Alberta’s Land, Climate and Resources
Railways and the Coal Mining Industry
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Railways and the Coal Mining Industry

y 1898 coal had become the chief source of energy for transportation, industry, domestic heating and electricity in Canada.1 The development of a commercially important coal mining industry had to await the coming of the railways, which became a major user of coal and the sole means of its transport to market. As A.A. den Otter states: “The most obvious effect the railways had on the coal mining industry of the northwest was in determining the place and pace of its development.”2

Alberta’s Coal Areas
Alberta’s Coal Areas

The coal mining industry in Alberta never reached its full potential. High transportation costs meant that the distribution of coal was limited to the regional market of the prairie provinces.3 Alberta coal was prevented from supplying the industrial heartland of Canada (i.e., Ontario) because of the easily available and less expensive Pennsylvania coal from the United States.4 Canada’s federal government was indifferent to establishing a national fuel policy that would have included meaningful subsidies and competitive freight rates for the transport of coal from the west to eastern consumers.5 Some attempts were made to penetrate the Ontario market but without success.6 The growth potential of Alberta was also affected by tariffs that prevented expansion into the United States, and by the lack of industries locating in the vicinity of the coal mines rendering the latter subservient to the railways, and the seasonal fluctuations of an agricultural economy.7

Coal Mined  in Alberta by Ton
Coal Mined in Alberta by Ton

It was after 1896, with the expansion of the railway network and the growth of population on the prairies, that the coal industry grew to satisfy the need for the fuel.

In 1898 the CPR built through the Crownest Pass in order to reach the mineral resources of the Kootenay region in south-eastern British Columbia, which prompted the development of coal mining, especially on the Alberta side of the pass. This created traffic. Eventually, Crowsnest and Canmore coal supplanted Lethbridge coal for use in locomotives.8 The CPR also opened and operated a mine at Bankhead (Banff) in 1903.

The Canadian Northern stimulated the expansion of coal mining around Drumheller when it built a branch line from its main line at Vegreville to Calgary. In partnership with the German Development Company coal deposits in the Brazeau were developed, thereby providing the Canadian Northern with an excellent steam coal for its locomotives and lessening its dependence on Pennsylvania coal. A branch line was built from Warden to Nordegg. A mine was also developed at Brûlé on the main line west of Yellowhead Pass.

Coal Industry Employment and Mines in Operation
Coal Industry Employment and Mines in Operation

The Grand Trunk Pacific (a Grand Trunk Railway subsidiary) was the western leg of a new transcontinental railway, the result of the Liberal government’s inability to design a rational railway policy. The GTP chose to use the Yellowhead Pass and was instrumental in opening the area south of its main line at Bickerdike, which came to be known as the “Coal Branch.” A mining operation was also established at Pocahontas near Jasper.

Though talking about the CPR, den Otter’s words could equally apply to the other two systems:9

(their) impact on the general state of this industry was substantial. By their decision about the timing and location of main and branch lines, company officials decreed when and where mines would open, and their subsequent purchasing policies influenced the continued welfare of this industry .... Without the mines of western Canada, the railway would have to pay more for its fuel; without the railway, the mining industry would collapse.10

As early as 1925 Canadian National Railways had been experimenting with diesel-electric locomotion, though coal and oil fired steam engines remained the primary motive power. A drastic change came in 1952 with the acquisition of over 100 diesel-electric units and by 1960 the steam era had come to an end.11 Similarly in the same years the Canadian Pacific had completely switched to the new motive power, a process that had commenced in 1937.12 Oil and gas became the preferred fuels for industry and domestic use. The coal industry was devastated, and the Alberta landscape dotted with ghost towns.

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Notes | Bibliography | Abbreviations
1. Atlas of Alberta, 1969, Plate 26, and The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988), p. 51.
2. “The Energy Question,” Energy Options, Ottawa.
3. A.A. den Otter, “Bondage of Steam in the CPR West” in Hugh Dempsey, ed., The CPR West: The Iron Road the Making of a Nation (Vancouver: Douglas and MacIntyre, 1984), p. 193.
4. A.A. den Otter, “Railways and Alberta’s Coal Problem, 1860–1960” in A.W. Rasporich, ed., Western Canada Past and Present (Calgary: University of Calgary/McClelland and Stewart, 1975), p. 86.
5. den Otter, “Bondage of Steam,” p. 193.
6. Royal Commission on the Coal Industry of Canada, Alberta Submission, 1945, pp. R–1, P–2.
7. den Otter, “Railways and Alberta’s Coal Problem,” p. 92–93.
8. den Otter, “Bondage of Steam,” pp. 200, 202; C.A. Seager, “A Proletarian in Wild Rose Country” (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, York University, 1981), p. 21.
9. R.G. Seale, “Some Geographical Aspects of the Coal Industry in Alberta” (Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Alberta, 1966), p. 39.
10. den Otter, “Bondage of Steam,” p. 199.
11. A. Glegg and R. Corley, Canadian National Steam Power (Montreal: Railfare Enterprises, 1969), p. 52.
12. M.W. Dean and D.B. Hanna, Canadian Pacific Diesel Locomotives (Toronto: A Railfare Enterprises, 1981), p. 9. Omar Lavallée points out that as far back as 1912 conversion to oil burning locomotives was undertaken “not (for) fuel economy but rather the easing of physical strains on fireman. ... The subsequent introduciton of mechanical stokers regained popularity for coal-burning locomotives.” The oil burners were concentrated between Field and Revelstoke. Omar Lavallée, Canadian Pacific Steam Locomotives (Toronto: A Railfare Enterprises, 1985), p. 130.