Alberta Coal!

Miners using a universal coal cutter at Lethbridge Collieries, ca. 1950 Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A9908

Miners using a universal coal cutter at Lethbridge Collieries, ca. 1950
Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A9908

Alberta Culture has developed a comprehensive website that explores and promotes a deeper appreciation for the rich history of energy resources in our province and their role in shaping Alberta’s past, present, and future. The Energy Resources Heritage website explores the Alberta history of coal, conventional oil, oil sands, natural gas, electricity and alternative energy. It also profiles Bitumount, the pioneering industrial facility north of Fort McMurray that laid the foundations for Alberta’s modern oil sands industry.

The coal section of the Energy Resource Heritage Website examines the history of coal from the earliest times through the Industrial Revolution and the development of the coal industry in Alberta. It explores how the science and technology associated with coal mining has evolved, and how the industry responded to the sharp decline in demand for coal with the rise of oil and natural gas use after World War Two. It also explores topics relevant to the social history of the coal industry in Alberta, such as the evolution of coal towns; the roles played by women and children in coal communities; and the emergence of organized labour, which fought for better wages and safer working conditions in one of the world’s most dangerous industries.

Two women stand in a cookhouse at Newcastle Mine in Drumheller Valley, ca. 1912; Newcastle was one of the first mine operations in Drumheller Valley to establish a cookhouse, which fed up to 100 miners three times a day. Source: Courtesy of Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site

Two women stand in a cookhouse at Newcastle Mine in Drumheller Valley, ca. 1912; Newcastle was one of the first mine operations in Drumheller Valley to establish a cookhouse, which fed up to 100 miners three times a day.
Source: Courtesy of Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site

The history of coal use by humans stretches back thousands of years, as coal’s ready availability and different properties have long made it a valuable resource in many parts of the world. In addition to burning it for heat, ancient peoples used coal for cultural and artistic expression. Bronze Age people in Wales, for example, incorporated coal into their burial customs, while ancient artisans in China carved coal into jewelry and other ornamental items. Similarly, First Nations people in Alberta used coal for decoration and carving, such as the extraordinary bison sculptures unearthed in a farmer’s field near Barrhead in 1949 (now housed at the Royal Alberta Museum).

An Alberta coal company advertises in Ontario, n.d. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A3975

An Alberta coal company advertises in Ontario, n.d.
Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A3975

The key turning point in the history of coal was the Industrial Revolution. As the primary fuel that drove steam engines in factories and railroads, coal became extremely valuable and was mined on an enormous scale. Railways quickly took over from watercraft as the most important means of commercial transportation, which in turn had a decisive impact on the history of Alberta. In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway was contracted to build a railway line across Canada and the company turned to the rich coal seams of Alberta as a crucial source of fuel. The province’s early coal industry was centred in southern Alberta (primarily near Lethbridge and in the Crowsnest Pass) but as rail lines spread throughout the province other centres of coal production emerged, including Drumheller and the communities of the Coal Branch. The rise of major cities like Calgary and Edmonton further drove the demand for coal, both for heating and for the generation of electricity at the province’s earliest coal-fired power plants.  Coal thus played a crucial role in the growth of Alberta in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – it attracted investment and immigration and led to the development of some of Alberta’s earliest communities.

From the earliest use of coal to the challenges faced by the industry today, the coal section of the website offers visitors an introduction to the fascinating history of one of Alberta’s most important natural resources.

Lethbridge, an early coal producing centre, as it looked by November of 1886 Source: Galt Museum & Archives, P19770171000GP

Lethbridge, an early coal producing centre, as it looked by November of 1886
Source: Galt Museum & Archives, P19770171000GP

Written by: Allan Rowe, Historic Places Research Officer

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