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By the early 1900s, the towns of Fernie, Michel, Natal, Coleman, Blairmore, Frank, Hillcrest, Bellevue and Lille were well established communities with an economy and social structure tied to the coal mines. In British Columbia, Fernie became the main commercial centre for the mining towns in the Crowsnest Pass. It was also the headquarters for the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company.

Fernie itself was five miles (8 km) from the mines at Coal Creek but the coke ovens were located right along the railway through the centre of town. Many miners lived with their families in Fernie, and a branch line railway connected the mines with the Crowsnest Pass railway. "On this railway," noted the Ministry of Mines Annual Report for 1904, "the coal company, by an understanding with the C.P.R. Company, runs four trains per day to and from the mines, without charge to any person who wishes to go. This is termed the workmen's train, as it runs to suit the men going on and coming off their work, many of whom have their homes at Fernie, the chief commercial town in this district. The Crow's Nest Company, with its usual forethought and liberality, provides a coach on each train for the accommodation of ladies."

Many families lived in houses provided at low rent by the companies although others bought or leased property. Although there was also some logging and sawmilling in the area it was coal that was the mainstay of the region.

The coal mining towns were typical of industrial towns in other parts of North America and western Europe. The houses were usually identical, functional and of simple design. In the Crowsnest Pass the early homes were of wooden frame construction and, in the early days, they did not have inside plumbing. Fernie, after the great fire of 1908, was one of the earliest towns in the region to install a sewer system. Outhouses were located in the backyards of the homes. Smaller homes consisted of a kitchen-living room and one or two bedrooms.

MichelClick on the small image to access a larger one.

The mining towns of the Crowsnest were representative of frontier communities. Initially there were few amenities but as the towns grew, particularly the regional centre of Fernie, conditions improved. Schools were opened in the mining towns soon after families arrived in the district. Hotels, a post office, retail businesses, banks, newspapers and churches and sometimes and opera house or theatre were features of all the major communities. Lodges were important in many communities and the members performed a variety of social and cultural functions in the towns. The larger towns also supported water works, sidewalks and eventually electricity. The 1901 census reported 1,640 people living in Fernie and 476 in Michel. A decade later Fernie's population was over 3,400 and in Alberta, Coleman had over 1,500 people, Blairmore over 1,100 and Frank over 800 with the overall population of on both sides of the border totalling nearly 13,000 people. The population reflected people from many parts of Europe including French, Italian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian and Slovakian but most were from the British Isles.

Mining towns in the Crowsnest suffered the floods and fires that affected nearly all early settlements on the mining frontiers of British Columbia and elsewhere in the West. Early building were made of wood and were built close together. Fire fighting equipment was minimal. In 1902, much of Michel was destroyed by a fire and on April 29, 1904 a fire burned through most of the business district of Fernie. The towns were rebuilt quickly. However, much worse was to come. On August 1, 1908, a forest fire, pushed rapidly through the Elk Valley by high winds raged through Fernie and left little standing in its path. Only a few brick and stone building remained and many people were homeless. From six to ten people were killed in the fire. Many people escaped by fleeing down the Great Northern and Canadian Pacific tracks which formed a fire break. A large-scale relief effort was organized and trains brought food, clothing, furniture and supplies from many neighbouring communities as the scale of the disaster was reported in newspapers.

Fernie was rebuilt following the fire with many of the buildings being constructed of fire-resistant brick.

Forest fires burned through the Elk Valley and on the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass on many occasions and did enormous damage to the natural vegetation of the area. Flooding was also a problem heightened by the lack of vegetation on the surrounding mountains. The people of Frank, Alberta, were devastated when, early in the morning of April 28,1903, a huge landslide that roared off the slopes of Turtle Mountain and buried residences and other structures on the eastern side of the community. Seventy-six people were killed. The danger of other slides eventually contributed to the closure of the mine at Frank in 1911. The community eventually relocated beyond the area threatened by slides.

The major towns grew into larger communities as long as the mines remained in production or other industries supported the economy. However, by the 1960s, with coal a depressed industry, many of the Crowsnest towns were in need of many improvements and new investment. When the export coal trade developed in the late 1960s, the small community of Sparwood was chosen as the site for new housing and commercial development and Michel and Natal were phased out quickly. Fernie remained as the largest centre and became the home of many new families who moved to the area.


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