Twenty-nine gentle kilometres from Fernie, and 701.75 rail miles from the vast Westshore Terminal coal bunkers on Roberts Bank at the mouth of the Fraser, lies the Town of Sparwood (1140m). Here the CPRs old B.C. Southern leaves the Michel Creek valley down which it has come from the Crowsnest Pass, and heads southward down the Elk into the Kootenays. Not long after the Railway came through in 1898, the North American Land and Lumber Company set up a mill near Sparwood, using locomotives to drag logs out of the woods. By 1904 the operation employed enough family men that a school was built. In 1908, the year that the Great Northern extended its Crows Nest [sic] Southern up the Elks left bank and curved it across the River to run up to Michel three or four miles east, the Great Fire that had started in Fernie roared up the Elks valley to wipe out the mill and its easily available timber. Indications are that North American never returned, and Sparwood languished for 30 years as an infrequently-used siding, of some utility for the local ranching families,1 but mainly used by the CPR to store spare rolling stock. In 1939, notes Jim Bertoia in Sparwood: A Community Transplanted (The Forgotten Side of the Border, Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller, eds. Plateau Press, Kamloops, B.C., 1998), the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP Coal) decided to remove its managers from the filth of the nearby mining town of Michel and build a new bosses row at the confluence of Michel Creek and the Elk, up-wind from the mines and coking ovens. An expanded townsite was surveyed after W.W.II and in 1947 lots were offered for sale to residents of Middletownbetween Michel and Natalwhen CNP Coal gave notice that it needed part of the Michel valley for plant expansion. The savage spring floods of 1948 encouraged more families to vacate the Michel valley and more yet moved onto the Sparwood townsite when CNP Coal in the early 50s decided to raze part of Michel proper for the construction of a plant to press coal slack into briquettes for furnaces, fireboxes and back-yard barbeques. A further inducement to families was the opening in 1952 of the regional high school in Sparwood. Though the Crowsnest Highway from Cranbrook to the Alberta border had been entirely rebuilt three years earlier, it was still better to send students to school by foot and bicycle than to entrust them to a bus on a major highway.
All in all, however, the development of Sparwood was hesitant, for the post-war downturn in the coal business made the fate of the Pass mines uncertain.
The industrial boom that shook Japan in the late 1950s echoed in the mines of the Crowsnest Pass. Steel makers needed coal, and coal the Pass had. In 1964, as one-time Oriental orders for coal began to mature into long-term contracts, governments, scandalized by the conditions in which people in the Michel valley were living, resolved to eradicate the mining towns located there and concentrate their populations at Sparwood. The Regional District of East Kootenay was tasked with the project and given until 1968 to see it completed. Though some folks resisted the move, enough people had gathered at the new community by 1966 that the settlements in the Michel valley were declared extinguished when the District of Sparwood, absorbing Michel, Crowsnest, Natal, part of the Elk valley and Sparwood, was incorporated on May 12th of that year. In the years since, with the increased intensity of mining in the area, Sparwood has filled out and added amenities; a golf course, a recreation centre with a pool, a complete hospital. Now housing around 4,000, the town looks for all the world like a Calgary subdivision plopped down in the middle of the Rockies, all crescents and cul-de-sacs and drives named after species of trees, and a shopping plaza set in a city-sized parking lot. By accepting the transplantation of the better structures from Natal and Michel, including several of the larger cottages from Bosses Row, and scattering them among the new, brick-accented ticky-tack housing, Sparwood has given itself a curious patched-together look.
Places to overnight are not numerous. The Mountain Shadows Campground, on the south side of the town and to the east of the Highway just as it begins its climb up onto a higher step above the Elk, is great. Set in a stand of Lodgepole pines and anchored by a nice showerhouse with hot water aplenty, it is carefully tended by the municipality and offers campers an occasional thrilling encounter with patrolling black bears. Across the Highway nearby is a café sometimes called Kellys and its associated motel. Where as Kellys is seldom closed, its motel is seldom open. On the higher step where Red Cedar Drive comes to the Highway to give the town its main intersection, the ritzier Causeway Bay Sparwood Hotelthe former Black Nugget Motor Innis renovated and again open in the autumn of 2006 after a year of hibernation.
Across Red Cedar from the Black Nugget is the Greenwood Mall with its Overwaitea store and chamber of commerce information kiosk. The most arresting thing by far at the Mall is what was once the Worlds Largest Dump Truck,2 a gigantic green monster which, before it was retired in 1990, was able to carry 700,000 pounds of rock and coal or, suitably crushed, about 150 of those big-wheeled four-by-four boy-toys that guys around here need to be seen in. The monster is a one-off machine called the Titan 33-19 and was finally finished by GM Canada in 1974 after six years of work. It weighs 260 tons and is driven by one of GMs Electromotive Divisions 645E locomotive diesel engines which developed 3300 horse-power to drive a generator feeding four traction motors built into the vehicles steerable tandem rear axles. Initially employed at Kaiser Steel Corporations Eagle Mountain iron mine near Riverside, California, with 7,000 hours on its clock it was sent to Kaisers Harmer Ridge mine at Sparwood in 1978. Kaisers successor, Westar Mining Limited, purchased it in 1983. Never cost effective, it was retired when it blew a turbocharger and was put on display in 1994. In 1996 the Municipality of Sparwood bought the beast for a dollar.
Sharing the edge of the Malls parking lot with the Titan is the Miners Arch, a tasteful monument in brick enshrining a few feet of mine rail and a Ruston-Hornsey diesel mine locomotive which was exported from England to work in the Balmer underground mine in the Michel valley until it was shut down in 1991.
Located behind the Mall and often overlooked by the hurried visitor is the civilized heart of Sparwood; triangular Centennial Square. Bounded on two sides by shops and food joints decorated with murals depicting days past and on the third by a pair of churches, the Square is focused on a sunken garden dedicated to workers killed in the coal mines. Insulated from the world above by the roar of water jetted into the back of a concrete cavern by an old hydraulic monitor, visitors relax on a bench and picnic before wandering around to look at relics of by-gone mining days and read plaques which sketch local history.
Natal and the coal in the Michels valley
From its intersection with Red Cedar Drive in Sparwood, the Highway eastbound continues rising for a few feet as it cuts over the little toe of the Sparwood Ridge to bend right into the Michel Creek valley. Near the apex of the bend, highway No.43 tees off to the left to carry on 35 kilometres up the Elk valley past Teck Cominco Limiteds Elkview Mine and Luscars Line Creek operation to Elkford3 and Fording Coals great Greenhills and Fording River mines on the Fording River. Continuing its curve, the No.3 slips down off the Ridge to cross the Michel Creek on a year 2000 concrete-decked span and, hooking to head south-east up the Michel valley, begins its final climb 21 kilometres to the Continental Divide and Alberta.
Looking at the Michels valley now, treeless but for the occasional small copse of ragged poplars, it is hard to imagine that Michael Phillipps found it so choked with timber as to be nearly impassable when he and his partner, John Collins, came this way in 1873, naming the Creek for the chief of his wife, Rowenas, Ktunaxa band, Michel. Ten years later, reports indicate, wildfires had reduced the difficulty of travel, but it wasnt until the Whiteman settled in the valley in 1899 that it began to take on its present denuded appearance.
On the flats beyond the Bridge, evidence of the quest for coal lies heavily on the ground. To the right a great concrete bunker tries to hide behind thin screens of sapling poplars. From its high rear wall, a narrow, John Deere-green under-truss span carries a concrete deck across the Creek to a roadway cut into the slope of the mountainside behind. All around, rusting chunks of gargantuan equipment, apparently not worth the costs of salvage, slowly sink into the blackened earth. A few hundred metres along the Highway on the right, the big, pre-cast concrete-panel office building that Kaiser Resources Limited proudly opened on July 12th, 1980 stands little used, hemmed in with its nearby metal-clad industrial shop by paved parking lots and muddy vehicle compounds now lined with orderly rows of pallets heaped up with reels of cable, pumps and generators, wheels and tires. Across the Highway and on the other side of the CPRs tracks is the fenced compound of the Elkview Coal Corporation, a Teck Cominco Limited subsidiary. Enclosed are shops and a vehicle park where a mixed fleet of retired tandem-axled yellow and green Diamond Reo and Pacific dump trucks ponder the good ol days working up on Harmer/Natal Ridge where TCLs great open pit Elkview mine is gnawing out some 5.5 million tonnes of coal per year for the smelting furnaces of the World.
Ghosts walk here. The valley seems hushed, lost in recollection, listening for sounds of working life long lost, abandoned by Progress. This is Natal and Michel (1150m), a quarter of a century vanished. Unhurried visitors stop and learn a bit about the lost towns at the little cairn erected by the MoTH on the north side of the Highway.
Until only a few years ago, this stretch of Highway was hedged by rows of the grimiest houses in the world: utilitarian wooden boxes of various design, black-washed with decades of coal dust, windows so caked with soot that ones best bet to see out was to break them, outhouses standing starkly in a stinking line in backyards barren of any vegetation but tough little grasses that could somehow tolerate the coking oven effluent that frequently wrapped the community in a poisonous blanket. Michel Creek, ultimate recharger of the areas wells, was ftid with cholera and looking to avenge its defilement. For decades of travellers coming westward on the No.3, these communities were a grim welcome to British Columbia.
Like black pearls strung on the silvery thread of Michel Creek, Natal, Middletown and Michel lay in a line in the heart of the valley, west to east. Natal, first in the string on the west, was named by the CPR in a fit of jingoism celebrating the British conquest of the Boers of South Africa. Until 1910, when the CPR built and named its depôt, the settlement was known as Newtown or New Michel and had been built up since September, 1907, when the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company laid out a townsite and offered lots for sale to those of its workers who preferred to build their own abodes rather than live in company housing in Michel. Independent businesses and their employees soon joined CNP Coal personnel in the new town, making it the commercial hub of the valley. In 1908 the Elk Valley Brewing Company chose to build its plant here, and when the Provincial Police stationed a detachment to the valley, its post was built in Newtown. By March of 1909 the GN had pushed the rails of its Crows Nest Southern into the settlement and raised its grand station on the western outskirts to receive the trains of its Morrissey, Fernie and Michel Railway (MF&M) coaches. That April the Post Office opened a bureau. Of the four hotels in the areaThe Michel, The Venezia, The Alexandra, and The Kootenayonly The Michel, predictably, was not in Natal. With a cinema, the Oddfellows Hall, the Opera Houselater bought by the United Mine Workers of America and turned into a general social centreand the Basketball Hall built into the GN station after that company withdrew service in 1926, Natal was the cultural heart of the valley.
Enhancing the regions economic base, CNPC built a saw mill here in 1947, report Glayda Wilkinson and Marjorie Fitzpatrick in their A Century in the Life of Elko : 1899 - 1999 (Elko Parks and Recreation, 1999), dedicated to supplying the mines with timbers. It was rebuilt around 1960 and, cutting timber off its Tree Farm No. 27, ventured into the commercial lumber markets. As Crows Nest Industries it bought the St. Marys Lumber Company in 1966 for its crown land cut quota, and then abandoned the Natal operation when its new mill at Elko began production on December 21st, 1968.
Between Natal and Michel, separated from each by about a mile, was the naturally-named Middletown, three dirt streets faced by about 40 houses, most owned by CNPC. In his Memories of Middletown (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), Reno Fabbro writes that on the tract between Middletown and Natal, beside the ball field, the United Church, St. Michaels Roman Catholic Church and its convent and Parish Hall, the valley communities built their three-storey stone and brick school in 1929. Up-wind from the worst of the coking works pollution, it stood until demolished in 1978. East of Middletown on the southern side of the Highways present alignment, past the mines slag heap, was the CNP Coal plants power house, shops, office, wash house and, in the mountain behind, the main entry of the mine. On the northern side was the Plants tipple and coking ovens lined up alongside BC Southerns mainline and the Plants sidings. Mentioned by Jim Bertoia in his Sparwood: A Community Transplanted (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), was Little Chicago, a dismal collection of about a dozen dwellings sandwiched between the coking ovens sidings and the Natal Ridge on the northern side of the valley. The only obvious indication today that there was any industry here at all is the barren, un-naturally level terrain flanking the Railways tracks and an over-grown hump of slag to the south of the Highway.
Farthest east was the oldest of the valleys settlements; Michel.
The CPR laid the rails of the B.C. Southern down this valley in the spring of 1898, and at the behest of CNP Coal, emplaced a siding and a little Plan F-2-20-1 depôt which it named Michel. Within a year the mining company had crews hacking into the seams of coal at the foot of the Sparwood Ridge on the south side of the valley. Called cannel coal, its nugget-grade size, resistance to dusting and low ash content made it excellent locomotive fuel. It was classified as bituminous due to 68% of its weight being in fixed carbon. It ran to 23% in volatilesmethane, hydrogen, tar and ammoniaand averaged 7% ash. This meant that it should coke easily, and that that coke would, due to its low ash content, command top dollar from refineries and smelters. During its first few months of operation in 1899, the Michel mine output less than 500 tons of coal, but with the CPRs encouragement, CNP Coal invested heavily in development and in 1900 the mine delivered more than 11,000 tons, about a tenth of the companys entire output.
By 1900, writes W.J Cousins in A History of the Crows Nest Pass, the community of Michel consisted of 12 identical cottages, the Michel Hotel and a little store. The settlement mushroomed, consuming the valleys thick growth of trees. The 1901 census enumerated 476 residents in the town, many having lost everything they owned after a fire wiped 23 houses and many other buildings on June 10th of that year. Likely helping to battle the blaze was August Baldauf and his crew, who had been hard at work since the spring of the year constructing a battery of 212 beehive coke ovens. Reports M.A. Kennedy in her 1979 thesis, Coke Ovens of the Crowsnest Pass, Baldauf and his men completed their contract by the end of the year at a cost of $705 per oven.
According to Michael Saad in Mining Disasters and Rescue Operations at Michel Before World War Two (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), fire mauled Michel again in 1902 and 1903. In August of 1904, as CNP Coals 475 local workers were labouring towards the years production of over 235,250 tons of coal from Michels three mines, a two room school opened, though classes were presumably conducted before that, probably in the hotel or someones house. As well as a Post Office and a Trites-Wood Company store, Michel also hosted a branch of the Imperial Bank. In 1904, too, the construction of the 252 additional beehive ovens which CNP Coal had contracted the year before were completed, parading with the original battery in a double row beside the B.C. Southerns trackage. From the coke plant workers output 95,000 tons that year.
Come 1907, report the authors of Photo Companion - Crowsnest and its people (Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, Coleman, Alberta, 1990), the population of Michel had swollen to some 1200 served by three churches. Electricity was supplied from the companys powerhouse and a water system had been installed. The Michel Hotel was adjudged first-class under the proprietorship of Thomas Crahan, formerly of Wardner, B.C., and Morrissey. Because most structures were of wooden construction and all were becoming coated with coal dust, a Sisby fire engine was kept steaming at all times. Perhaps the one facility that made Michel an attractive place for miners to live and work was the brand new 6,000 square-foot wash-house which CNP Coal had built for its workers. With tubs and shower baths, hot water and ventilated lockers in which to hang wet and dirty work clothes, it was a luxury much appreciated by the men and their families. In one end of the building was an ambulance room where-in the communitys wounds were treated.
Probably the most frightening event to befall the entire valley was the Great Fire of August, 1908. It began outside of Fernie, 35 kilometres away, and raged up the Elks valley and into the Michels. Such an awesome spectre was it that the women and children of the valley were ushered into boxcars and hauled over the Divide to Coleman for the duration of the battle. Despite the setback, CNP Coal added 22 more coke ovens to bring the total at Michel to 486, smoking 24 hours-per-day, each one capable of accepting an eight-ton charge of slack coal, but more commonly loaded with six-tons which took but 36 hours to reduce, rather than 56.
The treasured wash-house notwithstanding, in the new century workers were no longer prepared to meekly slave their lives away to improve their bosses standard of living. As the demand for Pass coal reached toward the 3.5 million ton mark that it would achieve in 1903, CNP Coal pressed its workers to increase production. The disputes between miner and manger that so frequently halted production at Coal Creek and made CP eager to develop its property at Hosmer also bedevilled labour relations at Michel. When miners at Coal Creek had walked out in June of 1901, their brothers at Michel were quick to follow. So it went through the years; the demands of capitalists fomenting resentment among the men in the mine, at the sharp end of the business. The peak of discontent was reached in 1911, when a Pass-wide walkout of unionized workers between March 31st and November 20th saw tensions explode into violence as company policemen supported by officers of the Provincial Police escorted scabs through lines of picketers. From Michels six mines 1020 workers had output 457,600 tons of coal and produced 78,500 tons of coke in 1910. Figures supplied by CNP Coal to the B.C. Department of Mines for 1912 reveal that many fewer than half of the 1910 workforce, 465 men, dug more than half of the 1910 tonnage254,000 tonsand with 70,000 tons from the ovens nearly equalled the pre-strike coke production. There appears to have been a clear winner in the dispute.
The Michel Colliery worked steadily through the Great War, of course, and went through the same troubles that convulsed the rest of the Pass when the One Big Union led the miners fight for fair wages from the Western [Coal Operators Association.4 In 1922, the year that the mines were struck from April 1st to August 24th, Michels 613 workers output nearly 217,000 tons of coal and made 41,400 tons of coke. By 1924 the workforce had been pared to 470, and in the 118 days that the colliery was open, 148,000 and 30,600 tons of coal and coke were produced. That year was the low point of the decade, and come 1929, when 584 men in mines No.3, No.B, No.3 East and No.8 dug 342,000 tons.
Though the valleys communities were separate entities politically, emotionally they were united. On Tuesday the 8th of August, 1916, lightning struck the New No.3 East mines haul rails and triggered three jolting explosions underground, blowing out the shafts, destroying surface plant. Twelve died, and although it was called by newspapers country-wide the disaster at Michel, through-out the valley families comforted grieving neighbours. Sudden death being ever a part of life in a coal townthe same mine had blown out on January 4th, 1904, killing seven miners and burning down half of Michelthe dead were quickly buried and the mine put back into production. Sadly, valley families were all too practised in funereal ritual. Records indicate that from 1902 to 1917 about 30 men and boys each year lost their lives in CNP Coal operations.
On the Friday of July 8th, 1938, lightning-struck rails touched off an explosion of coal dust suspended in the airways of the B Seam mine and three more died. By then, though, valley residents finally had a proper facility in which the injured could be treated. A bone of contention which had long strained labour relations had been the lack of a dedicated hospital in the valley. From early on medical facilities were maintained in various buildings in Michel and, later, in Natal, but it wasnt until March of 1937 that the first permanent hospital was opened in a large three-storeyd house which CNP Coal had renovated for the purpose. Deductions from workers pay cheques maintained the service, buying supplies and paying staff. In October of 1963 a maternity unit was finally added.
The building of the hospital was not the only project CNP Coal was willing to undertake during the 30s. Demonstrating faith, if not foresight, in the market for coal, in 1932, in the depth of the Depression, the company constructed a new tipple at Michel. Though it was of the less expensive dry sort type, it was still a significant investment, and when it burned on October 25th and 26th of 1937, it was rebuilt. In 1939 one row of coke ovens236 unitswas levelled to make room for a battery of ten big Curran-Knowles by-product ovens which efficiently used the gases expelled during coking to sustain the process. These ovens, 40 feet long and tunnel-like with steel doors at either end and could accept an eight-ton charge. Unlike the beehives whose charge had to be levelled and then cleared by hand, the Curran-Knowles were served by a mechanical leveller/unloading ram which travelled along a wide quay on one side of the battery and shoved the finished coke out onto the loading quay on the other end of the ovens.
Perhaps desperate to keep workers as the Second World War sopped up men, in 1940 the company built a new washhouse.
Modern Mining in the Pass: the Americans
In 1942 the Michel colliery was producing 45% of B.C.s coal, 82% of the East Kootenays output. It was all from the underground mines, primarily the No.3 which worked the A, B, and No.1 seams.
The focus of CNP Coals Michel operations began to change on February 5th, 1947 when, on the slopes south of town, the company opened the Erickson strip mine. Quickly appreciating the economies of the new methods, a day after Erickson was closed on October 20th, 1949 due to the depth of the overburden, the company opened its Baldy Mountain strip operation in the heights four miles north-west of Michel. in 1966 the company was still working the Baldy Mountain along with seven other mines both above and below ground, outputting over one million tons of coal that year.
On February 1st, 1954, CNP Coal, now operating five underground mines as well as the Baldy Mountain pit, diversified its product line by opening a $650,000 briquette plant at Michel. Made from slack which is pressed into shape under heat, briquettes are just essentially just artificial lumps of coal. Most the plants output went to the CPR, though some of it likely ended up in BBQ pits throughout western Canada. Two years later CNP Coal abandoned the last of its beehive coking ovens, relying on the ten Curran-Knowles ovens to make the small amount of coke still required by Industry.
It is the rare company that doesnt lose its vigour over time. Its venture into the oil and gas business having failed, Crows Nest Pass Coal found itself marginalized after the Second World War in an economy rushing to embrace Petroleum fuels. Its Morrissey operations nearly 40 years closed by the time it quit mining at Coal Creek in January of 1958, CNP Coal ended the 50s with only the mines at Michel still active. Concluding that the coal business was dead, the company began to look to the forests for its income, buying up timber rights and little lumber companies in the Pass area. It didnt seem to believe that the small orders for coal that started arriving from Japan around 1960 would amount to much. Other companies, however, were blessed with clearer vision.
In February of 1960 a wholly-owned subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, the San Francisco-based Columbia Iron Mining Company, paid CNP Coal a half-million dollars for a four year option to explore CNP Coals unworked acreage. Though it concentrated most of its efforts on a two year examination of Morrissey Ridge south of Fernie, Columbia did glance into the Elk Rivers basin north of Sparwood. Columbias investigations quickly convinced it that six billion tons of coal lay waiting in the area, and it reportedly offered CNP Coal ten million dollars for the acreage, or $17 million for the entire company. The offer was evidently not accepted and Columbia terminated the option in 1962.
Columbia Irons reports, however, drew the attention of the Kaiser Steel Corporation. Its executive was able to reach an understanding with CNP Coal and in 1964 contracted with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Limited, of Japan for the delivery of 4.75 million tons of coal over the next 21 years. Corralling moneys both public and private, Kaiser began tearing into the northern end of Natal Ridge where the Mist Mountain Formation of the Kootenay Group held 14 seams of bituminous coal totalling to 60 metres in thickness. In January of 1968, the Kaiser Coal Limited further agreed to supply Mitsubishi Trading Company and six other Japanese firms with 40 million tons of pulverized coal over a 15 year period beginning in 1970. To ensure supplies, writes G.W. Taylor in Mining: The History of Mining in British Columbia, on February 29th of 1968 Kaiser bought the entire coal holdings of Crows Nest Industries, Limited, as CNP Coal had been calling itself since October 25th of 1965, including Michels five strip and three remaining underground operations. Selling its power distribution system in Sparwood and the Michel valley to B.C. Hydro in December of that year, CNI turned its full attention to its lumbering activities, centred on its Burton Lake Road mill at Elko.
The enormous quantities of coal that now needed to be moved out of the Elk valley threatened to swamp existing transportation infrastructure. On the Coast, off Tsawwassen south of the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver, contractors began dumping barge-loads of rip-rap into the shallow waters covering Roberts Banks, eventually creating an island. Across the delta of the Fraser a branch of the British Columbia Harbours Board Railway was extended and snaked out on a causeway to the new island upon which Westshore Terminals was emplacing its bulk coal storage and ship-loading facilities.
To get the coal from the Elk to the Coast posed a challenge and promised considerable profits. CP, of course, presumed that the plum would fall in its lap, and adopted a concept unique to Canada; the unit train: a train of identical cars permanently linked with rotating couplers which allowed each car to be individually inverted in the unloading process. What was innovative about CPs unit train was the addition of remotely controlled slave locomotives cut into the train about a third of the trains length from the head end. Up-grading the trackage of the Kootenay Central Railway and the run of the B.C. Southern from the Pass to the KCR junction at Colvali, buying, according to D.M. Bain in volume eight of his Canadian Pacific in the Rockies (op. cit.), 578 light-weight 105 ton capacity bathtub type gondolas and a fleet of 37 Montreal Locomotive Works 3000 horsepower M-630 Chop-Chops, from 1968 CP prepared to haul the Elks coal. The plans only handicap was the circuitousness of the route and the difficulties posed by the 2.2% grades on the Mainline through the Selkirk Mountains.
Consisting of 88 gondolas, CPs first unit coal train left Sparwoods new, long sidings for the Coast at 1100 hours on March 16th, 1970. As the facilities on Roberts Bank were incomplete, the train off-loaded at Port Moody and, with its two sister trains, continued to do so until Westshore Terminals were ready to receive coal on April 30th. As Japanese demands increased, the Railway ran up to 17 unit trains per day over the circuit, increasing their average length to 110 cars with the retirement of the MLWs in favour of 3600 horsepower SD40 and SD40-2 locomotives from GM in the early 70s. To eliminate the clouds of black dust that used to drift from the trains during their passage, CP installed equipment at the loading points which sprays a fine coating of combustible latex onto the coal, sealing it in the gondolas. In the late 90s, the GM locos were replaced by enormous 4400 horse power General Electric AC4400CWs.
CP was not the only railroad with its eye on profits from the Pass. On May 4th, 1966, the Companys grand old rival, the Great Northern, had incorporated its Kootenay and Elk Railway Company (K&E) in the province of B.C. with a charter that permitted it to retrace the path of the its Crows Nest Southern line into the Pass from Rexford, Montana, on the GN mainline. The advantage of shipping coal to the Coast on its route, claimed GN, was that it was shorter and had much easier grades than those the CPR had to deal with, therefore cheaper. The only hitch in the plan was the necessity to obtain federal permission to cross the International Boundary. When GN applied for a Dominion charter, CP was quickly in court to wave Canadas new Maple Leaf flag and keen over the loss of jobs should the coal move through the United States. Heeding the pleas of its ancient pet, Ottawa ultimately refused GNs petition, and although the latter mused that it might get around the regulation by building both the K&E and a spur of the Montana and Great Northern Railway right up to each other at the Boundary and leaving a one inch gap between the ends of the rails to satisfy the law, the proposal was effectively killed. GN, writes Barrie Sanford in The Pictorial History of Railroading in British Columbia (Whitecap Books, Limited, Vancouver, 1981), did a bit of grade work on the K&E during April of 1973, but by that time CP had spent millions on its coal handling system, an investment that the Canadian courts could not ignore; it was time for the Great Northernby then, the Burlington Northernto bow out. The K&E was removed from the Register of Companies on August 8th, 1985.
Another aspect of Kaisers deals was the attention that they focused on the Pass coal regions. Soon other resource companies began investigations.
Back in 1904 the Imperial Coal Company and the Elk River Coal and Oil Company had explored and filed 124 claims on properties in the Elk Rivers upper basin to the north of CNP Coals holdings. With coal enough coming out of CNP Coals mines, Imperial and Elk River had allowed their claims to lapse in 1909. Their findings were largely forgotten until 1945 when hunters found great measures of coal smouldering in the region, likely ignited by the huge forest fire of 1936. Efforts to extinguish the tenacious blaze were protracted and fixed the location in the minds of many. Canadian Pacific Gas and Oil Limited in partnership with Scurry-Rainbow Oil Limited began exploring the valley of the upper Elk and its tributary, Fording River, not long after Kaiser began its local operations. Excited by what it found, CPG&O organized Fording Coal Limited as a wholly owned subsidiary and, with CP Investments Limiteds backing, began developing a pair of strip mines in January of 1967. As the projects matured, Cominco, CPs smelter operator at Trail, bought a 40% stake and became the projects manager. In June of 1970 the CPR began construction of a 54 kilometre long branch north from Sparwood up the Elk and the Fording Rivers to Fording Coals loading facility. The line became operational the following year.
In 1973 Kaiser Resources rejigged its Japanese agreements, allowing Mitsubishi to acquire a 27% interest in Kaisers B.C. coal projects. With the infusion of yen, Kaiser set to work uncovering the coal that lay in the Line Creek valley, just north of Harmer/Natal Ridge. Production began at Line Creek in 1981.
The great changes in the Passs coal industry had a profound effect on the communities in the Michel valley. CNP Coals town, Michel, had begun to die coincidentally with the construction of the briquette ovens in the early 50s. Many families moved to Sparwood, but others chose to remain in the valley, in Natal, whose residents voted in September of 1960 to incorporate their settlement as a village. The letters patent were issued on December 22nd. By then, however, governments in Canada had accepted the philosophy they were responsible for the welfare of their constituents, and justly viewed the valley communities as unhealthy eye-sores, eloquent refutations of the provincial slogan, Beautiful B.C. The Social Credit administration of W.A.C. Bennett resolved to rectify the situation, declaring in 1964 that within four years the valley had to be vacated.
This proclamation was naturally met with some resistance, and it was left to the Regional District of East Kootenay to persuade families to accept the compensation offered for their homes and businesses by the federally administered Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Those that demurred faced expropriation and eviction.
Two tragedies, notes Jim Bertoia in his above mentioned Sparwood: A Community Transplanted, helped convince the stubborn to vacate the valley. Reports John Kinnear in The Balmer Mine Disaster of 1967 (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), an electrical fault recorded at 3:59 on the Friday afternoon of April 3rd, 1967, in East Kootenay Powers generating station at Elko marks the exact moment when debris blown from the mouth of the 18 month-old Balmer North mine near Natal shorted out an adjacent 66,000 volt transmission line. Fifteen men died not realizing that the mechanical cutter employed in the mine to chew out ten tons of coal per minute out of the No.10 Seam moved so fast that despite the best efforts of the engineers to ventilate the mine, gas accumulated rapidly at the mining face. This, the ten injured survivors learned, had ignited, touched off the dust and sent debris blasting through the shafts and into the power line at an estimated 1,000 miles per hour.
The second tragedy that helped clear the Michel valley of residents had happened across the Atlantic six months earlier. On October 21st, 1966, a water-logged spoil tip above the Welsh town of Aberfan suddenly slipped, burying part of the town, killing 144 people, 116 of them children in their school. A similar situation existed in the Michel valley where 60 years of slag had been heaped up above Middletown and the school. As if to emphasize the danger, at 11:10 in the morning of November 24th in 1968, part of the heap collapsed, burying 1,000 feet of the Crowsnest Highway and a car upon it. Two died. The next year, on June 19, a flood underground in Balmer South drowned three workers.
These events, coupled with the declaration by Kaiser that its new projects were going to require many more workers than could be shoe-horned into the valley settlements, were the telling arguments in convincing all but the most entrenched residents to move to Sparwood, which had been incorporated as a Village on October 6th, 1964. For the recalcitrance there were the courts, and though the corporation of Natal was legally dissolved on the day the District of Sparwood was incorporated, May 12th, 1966, it took a further 12 years to get all people moved out and the salvageable buildings removed. The final act of extinction centred on the hospital at Michel. Closed soon after the Sparwood Hospital opened on October 14th, 1978, the old hospital was consigned to the flames on the 29th of December.
Last parade in Natal took place on June 21, 1970. By the end of the decade the site had been reclaimed; only the CPRs station and the occasional splinter of board or shingle remained to testify that two generations of kids grew up here, hearing locomotives bash together trains of hopper cars in Michels railcard, feeling the bumps underground, tasting the coke oven smoke as they shagged flies on the ball diamond.
Modern Mining in the Pass: the Canadians
For $55 a share, in September of 1980 the publicly owned B.C. Resources Investment Corporation (BCRIC) bought Kaiser Resources, lock, stock and barrel. BCRIC ran the operation with its B.C. Coal division, which changed its name to Westar Mining Limited when BCRIC renamed itself the Westar Group Limited. Its eagerness to get into diverse areas of resource exploitation in a time of general economic downturn and labour unrest put Westar on the ropes, especially after it opened up its new Greenhills Mine stripping operation in the upper Elk River basin in 1983. Westar had determined that the Balmer North mine was exhausted, boarded it up on February 28th, 1986, and concentrated its efforts on its Balmer open pit mine up on Harmer/Natal Ridge. However, unable to reach an agreement with Local 7292 of the United Mine Workers of America, the company suspended operations there on the first day of May, 1992.5 It was the last straw for Westar Mining. Compromised by the insolvency of the Groups other subsidiaries, Westar Mining made application and on August 31st, 1992, was granted protection under the Company Creditors Arrangement Act. Westar having been declared bankrupt, its assets were put up for auction. The successful bidder was the Teck Corporation of Vancouver which by that December had assumed possession and sold the Greenhills operation to Fording. Forming its wholly owned Elkview Coal Corporation to manage the Harmer Ridge mine as the Elkview, in the following May Teck reached an understanding with the UMWA and come 2002 was outputting nearly 6 million tonnes of metallurgical coal from four open pits to supply markets in Europe, the U.S.A., Brazil, Japan and Korea. With over 200 million tonnes in reserve, it will be 2040 before the Elkview is exhausted.
Fording Coal Limited, meanwhile, continued its operation in the upper Elk basin, though without COMINCO which had sold its share to its own and Fordings parent, the CPR, for a consideration of $87 million in the spring of 1986. In 1992 Fording partnered with Korea-based Pohang Steel Company of Canada in an 80/20 percent arrangement to buy the nearby Greenhills Mine from bankrupt Westar Mining. The partners managed to get the mine back into production by spring of 93.
Shell Resources took over the Line Creek project sometime after Kaiser began mining the property in 1981 and sold it in 1991 to the Mannix familys Calgary-based Manalta Coal Limited. Manalta was swallowed by Luscar Limited of Edmonton in 1998, the year Line Creek output 2.3 million tonnes of low to medium volatility bituminous coal. By the spring of 2000, Luscar was by far the largest coal miner in Canada, and had taken in CONSOL Energy Canada Limited as a 50-50 partner in Line Creek.
Of the proud Crows Nest Pass Coal Company, nothing remains. Having by 1960 decided to pursue its fortune in forestry, it turned its back on coal completely when it changed its name to Crows Nest Industries on October 25th, 1965. On October 1st of 1978 Shell Canada Limited amalgamated it into its structure as the Crows Nest Forest Products Company. Five years later Shell sold its lumbering subsidiary to Crestbrook Forest Industries and on July 27th, 1983, its new owners dissolved the old company.
In the spring of 2003 Teck Cominco, owners of the former CPR smelter in Trail, joined with Fording, Incorporated, Luscar Energy and its partner, Consol Energy Incorporated, in the Elk Valley Coal Partnership. As manager with a 41% stake in the Partnership, TC operates the six open pit mines controlled by the partners6, and works closely with the managers of North Vancouvers Neptune bulk shipping terminals, in which the partnership has a 46% share. Combined, the mines can output some 25 million tonnes of metallurgical and thermal grade coals per year for buyers in Europe, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, the U.S., and Brazil. Come the end of 2006, the Elk Valley Coal Partnership was the second-largest miner of metallurgical coal in the World, and is 60% owned by Fording Canadian Coal Trust.
Standing alone and cold, Natals station was photographed in the autumn of 1978 by Adolf Hungry Wolf who published the picture in his Rails in the Canadian Rockies. The Station is gone now, as are the tipple and the ten, still-smoking Curran-Knowles coking ovens which were captured on film by Robert Turner in June of 1981, likely cooking up fuel for Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Companys copper smelter in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Until they were obliterated by the Municipality of Sparwood in September of 1997, the only reminders the old-time coal business that filled the Michel valley were several big brick buildings which CNP Coal had built in 1907 and 1908. Shops and offices, they had stood empty since 1971, guarding the mouth of the Michel mine behind them. Although some suggested that they would make an ideal interpretive centre for the regions industry, 20 years of neglect had taken its toll. With their roofs caving, their massive doors unhinged and not one intact pane of glass among them, they were picturesque in an historic context, but beyond redemption; law suites waiting to happen. To negate that possibility, the bulldozers were unleashed.
Today, the only structure remaining on the sites of the valleys settlements is the Michel Country Inn, a two-storey edifice darkly trimmed to contrast with the dusky rose colour of its painted stucco, guarded by a cadre of ancient little White Super Power dump trucks. Dating from 1929, the hotel was the second to rise on this site, the first, completed in November of 1909, having been lost to fire. With the hopes of a tourist attraction in the mine buildings next door dashed when the Municipality pushed said buildings down around the turn of the Millennium, the Inns owner slowed his restoration efforts, struggling for a couple of years trying to make ends meet by selling meals and drinks to travellers and trying to lure locals away from the restaurants of Sparwood and the nearby Municipality of Crowsnest across the border in Alberta. Come 2006 he has given up and the old building is closed, awaiting the same fate as its neighbours.
On the Highway right in front of the Inn occurred one of the oddest labour related incidents in Canada. The Inn was shabbily grey in 1935 when the Provincial Police set up a roadblock and began scrutinizing travellers. It was the height of the dust-bowl on the Prairies, and thousands of destitute farm families, cousins to the characters in Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath, were pulling up stakes and heading west. B.C. politicos concluded that the provincial fisc could not support the increasing charitable demands, and, mimicking Californias policy, ordered that the police stop every down-at-the-heels vehicle at the provincial boundary. If the occupants could not come up with the cash money to buy B.C. licence plates and matching permit for the driver, they would be denied entry into the province. This, of course, was a barefaced violation of the rights of Canadian citizenship, but at that moment in time dirt-farmin paupers enjoyed little comfort in the Law. The Crowsnest Highway was the major auto-route across the mountains, and more dreams and hopes of a better future were shattered on the gravel outside the Inn than anywhere else on the boundary.
Just east of the Inn, on a shoulderless, forest-green steel through-truss bridge dated to 1949, the Highway again crosses the Michel Creek. The old trail doubling back on the right above the Creek is bosses row where foremen and managers and their families lived in houses much nicer than those CNP Coal built for its workers elsewhere in Michel. Mysteriously expanded to a generously shouldered four lanes for four or five kilometres, the No.3 hugs the Creeks left bank, passing a pair of tall concrete piers that once carried a deck across to the now-sealed entrance of Michels A North mine opposite, above the Railway. The valley is narrowing as the tail end of the Natal Ridge cuddles up to the lumpy back side of the Sparwood. Abruptly losing its ample proportions, the Highway crosses the Michel for the final time, squeezing through another narrow 1949 steel truss bridge. From the right, the Michel has hustled down out of the Taylor Range, the last of the Macdonalds, and rushing through the gap between the Sparwood and Loop Ridges, barges in to usurp the valley of Alexander Creek for the last leg of its journey to the Elk.
Beyond the bridge a few metres, the Railway lunges across the Highway in a level crossing and, struggling to gain elevation in its final assault on the Great Divide, charges away up the Michels valley seven kilometres in and seven kilometres out, gaining 300 precious vertical feet in what is called the McGillivray Loop. Between the Michel and the Railway, signed Fording Coal LimitedCoal Mountain Operations, a well-packed and dusty gravel road winds away, following the Creeks right bank for twenty-five kilometres into the mountains to Corbin.
Corbin and Coal Mountain
Well, Ill be damned, D.C. Corbin is reported to have breathed when he beheld the 85-yard thick seam of high-grade bituminous coal boldly exposed near the base of one of Mount Taylors minor peaks. It was July the 30th, 1905, and after listening for months to his business acquaintance, E.J. Roberts, enthuse about the mountain of coal in the B.C. Rockies just waiting to be scooped up, Corbin had finally accompanied him thither. Now gazing at the enormous seam in amazement as his horse fidgeted beneath him, Daniel Chase Corbin doubtless felt that Fortune had come at last to lead him to opulence. All the pieces were falling neatly into place.
Since J.J. Hill had hoodwinked him out of his Spokane Falls and Northern/Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway in 1898, Corbin had been looking for a way to re-establish himself in the railroad business, preferably at his powerful adversarys expense. Corbins scheming had led him to incorporate the Spokane International Railway (SIR) on January 18th, 1905, with the aim of siphoning off Hills Pacific Northwest clientele by connecting the B.C. Southern to the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Companys line from Spokane to salt water. Happy to help him was the CPR, writes Robert Turner in his West of the Great Divide. Not only did the Company invest substantial sums in the SIR and built a spur from the BCS at Yahk to the Boundary, it granted Corbin a very favourable rate for freight on Company trackage. With its eye on creating a future source of revenue, on December 25th, 1905, nearly a year before it was itself completed, the SIR released $420,000 worth of stocks and bonds for public sale to finance the development of what Corbin called Coal Mountain.
The SIR had been in operation for nearly two years when, on August 8th, 1908, D.C. Corbin incorporated his Corbin Coke and Coal Company, Limited (CC&C) in the State of Washington, capitalized at two million dollars, Albert Allen, president. One of CC&Cs assets was the Eastern British Columbia Railway (EBC) which had been enchartered on June 6th of that year and was likely already hard at work laying some 22 kilometres of 73-pound rail from Fabro, at the apex of the McGillivray Loop, to $300,000 worth of plant that CC&C was erecting on the three square mile inverted L-shaped property which it had carved out of the vast tracts that had fallen to the Dominion Government under the Agreements of 1897. The rail line was completed quickly for, notes John Fahey in Inland Empire: Daniel Corbin and Spokane, by that September the first loads of coal moved down the EBC bound for Trail and the furnaces of the Inland Empire. Before snow shut the operation down that winter, 4111 tons were shipped.
Corbin reorganized CC&C in 1909, assuming the presidency himself. Though the company was still building infrastructure, it managed to move out 61,000 tons.
In tiny gondolas hauled by a couple of compressed air Porters, during 1910, the first full year of the projects operation, nearly 10,500 tons of coal per month was dragged out of the several tunnels that had been dug into Coal Mountain, chuted into standard gauge hoppers and delivered to the main tipple by a pair of little second-hand Shays.7 Sorted and hand-cleaned in the tipple, the coal was then dumped into CPR gondolas which were pulled by the EBCs two new 1908 Montreal Locomotive Works 2-8-0s to the CPRs sidings at Fabro.
By 1912 CC&C employed 173 men to mine the 122,000 tons that it shipped that year. Because of the nature of the deposit, however, the company suspected that the costs of production could be significantly reduced. To that end, reports Michael Saad in Corbin: A Short and Bitter Existence (The Forgotten Side of the Border, Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller, eds. Plateau Press, Kamloops, B.C., 1998), the company brought in a hydraulic monitor to see if it could blow off the thin layer of rock and soil which overlaid the measures on the western flank of Coal Mountain. Though that method of overburden removal proved impractical, the experiment had nonetheless opened mine No.3, the famous Big Showing.
In March of 1913 a fire began in the depths of mine No.1. Several attempts to extinguish it failed, and on June 3rd the company was forced to seal the entire mine. The loss of No.1 hastened the companys decision to adopt a method of mining new to B.C.; strip mining. In 1915 a large steam-shovel was erected in the Big Showing. The overburden having been scraped away by contractors, the behemoth began to chew into the Mountain, benching its way into the deposit 800 feet above the community of Corbin, loading the coal into gondolas on a spur which followed the shovels progress. In 1917, coupled with output from shaft No.4, the operation sent more than 98,000 tons of its excellent, gas-free steaming coal mainly to U.S. markets.
By 1917 the CPR had exercised its option to buy controlling interest in the SIR. Included in the transaction were the rest of Corbins rail lines; the Coeur dAlene and Pend Oreille Railway and the EBC.
On June 29th, 1918, less than 18 months after the transfer, D.C. Corbin died. Although his son, Austin Corbin II, remained active in the organization, CC&C slipped into the pockets of D.C.s New York associates. Though the end of the Great War reduced the operations shipment to 80,000 tons in 1919, CC&C began to develop its No.5 and No.6 mines. These were to be underground efforts for, as promising as the Big Showing had initially looked, the pit had to be shut down every autumn when the heavy falls of snow that habitually choke the Michels upper valley hampered the work of the big shovel. With the post-War recession and the development of the California oil fields reducing the demand for coal, in 1921 CC&C ceased operations at the Big Showing, dismantled the equipment and brought it all down to Corbin.
With business conditions improving in 1922, CC&C added to its engine roster one of the heaviest locomotives that the Climax Manufacturing Company made: an 80 ton slope-cylindered stalwart which helped the companys 113 employees move some 46,000 tons from the No.4 mine that year, the year of the five month Pass-wide strike.8 In 1923 the No.6 mine began to produce. The workforce had been reduced to 82 to output 48,000 tons. Mine No.5 had been mapped out, but was not put into production.
In 1924 Spokane money bought out the New Yorkers, reorganized CC&C as Corbin Coals, Limited, moved its headquarters from Spokane to Vancouver and named A.W. Witherspoon as president, Austin Corbin as second president. A new tipple with a wet-washery was brought on-stream that October 20th, but from No.4 and No.6 104 men removed only 28,000 tons.
Austin Corbin II regained control of his fathers company in 1926 when he became its sole president, relocating CCs headquarters in Spokane. From July 26th through to mid-November the Big Showing was worked and mining in the No.6 was suspended. Production nearly doubled to 119,000 tons with a crew of 136 men. To improve its product and reduce transportation costs, CC added a coal drier to its wet-washery in the winter of 1928. However, at 5:30 in the morning of July 3rd, fire broke out in the new drier, spread to the rest of the plant and it was only with the greatest of effort that the inferno was kept from consuming the surface works of No.4 and the town. At a cost of $175,000, a new 1200-ton-per-day plant was built and in operation by that December. With 191 men working in the No.4 and No.6, CC shipped 168,000 tons in 1929. Two years later, another fire, sweeping out of the forests of the upper Michel Valley, fell upon the EBC enginehouse and ancillary railroad structures. They, too, were rebuilt.
To rebuild the plant, Austin Corbin formed Corbin Collieries, Limited, and mortgaged the Coal Mountain property to the hilt. By 1933 mines No.44 and No.6 were back in full production, and Mammoth Collieries, Limited, had been created as a wholly-owned subsidiary to recommence operations in the Big Showing with an expensive new gasoline shovel and a fleet of White trucks to run the coal from the pit to the tipple. By that time, though, Corbin workers could no longer suppress their ancient grievances.
The arch-typical capitalist, D.C. Corbin seems to have held nothing but contempt for his workers. From the very beginning of the Coal Mountain operation, life was hell in the little town that the CC&C slapped up to house its workers. By 1910 600 people lived in the little hamlet with no power, no plumbing and no independent businesses what so ever. Just cottages, a company store and a mountain of coal was all there was to Corbin. The only way in, besides the Government of B.C. trail over Tent Mountain from the Flathead Valley, was the EBC, and it, not equipped with snow removal equipment, shut down when the drifts blocked its tracks. In the early days, seeing no need to work his mine through the winter and stock-pile coal, Corbin shut the entire operation down from November to March. He expected, however, that workers would over-winter at the Mountain and present themselves for rehire when spring cleared the railroad tracks. For the privilege of staying, however, each man paid a dollar a day in rent, but was responsible for his own food. Mentions Michael Saad in his above cited A Short and Bitter Existence,… the first winter that this arrangement was tried, 1908-09, the situation got so desperate that a train carrying provincial aid had to be dug through the drifts and into the settlement. The CC&C declined to assist in the rescue mission, and Corbin may not have been surprised when in 1910 his men welcomed organization by District 18 of the United Mine Workers of America.
The benefits that the Corbin people derived from unionization are unrecorded. As in the rest of the region, workers in Corbin became disenchanted with the UMWA at the end of W.W.I when the Union could do nothing to protect wages in the face of a precipitous drop in price of coal. With their confrères in Fernie, Michel and in the Alberta reach of the Crows Nest Pass, CC&C workers joined the socialist One Big Union. Reluctantly, writes Michael Saad, when the Western Coal Operators Association adamantly refused to deal with the OBU, Corbins men rejoined the impotent UMWA.
Finally, making access to Corbin much easier, in 1928 the CC&C built a road along side the EBC up from the Black Route-Red Route connector through the Pass. It was on this road that Corbins fate was sealed.
In 1930, again frustrated with the inability of the UMWA to halt the erosion of their wages, Corbin men organized the independent Corbin Miners Association and allied themselves with the Mine Workers Union of Canada. Forming the Workers Unity League with the MWUC affiliates from the Alberta towns of Coleman, Blairmore and Bellevue, the Association emphasised its members grievances about Corbin Collieries preferential hiring practices, the extortionately high prices in the Companys store, and the diminishing wages offered to labour. As the League was evolving into the United Front, in 1934 labour organizer Harvey Murphy visited Corbin, stoking the fires of resolution.
If the membership of the Western Coal Operators Association detested the OBU, it absolutely loathed the Communistic MWUC. The Associations hard line stand left their workers with no option but to accept for the pay offered and live in the conditions as they exist or hit the road. No compromises, no negotiations. Corbin Collieries protestation that the depressed economy prevented it from addressing its workers concerns was belied by the huge investment in equipment that the company had made in 1932. If there was money for steam shovels and trucks, reasoned the MWUC, there had to be some for people, too. The argument was long and bitter, and finally, on January 22nd of 1935, the day after CC&C had contrived to fire John Press, the local Union secretary, the men of the Corbin Miners Association walked out on strike. Retaliating, Corbin Collieries cut power to its workers houses and summoned the Provincial Police under the command of Inspector John MacDonald9 to block the road to prevent reinforcements from joining the strikers.
There exist several famous photos taken by a local photographer, Thomas Gushul, of the event that destroyed both Corbin and the MWUC on April 17, 1935; Black Wednesday. One captures the mêlée that erupted around the little crawler tractor that the company and the police used to clear strikers from the road in an attempt to escort replacement labour into the works. A second photo pictures an bevy of young wives all bravely bandaged and becrutched and trying not to grin at the Kodak, recording simultaneously both their heroism in the face of a clanking Caterpillar and the companys dastardly mistreatment of motherhood.
Black Wednesday saw the arrest and subsequent gaoling of 14 strikers, including John Falconer, the Unions president. The workers, however, stood firm, adamantly refusing to return to the mines. Embarrassed by the photos of the battle and accepting the fact that the operation had never been much more than marginally profitable anyway, Austin Corbin II called it quits. On May 7th, from its headquarters in Spokane, the company announced that its activity would terminate in two weeks exactly. Everybody had lost. The workers, hopeless, left Corbin deserted. The MWUC, blamed by the delegates to the 1936 Alberta Federation of Labours meeting in Lethbridge for the Corbin riot, was dissolved and its membership re-enfolded into the United Mine Workers of America. Corbin Collieries, because it had so heavily mortgaged it assets to re-equip the mine, could find no buyers for its operation. CPs Consolidated Mining and Smelting, which had expressed interest in the operations in 1934, had begun buying up a pair of coal mines at Coleman in the east Pass and now wanted no part of Corbin. In 1939 the rails of the EBC were torn up, and three years later, having allowed the Wartime Salvage Board to collect some 849 tons of metal scrap from the property, Corbin Collieries saw itself into liquidation.
Coal Mountain, however, was not long left in peace.
Working day and night to keep the Allies war machines supplied with strategic metals, by 1943 both the Sullivan Mine and the Trail smelter operations of Consolidated Mining and Smelting had run dangerously low on fuel. The company had received in 1942 some 350 tons of coal gleaned from the old stockpile at Corbin, and in 1943 it leased the Coal Mountain property, contracting Frank OSullivan of Lethbridge and his crew of independent truckers to dig into the measures with a pair of little Northwestern power shovels and load the coal onto a fleet of 15 or so Ford 3-ton trucks for the dangerous switch-back trip down the face of the mountain to the tipple. Screened and washed, it was reloaded onto another fleet of some 25 trucks,10 writes Sam Sherman in an E-mail to the author on March 1st, 2006, and hauled down the old EBC right-of-way to Fabro on the loop of the B.C. Southern. In the year until the contract expired on September 23rd, 1944, Sullivans crews delivered more than 122,000 long tons.
Though it did not actively mine Coal Mountain after the War, CM&S retained the property for many years, using its reserves as a hedge against any increase in coal prices. T.M. McGuckie of Calgary was permitted to pick at the measures in October of 1946, but soon quit. Hillcrest-Mohawk Collieries, Limited, of Bellevue worked the Big Showing in the summer of 1948 with the old power shovels and the worn fleet of dump trucks, suspending the operation on September 25th. Byron Creek Collieries supposedly began trucking out coal in 1951 and, as a Canadian corporation, bought the Mountain in 1972 when the coal rush began again in the Pass. Having signed, reports D.M. Bain in the seventh volume of his Canadian Pacific in the Rockies, an agreement to supply 800,000 tons per year to Ontario Hydro, Byron Creek, possibly with the assistance of Manalta Coal Limited of Calgary, contracted CP to lay rails on the EBC right-of-way and built a tipple. The line was completed on June 7th, 1978, and full operations commenced on August 4th. Three years later Esso Resources Canada, Limited, bought Byron Creek but decided that operating a coal mine was outside its core area of expertise. In October of 1994 Esso sold the property to CPs Fording Coal Limited. Fording remains hard at work at the Mountain, digging out 2.5 million tonnes of mid-volatile bituminous coal in the year 2001. Scooped up by a pair of colossal O&K RH200 shovels and loaded onto fleets of 218-tonne and 136-tonne Komatsu Haulpak dump trucks, the coal is carried to 3.2 million tonne/year processing plant where it is weighed, washed and loaded into 112-car trains for delivery to either Roberts Bank or Thunder Bay Terminals on Lake Superior. Though the settlement of Corbin is long gone, the Big Showing, with an estimated 29 million tonnes remaining, will resonate with the din of primary resource recovery till at least 2010.
What is left of the community of Corbin is pictured in the fotos by Peter Gregg scattered throughout this chapter. For a glimpse of life in Corbin in the 20s and 30s, see Peters uncle Bills A Family History - Oscar Gregg / Agnes McGovern / Bill Crossfield on the Sparwood Family Pages.
Up to the Pass and Crowsnest
Hammering across the Railways level crossing, the Highway leaves Michel Creek behind, continuing its climb south-eastward, but now in the Alexander Creek valley. It is less than ten kilometres to the Alberta border. Around here, likely overgrown with scrub, is Bull Head Prairie, site of a work camp on the B.C. Southern. At its acme it boasted a pair of hotels, a CPR store and warehouse, a CP house and station. The steel reached here on April 5th, 1898, and soon the settlement moved on. A few years later the Knight Lumber Company, Limited, established its saw and planer mills here, along with its head office. The outfit was bought out, mention Glayda Wilkinson and Marjorie Fitzpatrick in their A Century in the Life of Elko : 1899 - 1999, by Revelstoke Lumber in 1960 and closed.
With shoulders wide the Highway spans the Alexander on a reinforced concrete beam bridge built in 1979. Both upstream and down the abutments and piers of the bridges ancestors dabble in the chilly waters. To the north lies Crestbrook Forest Industries managed forest 27 patched with Northstar Energy Corporation drilling leases all signed with poisonous sour gas warnings. Up in this area for a few years beginning in the late 20s the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company mined a deposit of phosphate. Through a tight 1953 steel truss bridge the Highway crosses the Alexander which has just rushed south out of the High Rock Range to right-angle right to get down to the Michel. Now following Summit Creek, the Highway eases upwards and passes the Alberta Natural Gas Company, Limited, compressor station on the right in a wiff of sulphurous fumes. Completed to San Francisco in the autumn of 1961, the 2800 kilometre long ANG pipeline delivers Alberta liquefied gas to California consumers. When Foothills Pipelines Limited began building a second, 36 inch, line in 1981, this station, the most powerful in Canada, was added to the system that year to boost the rate of flow.
Crossing the pipeline right-of-way, the Highway continues its gentle climb. On the left the Ministry of Transport and Highways weigh-scale and a little no-camping Crowsnest Provincial Park straddling the pipeline trail that wanders through the Phillipps Pass, directly ahead. Though a few hundred metres higher than the actual Crowsnest itself, the Phillipps was the preferred route in the days before the Railway, when Crowsnest Lake blocked easy travel through the lower pass. Kootenai Brown led Sam Steeles D Company Mounties over it in 1888 and R.H. Bohart in his Tudhope-Everitt, the first motor car to cross the Rockies, followed suit on July 11th, 1911.11 East Kootenay Power pioneered the route as a utility corridor when it strung its high-tension lines through the Phillipps to hook up with Calgary Powers grid in February of 1930. The 138kV lines running through there now were strung by TransAlta Utilities, now owned by Aquila Networks Canada.
The Highway inclines so gently past the weigh-scale that even cyclists, unless the winds are contrary, can hardly believe that they are ascending the last few metres to the Great Divide. Beyond, though, the slope becomes evident in a wide, sweeping, south-bending curve along the gravel escarpment of Crowsnest Ridge. To the north, the High Rock Range marches away, in the vanguard of the Front Ranges. Pressing up the guard-railed grade, travellers find themselves climbing above pretty little Summit Lake, cradled in its vale amidst sharp peaked mountains sporting caps and cravats of white and cloaks of forest green. The sign at the top of the grade reads The Continental Divide - 1357m.
Near the Sign, standing in the weedy little poplars and firs which have colonized the slope beyond the guard-rail, a visitor looks down upon the Lake, its jade waters translucent and worth fishing, petering out into a weedy marsh on its northern tip. During the winters between 1920 and 1949 crews came to cut up and cart away the Lakes frozen element for refrigerating railcars and cooling the iceboxes of Western Canada. Slicing through the scraggles of alpine grass which struggle to cover the coal and cinders strewn upon the level land at the Lakes southern end, glinting along the shore at the foot of the Ridge, the B.C. Southerns mainline. The level land is Peavine Flats, and years ago the visitor would have been overlooking a busy yards, 101.1 rail miles west of Lethbridge. It was known as Crowsnest.
The tracks ran then pretty much as they do now. Crowsnests standard two-storey station, some express sheds, a boarding house and four Company cottages lay between the bottom of the Ridge and the rails, on one arm of a U shaped street. Writes Fred Persello in A Teenager at Crowsnest: A Memoir (The Forgotten Side of the Border, op. cit.), on the other arm of the U, sheltered by the pine woods beyond a labyrinth of sidings and the coal dock, the water tower and a little turntable fed roundhouse, sat a large bunkhouse house, a store/pub and a row of small, hip-roofed cottages all railroad-red with white trim. A little cemetery with the anonymous graves of some 30 CNL construction workers killed by typhoid fever in 1898 is tucked off in the woods, writes Frank Anderson in Hillcrest Mine Disaster, one of his contributions to Triumph and Tragedy in the Crowsnest Pass (Diana Wilson, ed., Heritage House Publishing, Surrey, BC, 2005). A photograph taken in the early afternoon of September 27th, 1997, reveals that only one cottage surviving for, when it abandoned the yards in the late 1980s, liability concerns convinced CP to dismantle or destroy all but that single building, leaving only it and a few hunks of foundation concrete as memorials to an era by-gone.
Crowsnests hey-days were in the age of steam. A substantial community was required to service the fleet of locomotives required to trundle strings of empty coal cars out to the various mines to be spotted on the Companys sidings. Loaded gons had to be hauled back to the yards, banged into trains and seen on their way west around the McGillivray Loop or pushed east over the hump by Crowsnest Lake. By June 1st, 1900, the settlement was large enough to warrant the opening of a Post Office branch which called itself by the Railways name for the site; Crows Nest. Kate Good was the post mistress. In 1901 the Geographic Board of Canada designated the place Crow Nest, but two years later changed it to Crowsnest which the P.O. finally adopted on May 23rd, 1930. The Railway likely didnt bother to change the signage on the utilitarian Crowsnest Pass Branch Standard Second Class station that it built in 1898. In 1907 the CPR replaced the first station with a Standard Number 10 at which passengers would detrain for a moment to take a short walk and then post a letter truthfully telling their friends that they had indeed strolled across the Continental Divide.
Crowsnest was never much more than a Railway yards and it was the rare resident who wasnt employed by the CP. One was Jim Miller who in 1920 began cutting ice from nearby Island Lake for customers scattered along the Crows Nest Line between Lethbridge and Nelson. Mechanical refrigeration retired Miller in 1949. There were enough children in the community by 1918 that the Presbyterian Church, which had been erected in 1912, was pressed into service as a school. Which province hired the teachers is not mentioned in any remembrances of the region.
With the end of steam on the Line in the early 50s, Crowsnests utility dwindled, some of its cottages unoccupied as workers were transferred elsewhere. School classes were last convened in 1947 or 49. Passenger service ceased in January of 1964 and the station and its sheds were salvaged two years later. Since the Post Office closed in 1970, and all that is left of a once busy place is three sidings nestled up to the mainline and, backed into the trees on the far side of the Flats, with a companion bungalow or two and the nearby Island Lake Conference Centre, the big, white Inn on the Border.
Beyond the Continental Divide sign 500 yards or so, a narrow, hard-surfaced lane leaves the Highway on the right and glides down a few metres to the foot of the scarp, bumps over the rail line and cuts across the Flats to the porch of the Inn.
Its been suggested that Andy Good was a camp follower on the CNL, that he may have run a cook house for those who felt they deserved a break from Company cuisine. He got this far in 1898 and went no further. Charmed by the beauty and significance of the locale, he and his wife, Kate, built their Summit Hotel between the twin outlets of Island Creekone flowing into Summit Lake in the Pacific watershed, the other into Island Lake in the Hudson Bay watershed. The couple liked to mention that rain falling on their roof ended up in two oceans. When not seeing to the comfort of their guests or sorting mail in the post office, Andy and Kate wandered the surroundings, hunting and exploring. The original hotel burned to the ground in 1921 or 22, and much of the current structure looks to date from the subsequent rebuilding. Camping is not an option here, though rumour persists that there are sites in the trees behind the Inn at the foot of Loop Ridge. The most remarkable fact about the establishment is that it is actually built smack-dab on the boundary, an attraction for many who wish to re-align their geo-psychic compass by sleeping on the spine of the continent. In the saloon lounge downstairs, as you settle into your second cup of coffee and Jägermeister, locals may want to tell you that the hotel used to have BCTel service in one end of the building, and Alberta Government Telephones at the other, and that for amusement during the long winter evenings, patrons of the bar could phone themselves long distance. Uh-huh. Well, Telus has swallowed both companies now, but in 2002 the Inn did list itself in both the 403 and the 250 area codes. Come 2006, however, under the new proprietorship of the Hagleys from Rouleau, Saskatchewan, the Inn is listed only in the 403 area code.
Next: Municipality of Crowsnest Pass