The first awareness of the presence of coal in the Elk Valley can be dated as far back as 1845 to one Father Pierre-Jean DeSmet, a Belgian Jesuit missionary who worked with the Kootenay and Flathead Indians (K’tunaxa). DeSmet wrote to his bishop in New York that he had found a large piece of coal along a river he called Riviere des Chute (Elk River) and stated further that: “I am convinced that this fossil could be abundantly procured.”
Michael Phillips, discoverer of the Crowsnest Pass, worked his way up the Elk River in 1873 and also made note of the coal exposures. Phillips prudently sent samples of his findings to Dr. George M. Dawson, a renowned geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada. Dawson came west and mapped the formations encompassing most geological ages in parts of southeastern BC and southwestern Alberta and published his findings.
Shortly after that a syndicate was formed with William Fernie and Colonel James Baker, who taking note of Dawson’s encouraging report, set in motion a series of manipulations and maneuvers that ultimately let to the formation of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company and the signing of the infamous and controversial “Tripartite Agreement”.
The syndicate recognized the significance of the coal resource there and helped bring about the construction of the badly needed rail link through the Crowsnest Pass area from Lethbridge to Kootenay Landing by CPR. That is when development in the Elk Valley area really took off.
William Fernie and twenty imported Cape Breton coal miners started the area’s first mine up Coal Creek east of the present town of Fernie in 1897 in preparation for the arrival of the railroad. Coal Creek eventually bloomed into a beautiful small town with all the necessary mining structures, several mine entries and a collection of houses and duplexes complimented by four churches.
The Crows Nest Pass Coal Company grew rapidly and eventually started new mines at Michel/Natal near Sparwood in 1901 and at Morrissey about seven miles south of Fernie in 1902. They capitalized on the lucrative coking coal market developing in the Pacific Northwest states and at Trail, BC by building no less than 1188 coke ovens by 1904.
In 1906 CPR, who had been kept from mining coal in the Elk Valley for 10 years because of the Tripartite Agreement, began construction of its Hosmer Mine six miles north of Fernie. By 1908 entries had been driven, a massive tipple and boiler house/power house complex were operational and 240 more coke ovens were added to the valley’s total. By 1908 there were four very active mining areas in operation in the Elk Valley: Coal Creek, Morrissey, Hosmer, and Michel/Natal. All were underground and all produced domestic and industrial steam coals and coke for the ever growing smelting industry.
In 1908 Spokane Railroad entrepreneur Daniel Corbin, who had visited the monster coal pod at Coal Mountain in the Flathead Valley three years earlier, formed the Corbin Coal and Coke Company and established a very isolated mining camp for the miners there. Old timers referred to the coal deposits there as “The Big Show”. The bulk of Corbin’s production was shipped to the United States via a new spur line that Corbin built called the Eastern British Columbia Railway, an extension of Corbin’s Spokane International line.
By the start of World War 1 there were two casualties to the industry in the Elk Valley. In 1909 Morrissey Mines was permanently shut down because of the difficult geology and gas outbursts and the fact that the coal there would not coke. Following that in 1914 the Hosmer Mine suffered the same fate.
Poor production, difficult mining conditions and revenues not meeting expenditures led to CPR announcing its abrupt closure in June of that year.
Coal Creek, Michel/Natal and Corbin Mines managed to carry on through the First World War and the Great Depression but by 1935 Corbin found itself in the midst of a crippling strike by the miners for better working conditions. In May of that year the company stunned everyone with the announcement of that mine’s closure.
The rail line to the mine was ripped up and sold in 1938. In 1943 Corbin was re-opened by Consolidated Mining and Smelting with small amounts of coal being trucked to the McGillivray Loop where it was reloaded and railed to the smelters at Trail and Kimberley. In 1948 this still remote mine was again shut down.
Coal Creek continued working on through the Second World War and well into the 1950’s until the emergence of oil as a more effective fuel led to its closure late in 1958. As with other coal mining towns that had closed Coal Creek’s infrastructure and houses were systematically dismantled and shipped elsewhere. Little evidence of this once thriving community remains.
The Michel/Natal mines managed to keep working on through the fifties and into the 1960’s when the Crows Nest Coal Company were successful in developing a coking coal market with Japan.
In 1968 J. Edgar Kaiser came to town and negotiated a deal to take over a large portion of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company property and mines and develop a massive strip mine up on Harmer Ridge above Michel/Natal known as Balmer. Kaiser Resources Ltd. was the first to scale up in a big way open pit strip mining in the Elk Valley. A huge new preparation plant and large-scale equipment, including a massive dragline, marked the beginning of a new era in coal mining in the Crowsnest Coalfields.
The next big player to enter this new era was Fording Coal Ltd., a joint partnership of Canadian Pacific Investments and Cominco, who by 1972 had finished construction of its expansive Fording River operation and also began shipping coal to Japan. The coking coal markets were strong back then and Western Canadian interests began to make further plans to expand into this opportunity.
In 1974 the Corbin show was once again re-opened under the name Byron Creek Collieries and began shipping thermal coal to Ontario Hydro. Esso Resources took over the operation in 1981 and Fording Coal Ltd. assumed control in 1994 renaming it Fording Coal Mountain.
In 1978 Shell Canada took over the remaining holdings of Crowsnest Industries (formerly the Crows Nest Pass Coal Co.) and made plans to develop its Line Creek property 16 km. north of Sparwood. In 1981 Line Creek Mine was opened and became the next player in the coking coal game.
Two years later Westar Mining (formerly Kaiser Resources) opened their Greenhills Mine operation north of Line Creek at a scale similar to Line Creek.
After the infamous Westar bankruptcy of 1991 Teck Cominco acquired and restarted the Westar Balmer Mine at Sparwood renaming it Elkview Coal Corp. and in 1992 Fording Coal Ltd. bought and re-opened the Westar Greenhills Mine.
Through the following years leading up to the present day all five mines have continued to produce a never ending stream of metallurgical and thermal coals for national and international markets. They have endured market fluctuations, bankruptcy’s and in some cases several changes in ownership. In 2004 the five Elk Valley mines consolidated themselves into one powerful and efficiency-driven entity known as the Elk Valley Coal Partnership. In 2008 Teck acquired all interests in the partnership and oversees the shipping of twenty five or so million tons of coking coal around the world.
By John Kinnear