blairmore Town Council in February 1933.

Not unexpectedly, the Second World War stimulated the demand for coal. The industry's reprieve, however, was only temporary, for once the war was concluded the traditional difficulties resurfaced. Declining markets, under-employment and over-production were among the more serious problems. Even more sombre were the prospects for the future. Not only was there little hope of ameliorating the-age-old problems, but the discovery and utilization of new sources of energy added yet another complicating factor. In 1951, the number of operating mines within the Alberta portion of the Crowsnest Pass stood at twelve, while by 1967 it had been reduced to four. Fortunately, the expansion of other basic industries, i.e., lumbering, helped to cushion the impact of the contraction in the coal industry, but the gains derived from these ancillary undertakings were of insufficient weight to tip the scales in favour of a marked economic revival. It remains to be seen whether or not the expanding Japanese coal market will provide the necessary stimulus.

Before proceeding with a brief analysis of the literature concerning the Crowsnest Pass, it is first necessary to delimit the region's boundaries. Although a seemingly simple geographical problem, it acquires added dimension upon further inquiry. Virtually every person writing about the Pass has set his own limits to it, varying from a large and loosely defined area encompassing most of south-western Alberta and south-eastern British Columbia, to a narrow corridor between Bellevue and Morrissey. The arbitrary manner in which the boundaries were established was due in most part to the nature of the topic under consideration. If, for instance, it-was coal mining, then the tendency was to expand the boundaries to include Lundbreck in the east and Fernie in the west. On the other hand, if the topic was the geologic composition of the mountain passes, then the limits were considerably narrower. For the purposes of this study, a very broad area encompassing some 410,000 acres has been delineated. It is bound on the southeast by Cowley, on the southwest by Fernie, on the northeast by North Fork, and on the northwest by Sparwood. It was deemed appropriate to include Fernie within the purview of this study because its early fortunes were for the most part related directly to the amount of coal and coke produced by the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company. Considerable controversy also exists over the proper name of the Pass. However, within this work, the legally correct form Crowsnest Pass will be used

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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