An intersection near the Fernie Info. Centre allows Dicken Road to wander away westward from the Highway. Whether or not it is part of the Fernie-Hosmer road that Frank Ingham opened on March 26th of 1915 as a convenience for the growing number of motorists in the district doesnt matter; it is a quiet loop of patched pavement through horsy fields studded with stumps silvered by a century of weather, working farms and hobby acreages, haunt of dawdling yellow school buses and touring cyclists seeking two or three kilometres respite from the No. 3 where cattle liners moan, fifth-wheel holiday trailers waggle along behind built Ford tough F-150 diesels and like a rock Chevies and local mums gun their suburban utility vehicles into town before the stores close.
Not far north from the derrick at the Fernie Info. Centre, the Highway gently retakes the right-of-way of the old Crows Nest Southern for its run up to Hosmer.
Initially the big CNP Coal mining operation at Michel used the CPR to ship its coal. However, in 1907 CP began developing its own reserves at Hosmer and, anticipating that its associate company at Corbin farther up the B.C. Southern would soon need train space, declared that it did not have the capacity to continue serving CNP Coal. In response, for the construction season of 1908, GN contracted A. Guthrie and Company to extend the CNS from Fernie to Michel, mile 82.6 from Rexford, Montana, the terminus of the Crows Nest Southern since a realignment of the GN mainline in 1904. Eighteen years later, however, in 1926, after the GN had finished rethinking its relationship to coal, the Extension was abandoned and removed, leaving the MF&M to make arrangements to use CP rails if it needed to chug a train up to Michel or back. The colliery at Michel reverted to using the CPR to move its coal.
Hosmer and CPR Coal
The Elks valley widens north of Fernie. Between the Highway and the CPR tracks, the Rivers bed is classically braided, indicative of the flood which scours it every spring when the snow melts out of the highlands. The torrent of 1916 is particularly remembered, as is that of June, 1995, when the Elk ripped apart its banks and levies to get at bridge abutments and building foundations. Luckily, the Elk is rarely so savage. Rising to 2,400 metres on the left, Mount Proctor waits patiently to cut short the Valleys evening light; on the right, the front ridges of the Macdonalds blend into each other in an unbroken chain barring easy access to the delicate mountain vales to the east.
In her informative A Travellers Guide to Aboriginal B.C., Cheryl Coull writes that at an undisclosed location somewhere in this valley is one of the only two buffalo jumps yet found in Canada west of the Great Divide. A visitor will look in vain for bison in the Elks valley. A little ice-age apparently drove them from the neighbourhood in 1600 and they never returned, forcing the Upper Ktunaxa to risk the uncertain hospitality of the Niitsi-tapi on Eastern Slopes of the Rockies in order to obtain the meat staple of their diet.
Pretty much following the roadbed of the Crows Nest Southern, the Highway passes the newish, tree-free Snowy Peaks RV Park and trailer court. This, according to a local wag who should remain anonymous1, is stinky flats, so named for the little sulphurous spring-fed creek which burbles beneath the Highway hereabouts.
About eleven billiard table-level highway kilometres from Fernie, the No.3 used to curve right to cross the Elk on a silver painted 1949 steel through-truss bridge with a wood-decked walkway cantilevered out from its upstream side. No longer. Now a wide, concrete-decked span emplaced in the early years of the first decade of the Third Millennium rockets petroleum-powered travellers over the Elk and into the unincorporated hamlet of Hosmer on the Rivers left bank. To the right, down off the Highway and formerly overseen by a tall, painted metal sign proclaiming Mountain Shadows Inn - Kitchenettes, is the main residential area. The Inn is long gone, and the weathered sign, for years a wry funniosity enjoyed by the locals, has followed.
Also long gone is the business that put Hosmer at the map in the mid-19-aughts.
Clauses of the Agreements of 1897 among the CPR, the Kootenay Coal Company and its B.C. Southern Railway, and the Federal government, stated that the CPR would retain, and the Government would obtain, tracts of coal lands in the Elks valley. By the Agreements, the CPR was to turn over to Kootenay Coals provincial arm, the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP Coal), all but six square miles of the lands in the Elks valley which CP would earn by dint of completing the B.C. Southern. However, CP undertook not to develop coal mines on those six square miles until ten years had elapsed from the moment of the turn-over, that being, note the authors of the Hosmer Heritage Restoration Project report, the 19th of December, 1908. There was a caveat, however, and that was that CNP Coal guaranteed to satisfactorily supply CPs coal customersprimarily the smelters in the West Kootenays and the Boundary District. If CNP Coal failed, CPand the Dominion Governmentcould go ahead and mine.
On November 5th, 1901, after closely examining the Elk valleys coal measures, CP selected the first two of the six sections that it was entitled to keep under the provisions of the Agreement. By that time, too, William Pearce, E.F. Taylor and W.F. Leach had delineated the federal governments 50,000 acre reserve, an choice that was confirmed by an Order in Council on May 19, 1902. By November of that year, CP had chosen its remaining four sections to form a contiguous rectangular block of four by 1.5 miles astride the eastern wall of the Valley, on what are known now as the Fernie and Hosmer Ridges, and had obtained the requisite exploration licences. That year, as well, at the siding that the Company had named for one of its directors at the time of the B.C. Southerns construction, Charles Rudolf Hosmer, D.V. Mott and Sons set up a little sawmill likely to feed rough-cut lumber to their big mill in Fernie.
By the end of 1904, however, J.J. Hill and his Great Northern had bought a great chunk of CNP Coal and had run the Crows Nest Southern up into the Elk valley from GNs mainline in Montana. CP began alleging that its rival harboured the evident intention of supplying its American customers to the detriment of the Companys clientele, in many of which the Company had a financial stake. This, CP claimed, was a clear abrogation of the Agreements and nullified the Railways commitment not to develop its measures in the Elk. As well, labour trouble at CNP Coal threatened the companys output, putting CPs clients further at risk. Pressed by the demands of Walter Hull Aldridge, manager of the Companys Consolidated Mining and Smelting operation at Trail, for a secure source of fuel, and figuring that their lawyers could successfully interpret the finer print in the Agreement in the Companys favour, CPs Board of Directors commanded that the Hosmer measures be opened.
On March 17th, 1907, the CPR established the Pacific Coal Company, Limited (PCC) to take charge of the operation through Hosmer Mines, Limited. Examinations had revealed coal in 13 seams varying from four to 30 feet wide in the Hosmer Ridge some 600 feet above the B.C. Southerns rails. Analyses proved that the coal was 63.4% fixed carbon, 21.3% volatiles and 15% ash. Acceptable. Two mine entrances were begun, report F.R. and Sandy Lightfoot in their The Boom Years of a Mining Town (The Forgotten Side of the Border, Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller, eds. Plateau Press, Kamloops, B.C., 1998), the B above the A. At the base of the Ridge ground was cleared and plant construction commenced. Five hundred men were soon at work. Concrete-walled, the power and boiler houses arose, and shops, cradled in the curve of a 4,000 foot-long inclined, cable operated, twin-tracked tramway which was built to ease trips of ten, two-ton capacity mine cars down from the mine mouths above. Nearby, between the plant and the BC Southern mainline, a grid of streets was laid out and the building of a residential canton was commenced. A siding was looped from the mine-side of the mainline and on it a steel cross-over type tipple was custom-built to PCCs requirements by Roberts and Schaefer of Chicago. Delivered thereto from the bottom of the Incline by an air-operated locomotive, the coal would be weighed and separated by shaking screens into lump and slack. The former would be fed onto a conveyor where men would pick out the refuse and load the cleaned coal into the fleet of 40-ton cars that CP had specially purchased for the Hosmer project. The slack would be dumped into a seven-ton lorry which a dinky loco would push out on tracks laid on top of the double row of 240, 12-foot diameter, seven-foot high beehive coking ovens that Harry Oldland of Pennsylvania was building in two batteries flanking a sub-siding. When in full production, the batteries would roast some 470 tons of slack into 300 tons of coke each day.
The whole undertaking was to be first rate and would cost the Company a bundle. All the tools were air-driven, the underground locomotives electric.
The development of the Hosmer property was not without its set-backs, of course. On Friday, November 10th, 1907, three workers died in a cave-in, the operations worst accident. The conflagration that wiped out Fernie on August 1st, 1908, also roared up the valley to burn out the Hosmer mines entrances, touch off the powder magazine nearby and consume most wooden structures in the neighbourhood. Amazingly, only two died as the workers on shift retreated deep into the pits and those above ground fled to the shelter of the coke ovens, the last of which Oldland would complete that autumn.
When the smoke cleared, rebuilding began. On the townsite the company raised its offices and three substantial residences for company officers and the foreman. A large boarding house, a mess hall, a church and a hospital were built. Sixty hip-roofed, cracker-box cottages were erected and made available to company workers. Brightened by a single, continuously-burning 25 watt light bulb dangling from exposed wires, write the Lightfoots, a cottage, depending on its dimensions, cost from seven to twelve dollars per month to rent. Water was supplied from a few communal spigots. Not wanting to get into the town-building business, in 1908 CP bought two sections on the other side of the tracks from CNP Coals subsidiary, the Crows Nest Pass Electric Light and Power Company, subdivided them into building lots and sold them. This would be the commercial town with hotels, stores and abodes for those who were not eligible, or chose not, to live in the companys canton.
The first shipment of coal and coke rolled away from Hosmer on December 19th, 1908, exactly ten years to day from the date that the Agreements permitted CP to begin developing its measures. Though the lawyers doubtless had their wigs repowdered and their mantles laundered in expectation of actions, no one complained that the Company had jumped the gun. Aldridge, it appeared, had secured his reliable source of fuel. Production was good: from four mines in four separate seams in 1910, 539 employees mined 158,123 tons of coal and cooked up 42,037 tons of coke. Two years later a reduced workforce of 479 produced 188,000 and 45,000 tons of coal and coke, respectively.
By 1913, 1300 people called Hosmer home. If not in Company housing or one of the four local boarding houses, they lived in the commercial town in private residences or in one of the villages hotels; The Royal, The Pacific, The Hosmer and The Queens. Sophisticated savers kept their extra cash in the branch of the Bank of Montreal, children attended the two-room school and, if lucky, went with their parents to the Opera House. There was a church for every major Christian sect.
In the year of 1913 some 266,000 tons of coal and 66,800 tons of coke rolled away from Hosmer: 16 and 21%, respectively, of the East Kootenays output. In total, the mine had output nearly a million tons, most of it sent to Consolidated Mining and Smelting at Trail. Trouble, however, was on the horizon.
Disappointing early estimations, the Mines had never produced good coal. Contaminated with ash and dirt, it had never coked well; not even the addition of an expensive wet washery to the process improved reliability. The lower level, especially, was a geologists nightmare. Some coal seams pinched out, others ended bam at a rock face where a fault had slipped. All dipped at an angle of 60º and were soon so deep that no amount of timbering could guarantee that the overburden wouldnt squeeze the tunnels closed. Dangerous to work, in 1913 No.2 South mine was closed and efforts were concentrated on the B level where, among other refinements, haulage was improved with thermos bottle compressed air locomotives. It was known, however, that CPs president, T.G. Shaughnessy, citing terrific cost over-runs during development, opposed any further investment in the project. Now, notes the Hosmer Heritage Restoration Project in its report, with tensions in Europe slowing down industry in North America and labour becoming restive, the president wanted changes.
The changes were announced on June 24th, 1914. From his headquarters in Calgary, Lewis B. Stockett, the superintendent of CPs Department of Natural Resources, declared that operations at Hosmer would cease on July 3rd. Useful assets would be salvaged: the equipment hauled away to the Companys Bankhead coal mining operations on its Mainline near Banff, the buildings sold off. Coincidentally, it was revealed that W.H. Aldridge would be retiring from Company service.
With Stocketts announcement, Hosmers future died. Knowing that the railroads and the little coal mine that CNP Coal had been working on the west side of the valley since 1906 could not sustain the villages commerce, the businessmen and landowners in the public town approached the CPR for compensation. Stonewalled, those with deeper pockets cut their buildings into manageable sections and had them removed to Fernie: most, however, just walked away.
The ghostly ruins of CPs operations still lurk in the bush around Hosmer. Near the Mountain Shadows Inn sign, Front Street tees off right from the Highway to run a couple of metres up to the train tracks which, monitored by a gap-toothed row of houses new and old, it then parallels for half a kilometre down the line to a level crossing. Bumping across, Front turns into Stevenson Road to climb a few metres up onto the foot of Hosmer Ridge and then turn back northward. This is the heart of the company town, though most of the houses now here date from much later. Standing about a half-mile along on the left, assailed by a scruffy squad of poplars and juvenile spruce, the foundation walls of the tipple; rough concrete, spauled and grey. Through the woods above the tipple, a well defined trail generally follows the path of the inclined railway up to the roofless remains of the powerhouse and compressor building. Hidden in the brush farther up the Ridge are the mine mouths and the powder magazine. Of the company towns wood framed buildings, only rotten scraps remain, buried in undergrowth. On Stevenson, farther on from the tipple and opposite, remnants of the 46 coke ovens which have survived the masonry needs of local builders have recently been rescued from the bush. The nearby squatter community of Little New York has vanished without a trace.
Somehow, Hosmer itself did not follow Little New York into oblivion. Though crippled, the community managed to hang on, a dormitory community for its big neighbour to the south. It is still that today, sending folk both up and down the valley to work. Thanks to the private passenger vehicle and the mining boom in the upper Elk valley, Hosmer may even be growing.
A hundred metres up the Highway from the Front Street intersection sits the little two-storey box of the Elk River Hotel, the only business in town. Known as &$147;the Hoz, it is also the Town Hall wherein the Mayor of Hosmer fulfills his sworn duty to Do Nothing. The edifice is, according to Hosmer resident Glenn Wallman in a letter to the Author on January 7th, 2006, a union of an old store building and another structure that were dragged over from Front Street by horse-team and cobbled together when the last remaining hotel in town, the Hosmer, burned in November of 1925. By then the Highways predecessor, the Black Route, was the shrivelled communitys main street, and the local consensus was that a commercial presence on the Black was necessary to remind passers-by that Hosmer still existed. Tis still that way, the Elk River presenting a pleasant, peaceful parlour in which to balance your electrolytes before pedalling on to Sparwood.
A scruff of shrubbery across the Highway from the Elk River Hotel marks the grave of the Hosmer Hotel; nearby a dilapidated squared-log hut exhibits beautifully hand-hewn dove tailed corner joints. Scattered here and there amid the trailer houses, some aged, pyramid-roofed cottages moved from the company townsite suggest the way Hosmer looked in 1910. Among them, mentions Mr. Wallman, is the Great Northern section foremans house, now extensively modified.
North from Hosmer
North from Hosmer the Highway travels on the Elk Rivers eastern bank through a forest of tamaracks and birches growing on the lower slopes of Sparwood Ridge. On a gloomy day the forest appears thick and dark, pungent with pine sap, soggy, silent, absorbing the whine of the Highway and echoing nothing. Passing the last farm in the valley, the Highway retakes the CNS right-of-way for five miles north. At a place called Olson, the No.3 finally abandons the old roadbed and curves right while crossing the B.C. Southern tracks on an overpass completed in 1997 to replace the level crossing that marked the end of not a few lives. From the top, looking north, one can see the right-of-way of the Crows Nest Southern angling off into the woods to the left of the B.C. Southern. Somewhere in this neighbourhood the Elk Valley Lumber Company built its new mill in 1910. In his Logging by Rail (Sono Nis Press, Victoria, 1990), Robert D. Turner points out that the Great Fire of 1908 destroyed most of the useful timber in the Valley. Thanks to its deep pockets, Elk Valley could afford to lay a railroad out into the woods beyond the burn and let its little Climax locomotive haul enough logs back to the mill to make pursuing the business worthwhile into the early 1920s.
On the east side of the tracks the Highway broadens to three lanes to climb a long, easy grade up onto the first bench of the Sparwood Ridge as it continues northward. The Ridge is the habitual haunt of the deer species that give the Elk Valley its name. Chocolate brown and big and beautiful, with antler racks easily spanning two axe handles on the largest bucks, Cervus canadensisalso, wapitiseem used to the noisy No.3 and can sometimes be seen within ten metres of the pavement. They appear to draw the line at photography, however; by the time the time a casual shutter-bug stops and unpacks a camera they have melted into the undercover and vanished.