Subdivided from the larger spreads that were homesteaded after the Railway had brought the timbermen who clearcut the land, small-field farms and modest ranches running a few head of beef cattle have fenced the landscape with barbed wire. Across the 1953 Lizard Creek bridge the Highway enters the unincorporated community of West Fernie where Colonel Steele probably visited with William Ridgeway on the latters ranch as Company D, heading back to Fort Macleod in the high summer of 1888, prepared to follow Kootenai Brown up the Coal Creeks valley and over the heights to the Michel Creek basin and the Phillipps Pass.
At the River a wide, concrete-decked span has replaced the narrow 1949 steel through-truss bridge that until 2000 slowed traffic as drivers touched their brakes and crowded the rail in hopes of preserving their wing mirrors from oncoming vehicles. Across the River, the Highway widens hugely to become 7th Avenuethe strip; motels, restaurants, a store or two and the new civic centre. This was the Crows Nest Southern Railways yards: several sidings and a wye served by water and coal towers, a station sitting between Thompson and Rogers Streets on the City-side of the yards.
These days the City of Fernie (1009m) plays the genteel host to tourists whose ranks swell during winter weekends when the chair-lifts at Charlie Lockes recently redeveloped Snow Valley work overtime skying skiers more than 600 vertical metres to the tops of the crags. There the goddess of powder awaits to enfold them in her cool, white arms until Cold, exhaustion or injury sends them to the slope-side Griz Inn to toast their toes by the fireplace and drink a toddy or two. In the summertime, the same chair lifts carry hikers and down-hill bikers to trails above the tree line.
At the Information Centre north of town on the No.3 one finds out that Fernie has an official Youth Hostel; the only one (given that Nelson is actually on 3A) remaining on the Crowsnest Highway. The Raging Elk is not fancy; spare, small, single occupancy en suite rooms facing onto shady exterior walkways or, cheaper, dark dormitories packed with three or four bunk-beds with plastic-enveloped mattresses. It still makes money as a motel, the good rooms on the front being reserved for full-fare travellers. The place is in a state of constant renovation, so if U dont mind a bit of chaos and want to home-cook yourself a meal in the well equipped downstairs kitchen, that is the place. Judging by the accents of its employees and many of its guests, it is Oz North.
There are scads of other motels lining the Highway, one, the Snow Valley, advertises an RV campgroundno tenters. Downtown near the huge Overwaitea store on Main Street there are three big old stone hotels survive from another age. The Fernie is a beer parlour with a couple of floors of inexpensive, recently-renovated rooms above. It contrasts dramatically with the neighbouring Royal, a solid three-storey veteran which has stood on FirstRailwayAvenue since 1909, and was rescued from dereliction by Riel Simard and his family in the mid-1990s. Fresh paint, restored woodwork, new carpets and a lively, well sound-proofed bar-room welcomed guests. Most of the furniture was antique, including some of the beds whose unfortunately sway-backd posture didt improve the sleepers. The rooms were not en suite, but inconvenience was minimized by the carefully refurbished bathrooms at each end of the hallway. Sharing the main floor with the office and the bar is the reformed smoking parlour which now contains a casual museum crammed with the knickknacks not yet assigned to duty elsewhere. For the railroad buff, however, the Royals greatest attraction is its location, less than a stones throw from the B.C. Southern rails. Late in the evening, when CP rolls one of its mile long, 15,000-ton coal drags through town at 30 miles per hour, every fibre of the old hotel quivers with excitement. Unfortunately, in 2006 the Royal no longer accepts overnight guests. The Northern, nearby on Main Street was modernized in 1999, but, like the Fernie, is mainly a bar.
Fernie is situated at the mouth of the Coal Creek valley. One of the myriad little streams that are the very headwaters of the Columbia River, Coal Creek flows westward out of the Macdonald Range of the Rockies to pour itself into the Elk. At a site nearly five miles up the Creek, the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP Coal) chose to drive its first mine. The company had considered the location carefully. There was a great showing of coal which George Ramsay of the Boston and Montana Company had analysed and pronounced much better than the Colorado coal then available to his employers smelter in Butte, Montana. With a greater percentage of fixed carbon, less volatile materialsmethane, ammonia, tar and hydrogenthan the Colorado coal, and with little ash, it would make excellent coke; robust enough, notes M.A. Kennedy in her 1979 thesis, Coke Ovens of the Crowsnest Pass, to stand up to the rough usage it would encounter in the smelting process. In Montana the best cokes available came at great expense from Wales and Pennsylvania. Due to its proximity to Montana, operators there would find Coal Creeks produce much cheaper to import, once better rail connections had been established. To manage the development of the mines, CNP Coal hired William Blakemore away from the Dominion Coal Company in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In December of 1897, Blakemore arrived with a score of his miners and started work. They were soon extracting nearly 400 tons of coal a day. According to the Annual Report of the Minister of Mines for the Year Ending 31st December, 1898, the coal from No.2 mine analysed 76.25% fixed carbon, 20.24% volatile matter, 2.73% ash and 0.8% sulphur. Ramsay had been right on the money.
With the Agreements of 1897 between Ottawa, the CPR and the Kootenay Coal Company safely signed, CNP Coal began waggoning coal to flat land near the mouth of the Creek beside CPs proposed right-of-way, and stock-piling it there. Nearby, a casual communityold townarose and in six or seven months grew into a scramble of boarding houses collected around a couple of two-storey hotels; the abstemious Victoria and the rollicking log-built Coal Creek Hotel where a man could repair for a bracer or three at the end of a hard working day.
The problem was that the settlement had seeded itself in the wrong place: CNP Coal had other designs for the site.
Burning much hotter and cleaner than coal, coke was the fuel that industry preferred to use to heat furnaces and mix with metallic ores in a heap in the smelting process. It was obtained, to quote from R.D. Turners illuminating West of the Great Divide (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1987), by roasting poor quality coal, or lumps of good coal too small to marketslackin ovens to ...[drive] off gasses by a process of destructive distillation. Though the process consumed up to 40% of the weight of the coal, the resulting product sold for a considerably higher price.
When he was hired by CNP Coal in 1897, Wm. Blakemore had travelled to Pennsylvania and Great Britain to evaluate the latest in coking technologies. Some of the newer models of ovens captured the volatiles that were expelled during the heating of the coal and fed them back into the process. These retorts were usually tubular in shape with doorways at either end and several loading ports in the roof. With steel doors and usually mechanical rams to level the charge and clear it after it was coked, these ovens were expensive when compared to the old, dome-shaped beehives which had but one door and one loading port and had to be pulled by hand when the charge had been coked. After weighing the costs and advantages of each type, CNP Coal decided to go with the beehives.
In early July of 1898, the very first freight train which had whistled into the Fernie area brought of enough fire bricks for Murdock Matheson and his crew to construct 50 beehives of 12-foot diameter with a seven-foot height. The cost $1177 each and by the end of the year 30 were in operation, with the rest completed in the spring. August Baldauf of Pennsylvania won the contract to build 152 more in 1899 at a cost of $824. In two double-rowd batteries, they were each charged with 6.5 tons of slack coal delivered by a special little bottom-dumping, electric-powered larry that moved across the tops of the ovens on rails. Having been filled and sealed and allowed to burn for 60 to 72 hours to reduce 6.5 short tons of coal to 4.4 tons of coke, the side port of the oven was then unbricked and the coke pulled out onto the adjacent quay to be cooled by water before being shovelled into boxcars spotted on the quayside tracks. In 1901 Harry Oldland, also of Pennsylvania, added 112 more at a cost of $640 per oven. The next year the Larry was replaced by a short, tall-sided gondola pulled by a tiny, standard-gauged dinky locomotive. In 1908 28 more ovens were built to bring the total to 452. When the plant was in full production and the wind was from the east, Fernies streets were choked with acrid smoke and woe betide the dutiful housewife who had her Mondays washing hanging out on her backyard clothes line.
The site chosen for the ovens was right beside the 9,000 tons of coal that had accumulated on the flats in the seven months that Blakemores Cape Bretoners had been at work at Coal Creek. From a nearby switch in the mainline in 1900, the Railway curved a spur through the heart of old town to follow Coal Creek up to the mines ten Kay away. The inhabitants of shanties in the way of either construction project were obliged to move.
CNP Coal did not want people squatting willy-nilly on its lands. Seeking to maximize its income, the company incorporated the Town of Fernie and surveyed the present townsite. Prevailing upon CP to raise its two-storey Type 6 station on a site near todays ex-Railway station, a few hundred yards up the B.C. Southern from the Coal Creek spur switch and across the tracks from the coke ovens, the company began constructing cottages and selling building permits to businesses. As expected, most people deserted old town, though impoverished die-hards continued to live there until the Great Fire of 1908 wiped it out.
The desertion of old town was well under way by the time that the special train celebrating the formal opening of the Crows Nest Line brought a party of Kootenay businessmen and CP officials Fernie on December 8th of 1898. Having witnessed the first shipment of Fernie coke beginning its journey down the rails toward Trail, the group repaired for lunch to the Victoria Hotel which had already been relocated to the new town.
Complicating the development of Fernie and discouraging the immediate abandonment of old town was a dispute that arose between the Railway and the coal company. The CPR, certain that it was entitled to the surrounding land as part of the B.C. Southerns original 3.75 million acre construction grant, disputed the coal companys presumption that it owned the townsite. In its defence, CNP Coal maintained that, as the site was on the left bank of the Elk, it was on coal company property. Litigation ensued, and though CP abandoned its claims in an agreement dated November 5th, 1900, certain ownership was not established until 1902.
Throughout the court proceedings, CNP Coal continued to permit the development of the settlement. The Victoria Hotel was the first hospice to open on the new townsite, and by 1900 it had been joined by the fancy Royal, the Northern, the Crows Nest and four others including the Fernie, in whose bar the Fort Steele Brewing Company held an interest. Between one hotel and another and the scores of little businesses such as J.D. Quails hardware that set up shop a few metres of wooden sidewalk tried to keep footwear out of the mud and dung, while overhead a few electric bulbs dangling from wires connected to the Coal Creek powerhouse of CNP Coals subsidiary, the Crows Nest Pass Electric Light and Power Company, struggled to push back the night. Water lines were laid in, service being provided on the user pays basis.
In keeping with the company town philosophy, CNP Coal initially refused to sell land. In the residential areas the company slapped up cheap cottages to house workers and their dependants. Built of green lumber which shrank and twisted when it dried, these draughty and uninsulated abodes quickly became miserable hovels, coated inside and out with dust and grim from the coking plant across the tracks. Required by the company to live here, miners handed back to the company a substantial portion of their monthly pay.
In the commercial district, CNP Coal preferred to lease lots and permit entrepreneurs to raise their own structures. The income generated from these permits was considerable, especially that derived from licensing liquor outlets. Rare was the occasion when CNP Coal withheld such a permit. On the other hand, because the company owned and operated its own dry-goods and food stores, it refused licences to those enterprises which it perceived as potential competitors. For Fernies working families this policy was doubly burdensome for, not only were they required to buy housing from the company, but much of what they needed in the way of tools, clothing and food had to be bought from one of the companys stores at an extortionate mark-up. Crushed between low wages and the companys prices, workers were little better than serfs.
This arrangement had many opponents and, aided by the Fernie Free Press which began publication on January 14th, 1899, a Board of Trade organized itself that March 15th to wrestle control of the business community away from CNP Coal. It was a bitter battle and it wasnt until labour unrest forced the companys hand that it changed its policies. On May 1st, 1901, CNP Coal eased its grip on the Towns development when it began selling residential building lots through the office of its land commissioner, William Fernie. From among the 1,640 folks that the Canada census enumerated in Fernie that year,1 the Company had no shortage of buyers. For an average price of $277 families could purchase a lot and build a house themselves, or, writes S.M. Lambeth in A Short History of Fernie (Lambeth Jeune Dang Research Group, 1979), they could investigate the prices of lots in West Fernie which O.N. Janes had sub-divided out of the old 307 acre Ridgeway pre-emption.
Though it chose to sell residential lots, CNP Coal retained control of the central commercial district and its revenues for another year, enjoying its stores income as the towns population reached three thousand, 1100 of whom were CNP Coal employees. Finally, in 1902, the year of the typhoid scare until the water systems intake was moved upstream from polluted Coal Creek, the company bowed to public pressure, withdrew from direct participation in the mercantile business and began surrendering administration of the town to elected officials.
In the aftermath of the big fire of 1904 civic leaders realized that the Town needed to modernize its infrastructure and expand its services in order to accommodate and safeguard its burgeoning population. To accomplish that it required access to credit that was unavailable to Towns. Application was made and on July 28th of 1904, the province granted city status to the Corporation of Fernie.
In 1905 the City surveyed part the Annex, that district lying between the Crows Nest Southerns yards and the River, and put 51 lots on the market. That year, too, a telephone system was strung, and two years later the first few hundred yards of the Citys sewerage system was operational. On February 11th, 1909, with the City still dirty from the ashes of the Great Fire of the previous year, CNP Coal modified its charter to allow itself to get into the land development business. It surveyed and sold lots in the Annex Extension, nearly doubling the Citys area. Except for some in-filling and a little expansion here and there, Fernie was not to grow beyond its 1909 limits until developers in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century built up Ridgemont on the heights to the east beyond the coking flats, the airport subdivision on the south side of Coal Creek and, ironically, an aquatic recreation centre and a few blocks of houses on the site of Old Town.
The Maturation of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company
By the time that the Crowsnest Southern Railway initiated scheduled service into Fernie on December 15th, 1904, the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company had incorporated the Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railway Company (MF&M),2 and J.J. Hill and his Great Northern were well on their way to gaining control of Crows Nest Pass Coal. Hill had acquired around 34% of CNP Coals shares by 1903 and, as revealed by John Fahey in his Shaping Spokane: Jay P. Graves and His Times (University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1994), had come to hold a low opinion of CNP Coals management. Senator George Albertus Cox had replaced Colonel Baker as the companys president in 1900. He and the rest of the directors lived down East, leaving the companys day to day operations to G.G.S. Lindsay, a man considered by president Thomas George Shaughnessy of the CPR to be of suspect character. In the estimation of the business world, CNP Coals directorship was casually content to let the company blunder along profiting from its virtual monopoly on the Crowsnest Pass coal fields as long as it paid a dividend. This is where Hill discovered its weakness.
Needing coal and coke for his own and his clienteles operations, and ever eager to discomfit the CPR, Hill was on the look-out for a way to grab control of CNP Coal and deny CP fuel when he realized in 1905 that the company was paying out dividends unjustified by its income. He mentioned this to J.P Graves, the vice president of Granby Consolidated Mining, Smelting and Power Company, one of the companys in which Hill held an influential interest, and suggested that Graves apprise one of CNP Coals major Montréal-based shareholders, C.E. Gault, of the situation. Informed, Gault sold his shares to Granby Consolidated which gave Hill control of 52% of CNP Coals shares. Though he left the companys management largely intact, Hill did require that they attend to the business and up production considerably, most of which Hill hauled off down the Crows Nest Southern for his own use. Come the end of 1905, 63% of Fernies coke was exported to smelters in Montana. In 1907, the year that the company increased its capital stock to four million dollars and bought the CPRs rail spur to Coal Creek, some 4,000 tons per day, most of the companys production, was either loaded raw into CNS gondolas at the tipples at Coal Creek, Michel and Carbonado, or into CNP Coals 1116 ovens at Fernie, Morrissey Mines and Michel for reduction into coke, and then into CNS gondolas. In the Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railway yards, located near the coking works on those blackened flats east of downtown Fernie, the gondolas were slammed into trains and shunted over to the CNS yards where they were usually hitched to GN L class locomotivesarticulated, four cylinder 2-6-6-2 Malletsto be trundled away to Hills clients at Great Falls and Butte. On April 27th, 1908, the company voted to increase its share capitalization to ten million dollars, most of which was bought up by the Great Northern and its associates. In a report issued on March 1, 1909, it was revealed that the GN had gained outright control of CNP Coal.
The GNs money and market connections really got the CNP Coal works humming, requiring the company to hire hundreds of additional hands. Mining was a tough job worked under crude conditions; fourteen hours a day underground in hot, dirty, dangerously cramped spaces. Subject to dockage for impurities detected in the miners output, the average wage guaranteed that a workers family lived from hand to mouth and usually in debt to the companys stores. There was no medical care, no compensation. A man or a boy went to work with whatever equipment he could buy or scrounge; safety equipment was not mandatory, even hard-hats were rare. Injuries were common and fatalities frequent. Retirement benefits were unheard of, and at the end of their mining days, all most retirees could look forward to was a slow, hacking death from pneumoconiosisblack lungcaused by years of breathing coal dust.
The bituminous coal of the Crows Nest region is rich in odourless methane gas: a study in the 1920s estimated that nearly 4,000 cubic feet of it was released for every ton of coal mined. Tremendously pressurized pockets of CH4 were trapped in some seams and, approached by the working face, it either silently leaked into the working cavity and mixed with oxygen to form fire damp, displacing the air and suffocating workers, or suddenly burst like an explosion, a blow out, killing crews in a blast of rock and coal, filling the mine with choking dust. Frighteningly flammable, fire damp needed only a small spark to ignite suspended coal dust and send walls of flame roaring through the tunnels. Caught in these catastrophes, men not immediately burned to death frequently died of asphyxiation as after dampeither carbon dioxide, black damp, or carbon monoxide, white dampflooded the mine. Adding to the danger were the very mountains themselves. Consisting of weak layers of limestone, quartzite and argillite, they tended to bump when the bond of adherence between the strata of rock above the mine suddenly failed due to the lack of underlying support, crushing the workings. Accentuating the dangers of working underground was CNP Coals aggressive mining style, its lack of planning and its cavalier attitude toward the safety of its workers.
Heralding the years of agony yet to come in the Pass, at around 7:30 in the evening of Thursday, May 22nd, 1902, gas accumulated at the working faces in the No.2 and No.3 collieries at Coal Creek ignited. Coal dust suspended in the tunnels exploded. A cloud of smoke and debris shot nearly a quarter of a mile into the evening sky from the No.2s fanhouse. A desperate, heroic attempt to find survivors located but 20 before being driven back by gas. When the mines air pipes were finally repaired and the tunnels purged, the extent of the tragedy was realized. It was Canadas worst mine disaster until that time. Ninety-one corpses of men and boys were recovered; 37 are still there, sealed in a part of the works that can never be reopened.
According to Andrew Yarmie in Community in Conflict: The Impact of the 1902 Explosion at Coal Creek (The Forgotten Side of the Border, Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller, eds. Plateau Press, Kamloops, B.C., 1998), despite documentation submitted by mine inspector Archibald Dick and confirmed by the mines fire boss and the representative of the Fernie Miners Union stating that they had found everything in good order in the mine just prior to the disaster, the Coroners Jury faulted the company for not suppressing the coal dust that had subsequently exploded. He recommended the immediate installation of improved watering and ventilation systems, the upgrading of explosives and the introduction of the refined Wolfe safety Lamps to replace the bonnetted Clanny Lamp and the old Davy Safety Lamp. A Provincial Commission of inquiry established on August 7th, 1902, under the joint chairmanship of miner Tully Boyce, lawyer P.S. Lampman and former mine manager John Bryden concluded in the report they submitted the following February 18th that, as compared to British and Pennsylvanian coal mines, B.C. mines had an extremely high fatality rate. Besides echoing the Coroners jurys recommendations, the Commission also suggested that all miners have a working knowledge of English. This suggestion, incorporated into the Coal Mines Regulation Act later that year, was used mainly to bar Orientals from the mines.
The disaster at Coal Creek convinced miners that if they were to win better working and living conditions from CNP Coal, they had to unite and threaten to withhold their labour as a block. This had been tried previously. On June 3rd of 1899, in the wake of the introduction that February of the mandatory eight hour day for underground workers, some miners had struck briefly while persuading the company that 13, rather than 17, was a fair number of tons to expect a man to extract in a day to earn his wage. That dispute was quickly settled, but in June of 1901, under the banner of the Fernie Miners Union, men at Coal Creek and Michel walked out for ten days when management tried to introduce an eight and one half hour day. These protests merely inconvenienced CNP Coal for, if production was seriously imperilled, the company simply imported more men and had its security service escort them into the works.
Involved in the 1901 action, though, were officials sent by Local 76 of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). In March of 1902, James Wilkes, one of the WFMs top organizers, arrived in the Pass to enrol Fernie miners in the Federation as District 7. He soon had 400 men, perhaps half the membership of the Fernie Miners Union, conscripted. Later that spring, even as the bodies were being brought out of the Coal Creek mines, CNP Coal ordered wages reduced to reflect the shorter working hours mandated by Law. On June 25th the miners struck, but ethnic tensions destroyed cohesiveness. With scabs escorted to work by security personnel and Provincial Police, coal production was soon at the pre-strike level, and on August 4th, after five weeks of demonstrations and no income, those miners who could recapture their jobs were thankful to return to the mines. The workers only gain came on the domestic front when CNP Coal agreed to sell its stores to A.B. Trites and his partner, R.W. Woods. However, despite its seeming autonomy, the Trites-Woods Company was still on intimate terms with CNP Coal and the companys accountants routinely garnisheed debtors wages, illegally remitting the proceeds to the Store.
The same issue of wages versus working hours had the men briefly out of the mines in November of 1902, and again on February 11th, 1903. This time, however, reacting to the findings of the Commission of Inquiry and the Coroners recommendations following the Coal Creek disaster of the previous year, the federal Minister of Labour, Sir William Mulock, assigned his deputy and future Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to straighten the matter out. The strike was ended on April 1st, and though the WFM won recognition as the miners agent, it lost the support of the very men it purported to represent, for in May the Fernie local went over to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). On September 23rd, following a cokers strike from May 5th to June 12th, the rest of CNP Coals unionized workforce at Morrissey and Michel joined the Fernie miners in the UMWA as District 18.
Where as the WFM was a loose association of independent locals, the UMWA was a monolithic organization which expected its members to contribute dues and act in concert to force employers into granting concessions. On April 29th, 1906, it briefly called its membership out of the Pass mines in another dispute over wages, again for two months beginning on September 22nd and yet again between April 1st and May 2nd, 1907. These stoppages finally attracted King who was able to bring the sides together in a four year long collective agreement. In 1908 the UMWA bought the three year old Fernie Ledger, changed its name to the District Ledger and used it to better inform its membership until it ceased publication in 1919.
In reaction to the unionization of their workers, at a meeting in Canmore, Alberta, on October 22nd,1906, CNP Coal had leagued with the coal companies operating on the Albertan side of the Pass to form the Western Coal Operators Association.3 Besides resisting any changes that would diminish its constituents profits, the Association refused to recognize the UMWA as the miners united voice and would not deduct the Unions dues from the pay cheques of those among its 3,000 colliers who were Union members. On February 24th of 1911, as the end of the four year agreement approached with no negotiations scheduled, the UMWA demanded a resolution to these issues and, further, that the Association cease hiring non-union men. The Association demurred and when the union pulled its members from the mines on March 15th, CNP Coal retaliated by locking them out on April 1st. The Big Strike was under way.
Enjoying no strike funding, however, and no legal restraints barring the companies from hiring replacement labour, the miners were relentlessly worn down as public and private police continued to escort scabs through the sometimes violent protests on the picket lines. The coal market at the time was flat, and for six months the Association and the Union eyed each other across the bargaining table. Finally, with the owners losing profits and the Unions membership reduced to misery, a compromise was reached. Wages for miners at the coal face was raised 15¢ to $3.65 per day and the Association tacitly recognized the UMWA by docking dues from those workers who agreed. The Associations right to employ independent Labour, however, stood. While rebuilding the carpentry and electrical shops of the Coal Creek surface plant, destroyed by an avalanche which took six lives in December of 1912, CNP Coal electrified the Mine and had its ventilation improved. In 1913 the company was able to drive its 1,500 employees to dig a record 826,000 tons out of the seams of Coal Creek.
The immediate crisis of the Big Strike resolved, the plight of the Passs coal miners was lost to public view as the bloody campaigns of the First World War invaded Canadian newspapers. A shell-shocked Nation mourning the legions of Dead whose names were daily read out to bereaved families by military messengers could spare few tears for 38 men killed when Coal Creeks No.3 East blew out on April 5th, 1917. To preserve labour peace and insure uninterrupted production, CNP Coal improved the Mines ventilation system and regimen of spraying and rock-dusting to smother explosive coal dust, introduced electric safety lamps and more sensitive gas detectors.
Government measures had frozen wages, conscripted some of the workforce for national service, imprisoned others and required the rest to maintain a high rate of production for the duration of the War. By the end of 1916 the list of unresolved grievances had CNP Coal men heeding the radical rhetoric of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a movement which had been born in Chicago in 1905 and had been active in the Crowsnest Pass region since the Big Strike, and in September of 1917 the miners walked out. The strike was short-lived and unsuccessful and, because the IWWs executives were alienAmericancitizens, Ottawa banned the organization from Canada using provisions of the War Measures Act.
After the Great War, with the coke market bottomed and the economy shifting from King Coal to Big Oil, the struggle for just treatment dragged on. The more militant of the miners, denied representation through the IWW, embraced its successor, the One Big Union (OBU). Attracted, as well, were many of the soldiers who returned from the War, many still resenting the Conscription Act of 1917, feeling that they had been used and cheated by fat capitalist war-mongers and the workers who had remained comfortably at home. When the UMWA pulled its members out of the mines in May of 1919 to protest wage reductions, the OBU seized the moment to usurp leadership of the strike, forming its District 1 in the Pass. Alarmed by the rise of Communism in Europe and frustrated by the ensuing eight months of lost production, management resolved to break the OBU by agreeing to increase the wages of the dues-paying UMWA members. The strategy worked, fracturing the fragile unity of the miners so that efforts to gain general wage increases by stopping work in 1921 were weak. The strike from April 1st through to August 24th of the next year, 1922, gained the miners nothing but hunger.
Regretting their generosity of 1919, writes W.J Cousins in A History of the Crows Nest Pass (The Historic Trails of Alberta, 1952, 1981), and suffering losses due to low coal prices, the Western Coal Operators unilaterally rolled back wages in 1924 and locked out their workers for nine months to emphasize their stand. Powerless and hounded by both government and business, the OBU crumbled.
Desperate to make ends meet in these tough times, many Pass miners gave up on established unions and associated themselves with the Miners Association of B.C. In 1925 the communist Mine Workers Union of Canada gathered many into its fold, but fanatical resistance by the Operators Association rendered the MWUC powerless, and as they buried the six killed by a gas outburst at Coal Creek No.1 East on August 30th, 1928, miners were preparing to join the Workers Unity League of Canada, a member of the Moscow Red International. The move did not improve their lot. Especially in Alberta the WULC was met with violent opposition and, with the Depression throwing some 90% of Pass families onto public relief, workers could make little progress in winning fair treatment and wages in their desperate scramble for employment of any kind.
By 1936 the locals had rejoined the UMWA, but it wasnt until the demands of W.W.II sparked the coal industry into full production that money began to jingle again in Fernies pockets. That jingle perhaps helped defeat the last grasp of the Radicals for power when, on October 25th, 1945, long-time organizer and Labour-Progressive Party candidate, Harvey Murphy, was defeated in the provincial election by Reverend J.H. Matthews of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
The Communities of Fernie
Complicating the construction of a unified labour front was inter-ethnic suspicion, ignorance and intolerance. Typical of many of the mining towns in the Kootenays and southern Alberta, in its early years Fernie was essentially an amalgamation of villages reflecting the origin of their inhabitants: French Town, Slav Town, Italian Town, Portuguese Town. Lured from their native lands by blatantly misleading advertising and false promises, the newly arrived were by turns alarmed, disheartened and outraged by the crude conditions in which Operators Association expected them to live and labour. Impoverished, liable for the reimbursementplus interestof their immigration expenses, and denied passage home, they found themselves little better than indentured servants. Simmering in resentment, co-linguals congregated for comfort and, mutually distrustful and isolated by language, each community blamed the other for worsening circumstances. Co-operation was rarely possible; newly arriving groups were resented for the competition they brought to the work-place and damned for the subsequent stagnation of wages. Bone busting gang brawls were not uncommon in the smoky streets. Each group naturally developed a political organization which controlled its affairs. These organizations were tacitly encouraged by the company bosses who appreciated that they could be used as tools to prevent the communities from coalescing to confront the company. The local police were CNP Coal employees who saw their primary responsibility in the protection of company property and were little interested in breaking up gangs. When fighting threatened to disrupt production, a few Provincial Policemen were imported to help the company cops crack a few heads and screw the lid back down on the boiling melting-pot. So tense was the situation during W.W.I that, as much for their own protection as for fear that they would hinder coal production, the government interned workers hailing from enemy countries, only letting some out when CNP Coal was unable to meet its quotas with its reduced workforce. Postponing the release of more prisoners was the rumour that the Coal Creek blow-out of April, 1917, was sabotage.
Mutual ethnic hostility only began to change when the second generation, able to communicate in the common language and having worked matters out on the playing fields of their youth, assumed the responsibility of government and forced the company to modify its mediæval practices. Not benefiting much from this détente were people of Japanese and Chinese extraction. In the established Occidental tradition, Orientals in the Pass had long been vilified, excluded from Unions and barely tolerated as they performed societys less appealing tasks.
Especially profitable for CNP Coal in Fernies early days were the permits that the company required liquor outlet to buy, and rare was the occasion when the request for such a permit was denied. For want of other recreations, men crowded the bars and drank. Misunderstandings escalated into arguments and then into fights in the streets which discouraged non-combatants from venturing far from home on pay days. Respect for law sunk so low that bank employees were issued revolvers with which they were expected to become proficient.
From the beginning, though, civility was hard at work smoothing the rough edges of the mining camp. The community organized a school board in March of 1899 and by that September classes were being taught in Joyces Hall as a proper school house had not yet been completed. Worshippers were welcomed to the inaugural Catholic church service on Easter Sunday, 1900. Anglicans had a vestry in which to gather, and Presbyterians met regularly in members homes. In June of 1900 the school was completed and come that September seated over 100 pupils. As the town matured, clubs and recreational associations evolved to effect civic improvements and compete with the bars for mens non-working hours.
Fernies Secondary Occupations
Though Fernie existed to mine coal, not all of its residents were employed in that industry. Forests of Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine and Western red-cedar attracted sawmills to the Elks valley. CNP Coal itself organized the Elk Lumber Company, Limited, when it first began operations in 1897 to cut mine props. It was apparently called Elk Valley Saw and Planing Mills in 1902 when it was purchased by D.V. Mott, Son and Company. In 1903 the Motts, having built another mill at Hosmer, sold out to Manitoba and Minnesota interests who injected money and expertise into the enterprise, building a mill in what is now West Fernie and calling it the Elk Lumber Company.
The CPR set up a 100,000 board-feet-per-day mill in a five storey-high, 300-foot long building in the neighbourhood in 1898. Soon after, Alex McDougall4 incorporated his Fernie Lumber Company, Limited, and established mill between the River and the Railway north of town about a mile, on a property now occupied by the Fernie Golf & Country Club. In 1902 H.A. Bentley of Fernie, Henry Alfred (Fred) Kanouse, ex-whiskey trader from the NW-T, and H. Lever formed the The Cedar Valley Improvement Company, establishing a mill powered by a 120 horse-power Waterhouse engine on the CNS about two miles downstream from Elk Lumber. This outfit was bought out in 1904 by the New York-capitalized North American Land and Lumber Company5 which ran a crude railroad out into the woods of the Lizard Creek valley and used a little Climax locie to haul logs to its mill south of the City on the GNs Crows Nest Southern tracks.6 In 1908 the Wood-McNab Lumber Company set up a mill on the BC Southern about three miles north of Fernie Lumbers yards, and began cutting in the Hartley Creek valley between Mounts Fernie and Procter, north-west of the City. J.G. Billings Logging was also active in the area.
Government bureaucracies maintained representations in the City. For awhile in the early years, an American consul was stationed here. On June 13th, 1899, Ottawa expressed its faith in the settlement by transferring hither the local Port of Entry and customs office from Wardner to facilitate the importation of machinery and the export of coal. W.S. Keay arrived as Sub-Collector on July 1. In conjunction with the office was a bonded warehouse used primarily as storage for liquor.
Railroads, the timber industry and the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company aside, the main representatives of big business in Fernie were the banks. The Imperial Bank, a founding member of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, was one of the first companies to bring financial services to the City. The ill-fated Home Bank of Canada opened its local branch in 1906.
Supporting the big businesses were, of course, the small. In May of 1904 the Wriglesworth and Bullock Company began supplying bricks to the building trade, and in 1908, as the city rose from the ashes of its Great Fire, the Fernie Brick Company opened a manufacturing plant in what is now West Fernie. Distinctively yellow, the company product can still be seen in great numbers though out the City. Domestic electricity became reliably available when the municipal steam-powered generating plant was completed in 1909. Livery stables cared for the many horses used in the early days for power and transport, and doubtless their owners predicted a dire fate for Joe Letcher when he brought the first motor car, a Model T Ford, to the City in 1910. Besides the hardwares, haberdasheries, cafés and cobblers shops, Fernie boasted a foundry, a brewery, and even a cigar factory.
The Fires of Fernie
Today, visitors notice that most of the buildings in downtown Fernie are of solid cut-stone or concrete cast in imitation. This is because of the by-law that the City passed in the aftermath of a conflagration that made Fernies previous blazes look like campfires.
A harbinger of the disaster yet to come, in April of 1902 fire razed the Towns core block. There, reports Wayne Norton in The Historic Hotels of Fernie (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), stood most of the hotels, and when the embers cooled, only the Roma, the Centralas the Crows Nest had renamed itselfand the Northern were still in business. By the end of the summer the block had been rebuilt, but proved merely fuel for the blaze that erupted in Richards General Store at 3:00 a.m. on April 29th, 1904. This time the fire brigade was unable to contain the flames and six entire blocks went up in smoke. Six hotels, the Imperial Bank and 15 stores were among the 65 businesses lost in what was, until 1908, called the Great Fire.
On July 28th of 1905, exactly one year after Fernie gained City status, flames erupted from George Carruthers tailor shop in the Free Press building and again the core block of the downtown burned with losses amounting to between $80,000 and $120,000. By Christmas, though, despite another major blaze in August which saw $40,000 go up in smoke, nine hotels, including S.F. Wallaces deluxe three-storey Fernie Hotel, had been rebuilt and one was a-building. All were constructed mainly out of wood, but the catastrophe of the 1st day of August, 1908, would change that practice.
It was a Saturday. The summer had been hot, the woods and all things timber-made were tinder-dry. The day before, a bump in the No.2 at Coal Creek had killed three miners and trapped 20 for eight hours: every able-bodied man in Fernie had rushed to the scene to lend a hand. For a few weeks a stubborn little hot-spot had been allowed to smoulder away beneath a pile of scrap and junk in the yards of the old Cedar Valley Lumber7 Company, south of town on the far side of the Elk about a mile. Casual attitudes presumed that it would burn itself out eventually. Regrettably, a robust little up-valley wind awoke about 0200 hours that Saturday morning, found the hot-spot and fanned it into flames which quickly seized upon nearby stacks of lumber. The stacks burned furiously, sending showers of sparks into the surrounding scrub. The Fire was born, and was soon racing up the GNs right-of-way to fall upon the six million board-feet of wood stockpiled around the Elk Lumber Companys mill site on Ridgeways pre-emption. All chances to stop the Fire went up in smoke. Come the heat of the early afternoon, the wind strengthened, augmenting the infernos updraft and hurling burning planks across the River into the red-light district on the southern outskirts of the City. At the Dairy Ranch, writes Elsie Turnbull in her afore-mentioned /Fernie: City under a Curse, the Fire branched into two arms, and at two hours past noon, it began to gather Fernies coal-dusted buildings into its embrace. It incinerated the works of the Fernie Brewing Company and roared into the streets of the City, leaping from building to building faster than a horse could gallop, averred mayor W.W. Tuttle. Ninety minutes later Fernie was in ashes and the flame-front was moving on up the Elk to ravage Hosmer and, a few days later, menace Natal and Michel, 35 kilometres away. Seventy miles to the east folks in Macleod, Alberta, marked the rosy glow in the night sky above the Mountains as the Elk and Michel valleys burned out.
With most able bodied men engaged in rescuing 28 men who had been trapped in the cave-ins following a bump the previous day at Coal Creeks mine No.2, little could be done to halt the Fires advance through Fernie. Thanks only to the dedication and bravery of GN employees, among the few structures left standing amid the smoking ruins was that companys station and water tower. The Fire had spread with such speed that people literally had to run for their lives. Nearly 300 fled to shelter behind the masonry walls of CNP Coals office and the Western Canada Wholesale warehouse, and there escaped death. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of the GN and CPR train crews in hauling hundreds to safety, many of Fernies 6,000 people would have perished. As it was, Death claimed but eight, two of those up the valley at Hosmer.
The dollar loss ranged to five million, much of it uninsured. Only 23 houses still stood. The new Provincial Building, the new post office, all four banks and 11 hotels, the two newspaper offices, the stores, the school, the CPR standing infrastructure; gone with everything that was in them. The famous photo of the devastation, taken while the smoke still drifted in the streets, pictures a group of bonneted women standing in the middle of a downtown street, burned up fire hoses and a waggons wheel in the foreground, and a series of failed firewalls standing 20 feet tall, evenly spaced, perpendicular to the street, the blackened stubs of telephone and power poles leading the viewers eye off into the rubble and haze. As the embers of the 1,000 destroyed buildings cooled and the dead were buried, aid poured in from all over North America. Even the notoriously frugal J.J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, donated five thousand dollars. Vowing that fire would never again destroy Fernie, the Citys council enacted forthwith a by-law that required concrete, stone and the output of the Fernie Brick Company be used extensively in all commercial construction. That precaution has bequeathed Fernie a legacy of architecture unique in the Pass for, thanks to the constraints imposed by an economy founded on a dying industry, buildings downtown have remained pretty much as the contractors completed them in the four years following the Great Fire.8 With one of the Tourist Offices Heritage Walking Tour maps in hand, the visitor can locate the best of these old structures and learn a bit about their history. Especially in the later afternoon when the sun is mellow, the longer light accents the rough, functional stone-work of the back and side walls of these buildings, contrasting the rock of various textures and hues.
Fernies post-Fire reconstruction coincided with the economic boom which sailed North Americas economy to unprecedented heights in the years before W.W.I. This marked the acme of Fernies existence; not until the end of the Twentieth Century would the City again be so prosperous. In 1913, the year that the mines at Coal Creek output a record 826,000 tons and employed 1,478, European governments, worried that the wars which were rocking the Balkans would spread, began curtailing the export of capital to North American markets. Industry stalled, the demand for coal and coke decreased, and Fernie, long with the other mining towns in Western Canada, saw its income plummet. The Wars needs returned some money to the Pass, but the slump of 1919 drove coal prices down and the Great Depression kept them down. The coking ovens stopped smoking in 1919 and remained cold for eight years due, some authors suggest, in part to corporate vindictiveness towards workers who struck that year.
Fernies population likely peaked near 5,000 a year or two after the census of 1911 counted 3,146 souls in the City, all driven to the point of privation by a snow storm that winter which had isolated Fernie for weeks before rescuers were able to dig relief trains through. By 1921, as the post-war recession began to crush its economy, Fernie enumerated only 2,802; by 1931 2732, by 1941, with the easy trees cut and the lumber industry moved on, 2545. The Great Northern was the bellwether which forecast Fernies long decline. From the moment of its arrival in December of 1904, the trackage of the railways Crows Nest Southern had been busy with up to three coal trains a day plus a daily way-freight and companion passenger train chuffing into and out of the City. It was, suggests David Davies in The Crows Nest Southern Railway (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), a highly profitable operation. However, when cheap oil became available in California, GN, along with so many other industrial companies, converted to the new fuel and lost interest in Pass coal. By 1926 the GN had abandoned the CNS in the Elk River valley and ran its daily freight and passenger trains into Fernie using CP rails north from Elko. In 1928 the passenger train was replaced by the Galloping Goose, a self-propelled gas-electric car running six times per week, sometimes with a freight car or two if the demand warranted. Within seven years this weekly service had been reduced to three passenger runs and a freight train. In November of 1936 GN suspends service on the CNS and the next year abandoned the line completely, ripping up the rails a year later.
Nineteen-23 marked the nadir of the post-war recession in Fernie. The long round of strikes and lock-outs continued to cripple incomes. Citizens celebrated the opening of what they called the big school, but the ruination visited by the flood of May 31st destroyed the hopes of many. Twisting the knife of despair, that August the Home Bank of Canada failed. There were only two branches of the Bank in B.C.; one in Vancouver, and the other, unhappily, in Fernie. Its failure vaporized $800,000 in local equity, wiping out the life savings of hundreds of Pass families.
Buoyed by the successes of its womens hockey team, the Swastikas, Fernie accepted the liquidation of the White Spruce Lumber Company in February of 1924 and limped on through the 20s. With the need for coal decreasing as society switched to oil, the U.S. government moved to protect its mining industry and slapped a 75-cent per ton duty on imported coal. In May of 1929 CNP Coal announced that the mines at Coal Creek would be closed. The news that the very foundation of its economy was about to collapse rocked Fernie and relief was palpable when the CPR announced that June 3rd that it would buy enough coal to keep the mine in partial operation. The reprieve kept Fernie afloat until 1932 when the B.C. Provincial Commissioner, J.V. Fisher, was obliged to rescue the City from default and oversee its administration until it regained sound financial footing in 1945. Reluctantly assisting in that rescue was the CPR which, despite its distaste for CNP Coal coal, was coerced by the Federal government into buying enough to keep Coal Creek No.1 East working at least sporadically through the 30s. Ottawa rendered further assistance to the Pass in general when in 1933 it introduced a transportation subsidy on Western coal delivered to the Lakehead. Fernies coking ovens, which had been refired in 1927 to feed the furnaces of Consolidated Mining and Smeltings big Trail plant, had been allowed to go cold in February of 1932 and were never again fired. They were levelled in 19489 and the tract upon which they smoked remains largely undeveloped in 2006, only the Aquatic Centre and a skate park occupying the site.
Like so many other communities throughout history that have been spared the devastation of actual battle in their streets, Fernies fortunes were redeemed by War. The increased demand for coal from September of 1939 saw more and more of the Citys men catching the daily MF&M train up into the Coal Creek valley where a reorganized CNP Coal expanded its workings by opening its Elk River Colliery on November 13th, 1943. The end of hostilities, however, coupled with the Worlds submission to petroleum, destroyed the worth of CNP Coals produce and led the company to rationalize its operations in the mid-50s. The mines at Coal Creek were the losers and the last of the portals was sealed in the early spring of 1958.
The economists who assumed that Fernie would crumble in the wake of the Coal Creek closures were wrong. The energy revolution which robbed the City of its livelihood with one hand returned it with the other, for the boom times of the 50s and 60s sent North Americans touring throughout their continent, spending money on purely recreational pastimes. One of these was skiing, and Fernie seized upon the sport as a way to repair its fortunes. The Fernie Ski Club was organized in 1947 and members immediately set about clearing runs on Mount Fernie. Constant improvements were made with an eye to attracting vacationers. On January 17th, 1963, the Snow Valley project was officially opened and the City began its career in the service industry. Now embracing the mountain biking craze, and offering fishers and hunters opportunities to pursue their game, Fernie has made itself into a year round tourist destination.
Railroad buffs will enjoy a visit to the Arts Station, the Special WF depôt that the CPR raised in 1908 to replace its original structure lost in the Great Fire. It was officially opened on February 1st, 1909. Retired after seven decades of service and slated for destruction, the station was rescued by Fernies community-minded citizens. Moved back from the tracks a few yards in 1987, it has been converted into a centre where dance lessons and fine arts classes are offered in rooms built into the old baggage room and above the little restaurant now occupying waiting room. Relaxing in a patio chair at one of the tables scattered about the platform, one can sip a coffee and wait for the next coal drag to rumble by, and imagine the scene here at 14:05 on Thursday the 16th of January, 1964, when a Budd self-propelled Rail Diesel Car rolled away eastward, the last passenger train to travel the rails of the CPRs southern mainline.
The Station is not the only attraction for the rail fan. Two blocks west and a block south, in a shady park that it shares with the headquarters building that CNP Coal built for itself in 1905, sits a little 65 horsepower 0-4-0 Hunslet mining locomotive that earned its keep out at Coal Creek for many years. Farther west yet, past the unique, copper roofed, chateau-style courthouse and its neighbour also dating from 1911, the Holy Family Church with its distinctive octagonal bell cupola, is Rotary Park, where the Memorial Hospital stood until it was demolished in 1975. To the north of the bandstand, resting on a short length of track is a dinky 1915 0-4-0 Porter saddletank steam locomotive and its lorry, the hopper car that was used to charge the coke ovens with coal. On the grounds of the Tourist Information Centre, north along the No.3 a kilometre or so, sits a 100 horse-power Gardner-dieseld Huwood Hudswell locomotive that the Hudswell-Clarke and Company, Limited, of Leeds, England, built in 1948 and sent to the International Coal and Coke Company operation at Coleman, Alberta. It was the first diesel locomotive to be employed underground in Canada. When the International mine was closed in 1954 the engine was transferred to the Cheakamus Power Tunnel Project at Garibaldi, BC, where it worked until recalled to the Coleman area in 1959. It was acquired by the Fernie Chamber of Commerce after it was retired in 1975 when the Vicary mine adopted a belt system to convey coal from the working face to the tipple. The provenance of the pair of mine gondolas attached to the locie is unknown.
If visitors end up with a slightly dated copy of Fernies Heritage Walking Tour, they may be misled into thinking that the Citys museum is housed in the rectory adjacent the Holy Family Church. This is not so; though this stone-faced veteran from 1905 survived the great fire, it is threatened by the church-goers need for additional parking. Unfortunately, the rectory has been structurally abused and neglected for much of its life, and as much as they may want to, neither the parish not the City can afford the renovations required to secure the building for the future. In 2006 it sits, a ruin, waiting upon the pleasure of Time and Fate. Fortunately, come 2005, the Fernie & District Historical Society had found a new venue at the corner of Wood (4th) Street and Victoria (2nd) Avenue, and displays its collection therein.
Not on the Walking Tour maps is the site of Fernies most fondly remembered industry. Leaving Fourth Street immediately east of the only Railway crossing downtown, Pine Avenue parallels the tracks southward, passing on the left the new Aquatic Centre sitting on the southern extremity of the coking oven flats and the new little subdivision on Coal Creek Road, the site of Old Town. The bridge across the Creek transforms Pine into Cokato Road, the old road which wanders on down the Elks left bank to Morrissey. To the right, west beyond the tracks, is another new subdivision, nestled into a bow in the River, formerly the site of the Fernie Municipal Airport,10 a 2500 foot long air strip that the Department of Transport built in 1931 as part of the Trans-Canada Airway. Before that the land was occupied by the Elk River Lumber Company. The brewery, however, was on the left. A humble old yellow brick building nearly overwhelmed by newer, cheaper construction and surrounded by the tractors and the trailers of a transport company that uses it now as a warehouse is the last remaining fragment of Fernies brewery.11
Albert Mutz, Fritz Sick and G.H. Scott had formed the Fort Steele Brewing Company in 1897 and, sure that the CPR would soon lay rail to the Fort, proceeded to build their brewery. They were among the hundreds of speculators who lost out when the Railway by-passed the settlement, and had to find a new location for their enterprise. With a fine anticipation for where men would be thirstiest, they came to Fernie and bought a property from which gushed a spring whose waters were particularly suited for brewing. They salvaged the equipment from their Fort Steele facility and by 1901 had re-erected it here in a $5500 three-storey wooden building similar to their former breweryall ornate finials on pinnacles and gaily painted details in accordance with what the times expected of a brewery: fancy beer, after all, came from a fancy brewery, and the Mutzs Extra lager that brewmaster Otto Meier turned out was very well received.
Fritz Sick had left the operation in 1901 to make his fortune in Lethbridge, and was spared the sight of the twisted wreckage that was all that remained of the beautiful brewery on the morning after the Great Fire of August 1st, 1908. Rebuilt in red brick and declared formally open on August 6th of 1909, the brewery continued producing through the recession of the 20s, the depression of the 30s, the sadness of the 40s. In June of 1950 it became part of the Interior Breweries Company. In the late 50s, with both its Nelson and Fernie plants in need of renovations, Interior decided to shut them down and concentrate its operations in a new brewery at Creston. In 1959 the last of the famous Fernie lager, 8% Bock and Holiday Ale was boxed and sent to consumers who still insist that it was the finest beer in B.C.
After a hiatus of nearly fifty years, the art of beer-making has been revived in Fernie by the Fernie Brewing Company.
Explorers who have ventured this far out on Cokato Road may as well continue south for a few miles and see lovely local vistas not often see by haste-driven tourists. Past the Rocky Mountain Village retirement community and a scattering of near-by condos and town houses, Cokato takes on a definite rural flavour as it meanders some five Kay along past the clearing in the woods for which the road is named, where Chas. Duncan McNab built and briefly operated a small sawmill back around the opening of the Twentieth Century. In the neighbourhood is a sprinkling of ancient shacks and Anderson dairying barn, built in the 1960s, but looking under-utilized in the autumn of 2006.
Not really part of Fernie, yet integral to its history, is the settlement of Coal Creek. From Pine Avenue one takes Coal Creek Road out past the cemetery on the left, the Educational Forest on the right, and keeps following the Creek for five miles on a well-beaten track that sometimes uses the railbed of the old MF&M spur. Unless one is familiar with the site, it is hard to tell when youve arrived. Of the settlement which by 1905 had an all-time high of a thousand residents living in company cottages and dormitories, attending its athletic club and three churches, and fighting the fire that consumed the tipple and attendant trestle on March 11th of that year, nothing remains but a few ripples in the earth. Settling into the sooty soil amid odd pieces of iron, tiny four inch rail spikes and the occasional aluminum lamp-check disk, a few broken chunks of concrete suggest the site of the new, steel, 4,000 ton-per-day tipple with its rocking loader which tipped boxcar on their ends for quick loading, the powerhouse and ancillary mine buildings. Hidden in the under-growth are the portals of the mines proper, dynamited closed when their working life ended. When the wind is right, a faint tang of coal smoke from a 75 year old fire smouldering in one of the seams scents the air.
So quiet is it here now that it is hard to imagine that anything but the whispering woods ever reigned here. The hoots of the MF&Ms steam locomotives backing trains of coal cars under the tipple, the whine of winches, the steady heart-beat of air pumps, the rumble of blasting in the Deeps, the curses hurled at the scabs being escorted into the works by police past cordons of strikers; all gone, absorbed by Time and the forest. No-ones here, not even in a graveyard, to remember the two hundred-odd men and boys killed while digging CNP Coals coal from beneath these mountains.
The end of Coal Creek came haltingly. After the hell-bent opening of the seams, the recessions of 1907 and 1913 tripped optimism. The closure of smelters during the collapse of the metals industry following World War One depressed CNP Coals profits and the continuing substitution of petroleum for coal kept the companys income low thereafter. Nonetheless, in 1919 the Coal Creek collieries workers output some 306,000 tons, 414,000 in 1921 and almost 700,000 tons in 1923. In 1924 CNP Coal cut its Coal Creek workforce from 1352 to 573, worked only 58 days to output but 98,000 tons and stopped making coke at Fernie.1q Production recovered to 366,054 tons by 1926 with the Fernie ovens coking but 35,000 tons. Come 1929 728 men at Coal Creek were working in No.1 East, No.1 South, No.2, No.3, and No.9 to output 276,300 tons, none of which was coked.
On March 25, 1929, smoke was detected seeping from a collapsed roadway in the No.1 East mine. Fire is the last thing anybody wants to find in a coal mine, especially in a mine that exuded tons of methane gas from its working faces each day. Efforts were quickly mounted to dig through to the hot-spot and douse it. After weeks of work and serious burns to some of the miners, however, the task appeared impossible; the seam in which the fire was located was thick and the fire therefore huge, gas and coal dust generated by the fire and the efforts to extinguish it often exploded, and the roof of the access roadways were weakened and constantly collapsing. On May 31st then president of CNP Coal, W.R. Wilson, announced that the mines at Coal Creek would be closed. Above ground, a wildfire that consumed part of the settlement that year and forced its evacuation foretold the communitys ultimate fate.
Although the pits were spared immediate closure by the CPR which in 1929 contracted to take Coal Creek coal and, for a couple of years in the early 30s, was required to do so by the federal government, in 1932 miners were called into work for only 77 days. In January of 1933 No.1 and No.2 South were stripped of equipment and sealed, as was No.3 South at the end of March. Only No.1 East, opened in 1911, was worked, and that for only 90 days that year. As other mines cut back production in response to the decreased demands of the Depression, Coal Creek appears to have been relied upon to fill standing orders. Employing the 40 remaining miners and their seven horses, in 1934, 35 and 36, writes W.J. Cousins in his previously mentioned A History of the Crows Nest Pass, No.1 East worked 150 days per year, finally reaching 200 days in 1941, despite a bump on September 20th, 1938, that killed three miners, seriously injured four more, and destroyed the main entrances to the East works.
Canada declared war on September 10th, 1939. To satisfy Industrys escalating demands for fuel, in May of 1942 CNP Coal began developing a new colliery less than a mile west of the Coal Creek works. Named the Elk River Colliery, it would be highly mechanized, with two Goodman shortwall cutters, pneumatic picks, 14 radial cutters, and main haulage by conveyor belt, all designed to reach an output of 4,000 tons per day by the end of 1944. In to permit installation of equipment while maintaining the movement of coal on the Coal Creek spur, new tracks were laid in from the B.C. Southern. On December 1 of 1942 the Coal Creek Colliery ceased to exist, the old No.1 East mine falling under the superintendence of the new works which, with No.4 and No.9 mines finally in production, were officially opened on November 13th, 1943. However, the flash of the big bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 signalled the end of the Collierys large orders.
As did every little coal mining town in North America, Coal Creek struggled in the years after W.W.II. Though by 1950 the colliery had four mines working on separate seams, as the decade matured CNP Coal concluded that it had too much production capacity. Unable to foresee the imminent Japanese interest in the Passs coal, on January 30th, 1958, the company wound up operations at the Elk River Colliery, soon blasting its tunnels closed. At Coal Creek the worthwhile buildings were salvaged and the rest demolished, the site left to Nature to bandage its wounds as best she could.
Also ending its operations that January day was the Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railway. Ironically, the little road had contributed in a small way to the damages that Oil inflicted on its parent company. In 1946 it retired the last of its coal burning steam locomotives, a pair of 2-8-0 Baldwins that it had owned since new in 1913, and bought a Baldwin DS4-4-600 diesel electric, a 660 horse-power unit, the only one of its type to serve in Canada, the first of the genre to work in B.C. For a dozen years the little beast grumbled combinations of the lines five commuter coaches up to the mines and back, and spotted trains of loaded coal cars on the companys sidings in Fernie for the CPR to haul away. When operations ceased at the Colliery, the Baldwin and some other rolling stock and hardware found a home elsewhere, but much equipment was left to decompose in the MF&M yards on the flats east of the B.C. Southern mainline in Fernie. The little home-made winged wedge snow plow and a combination coach/mail car eventually made their way to the museum at Fort Steele where they are unhappily deteriorating, while a pair of the old clerestory-windowd coaches were rescued by preservationists and trucked away to Heritage Park Historical Village, a Calgary amusement.
Sometime during their stay on Fernie, visitors will be regaled with the theory of the Citys tragic run of bad was caused by a curse which the mother of a Ktunaxa maiden laid on William Fernies endeavours in retaliation for his taking advantage of her daughters trusting innocence. There may be something true in the tale, for after the curse was lifted by chiefs Big Crane and Red Eagle of the Ktunaxa Tobacco Plains Band in a special ceremony in August of 1964, Fernie experienced an economic turn-around. In addition to the money tourists bring in, Fernie benefits hugely from the great strip-mines that have been opened farther up the valley. The shadowy Ghost Rider on Mount Hosmer, rather than viewed as the spectre of the wronged maiden gloating over Fernies set-backs, is now regarded as sort of a City mascot.
Petroleum in the Flathead
With an adequate supply of peppered beef jerky from the Fernie Meat Market on 5th Street downtown, the traveller departs Fernie. On the right-hand side of the Highway leading north out of the City, near the end of the expanding strip of fast food joints and mini-malls, sits the new hospital which was opened in June of 1974. Here the Highway curves left away from the right-of-way of the Crows Nest Southern which strikes across the flats towards the River, separating the golf course from the gymkhana grounds on its left. Having defined the northern extremity of the Annex, the Highway overflies the Elk on a wide concrete-decked span opened in the summer of 2000, replacing the narrow silver through-truss bridge that the Department of Public Works emplaced after the big flood of May 24th, 1948, wrecked its predecessor. The truss bridge, like its brother at the south end of the City, was doomed by the increasing traffic of the No.3 and the Elks wild rampage in June of 1995.
Just off the northern end of the bridge stands Fernies information kiosk.
The blackened wooden derrick standing tall on the grounds of the tourist information kiosk is an accurate reconstruction of a cable tool oil rig and is based on the remains of the Akamina No.2 which worked in the Flathead River valley to the east of here in the years prior to W.W.I. The tools and iron work scattered around the towers feet were all collected from several well sites which dot the Flathead and the Waterton area in Alberta.
The Flathead and Waterton areas are geologically associated, and complex. Tectonic forces have shoved Precambrian rock eastward, over-riding later Pæleozoic and Mesozoic strata along what is called the Lewis ovethrust. Forced up from reservoirs in the Paleozoic deep in the earths crust, petroleum seeps out through the Precambrian rock and pools in places on the surface of the Flatheads valley. Long known and used by the Natives as a water-proofing and, particularly a clear amber deposit in the Sage Creek valley, as a medicine, this crude oil was sought out in late August of 1891 by the Dominion geological surveyor, Dr. Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn. His optimistic report was the reason that Baker, Fernie and their associates reincorporated their Crows Nest Coal and Mineral Company as the British Columbia Coal, Petroleum and Mineral Company Limited in 1893. With their energies apparently absorbed by their coal interests, the associates seem to have made no move to develop Flathead oil deposits.
In 1901, John Lineham, A.P. (Allan) Patrick, and Geo. Leeson formed the Rocky Mountain Development Company and began drilling their Discovery No.1 well on a likely prospect near Waterton Lake in the very south-western corner of Alberta. Probably hearing of this play, that October, R.G. Leckie, an mechanical engineer from Vancouver, and one Hugh Baker staked about 25 square miles of oil-bearing rock in the Flatheads valley. Rocky Mountain Development struck petroleum in September of 1902, the well briefly running some 300 barrels per day, considered a fair flow at the time. This find heightened interest in the Flathead, especially after the B.C. Provincial Mineralogist, W.F. Robertson, published a detailed essay in the Annual Report of the Minister of Mines for 1903 on the potential of the Flathead valley oil show, centering his attention on the Big Oil Spring and its dark green flow. Doubtless Robertsons report, and finds of oil in the adjacent territory in Montana, drew the owners of the Akamina No.2 over the Divide and into the Flathead. Their efforts, unfortunately, went unrewarded: if there was oil in the Flathead, it eluded them. A.P. Patrick himself staked a couple of claims along the Boundary, but found them so ultimately disappointing that he never paid the fees to register them.
In 1911 the Supreme Court of B.C. found in favour of a sawmill owner who brought a $140,000 suit against the CPR for causing a fire which consumed his mill. The cause of that fire and so many others along railroad right-of-ways was sparks and live coals that were routinely ejected from steam-powered locomotives during the course of their operation. Spark arrestors fitted to smoke stacks reduced the hazard, as did the careful disposal of ash and coals from the fireboxes, but the danger could only be eliminated by using a cleaner-burning fuel. That fuel is oil, and in February of 1914, notes G.H. Buck in From Summit to Sea, the Board of Railway Commissioners ruled that all locomotives in B.C. were to be converted by 1915. Though the exigencies of War dictated that this directive be soon rescinded, the discussions leading up to it had spurred oil exploration and inspired CNP Coal to form the Crows Nest Pass Oil and Gas Company, Limited, to explore company property. It found nothing worthwhile. A competitor, Crows Nest Oil Company, formed itself in Washington, issuing shares in 1918 from its head office in Spokane. In 1929 the Annual Report of the Minister of Mines records that the Crows Nest Glacier Oil Company and the B.C. Coal and Oil Development Company were both at work in the Flathead. They, too, were unsuccessful, and though the Geological Survey of Canada estimates that there lies cached in the founding strata of the Flathead some 420 billion cubic feet of gas and 88 million barrels of oil, they remain in situ, leaving the valley in its pristine state, inaccessible to the casual traveller. Why the Fernie Chamber of Commerce chose to spend its money constructing a display at the Info. Centre commemorating the industry that destroyed Fernies economy is a mystery.