Ghost Towns

The west has an enduring fascination with ghost towns. Abandoned buildings stir our imagination.  We imagine hard working people living in these buildings and planning for tomorrow.  Until they didn’t.  This story is about 2 towns where there are no buildings left to spark our wonder.  There is no sign – no sign – that there was ever anything placed upon the land except grass and trees.  Yet, these 2 communities thrived more or less for over 60 years, 2 single industry towns churning out a basic commodity – coal.  And now, they are no more.  That should provoke a sense of wonder of a different type.  How could that happen?  Even the abandoned communities in the Namib desert left traces of their once-robust lives.

The towns are Michel and Natal, pronounced ‘Mish-ell’  and “Nah-tall’.   They were two coal-mining towns in the B.C. portion of the Crowsnest Pass. Michel was named after a chief of a Kootenai tribe while Natal was named after the state in South Africa (Both of those facts suggest more interesting stories lurking behind them).  At one time, the two towns were separated by no more than a few hundred yards, but by the time I came to know them, the traveller couldn’t tell where one left off and the other began.

My interest in the two towns began in 1959 when I began my education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.   Getting to Spokane from Edmonton meant travelling the Crowsnest Pass and I was always stunned by the dreary appearance of these two towns deep within the Rocky Mountains.   Moreover, my travels gave rise to one very special memory.

It is a vivid memory brought about by trying to hitchhike through the Crowsnest to Cranbrook in 1961. I got as far as Michel when a drunken and unhinged driver decided he and I should find jobs in the mines. When he entered a mine office, I walked back to the highway looking for a new ride.  I had walked to Natal when my unhinged driver returned, evidently unsuccessful in his job search.

Instead of stopping for me, he gestured obscenely and sped on.  A mile later, he missed a turn onto a Michel Creek bridge and killed himself in a heap of twisted steel.

I was still in Natal when I found out about the accident and night was falling.  I still had no ride and now there were very few cars.  I hung around a small hotel and eventually bought a bus ticket to Cranbrook rather than spend the night in the dismal mining town of Natal, musing on my close call.

My experience in Michel-Natal all those years ago left an enduring fascination with the events that led to their removal from the map.

So I finally looked into the history of Michel-Natal, a history, I submit, that was anything but dull.

The Crowsnest Pass is a gentle route through a beautiful section of the Rocky Mountains.  It was originally an Indian trail connecting the prairie tribes of the Blackfoot nation in southern Alberta with the Kootenai tribes of southwestern B.C. The watersheds are the Crowsnest River flowing eastward where it becomes part of the Oldman River.  The Elk River headed west  to become part of the Kootenay then the Columbia River.   In the 1890’s, the Canadian Pacific Railway undertook to build a rail line along this path and eventually connected Fort McLeod in Alberta with Nelson in British Columbia (the line was completed in 1897).   CPR knew there was coal in Fernie, the town immediately west of Michel-Natal, and wanted access.   Their locomotives were fired by coal and demand was high.  At the same time they began mining coal in Fernie, they discovered more coal in Michel.

Michel’s first mine started producing in 1899 and within three years, the town had a population of 400.  Natal came much later, 1907, and  became – arguably –  the more commercially and socially robust of the two.  Between the two towns, coal production was impressive.  Thousand of tons of coal shipped from their mines well into the 1950’s when CPR began moving to diesel and demand began to diminish.

In addition to the coal mines, the type of coal found in the area was perfect for converting to coke, an essential fuel in the production of steel. Consequently, there were soon several hundred coke ovens smoking away within a short distance from town limits.  These operated day and night for decades.

The grey pallor that settled over the towns was due, primarily to these  coke ovens that released clouds of smoke and soot.  The gray pollution was relentless and soon turned the two towns into collections of dull and dirty buildings.  One wonders how any housewife dealt with drying the laundry.   Yet they did.

So who were those three generations of coal miners?

Most of them  were either eastern European or italian, so the influence of the Catholic Church was substantial.  History isn’t very helpful here but it seems these immigrants adapted to life in Canada amicably.  Sharing a hazardous workload and presenting a unified front to combat the often abusive mine management no doubt encouraged cooperation and both towns took displayed a vigorous civic pride.  Fortunately, in Michel the residents were not handcuffed economically to a company store as many mining towns were and this freedom carried on into Natal.   The big difference between the two towns was that Michel’s residences were company-owned and rented while Natal residences were privately owned.  The freedom from the company store made a real difference to the vibrancy of the communities.  It meant the presence of a regular grocery store, a hardware store, a haberdasher and ladies fashion store.  It meant choices.  At one time, Natal boasted four hotels.

The two towns were as lively as any western town, possessing all the amenities including a small hospital and an opera house. Although the towns had no ice rinks, the high school had a gymnasium, so the youth played basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse.  A baseball diamond was laid out some distance from the coal dust.  Social life was as full as any small western town struggling to prosper. The area was also a renowned fishing and hunting destination.  Weddings were often held in Fernie simply because it was cleaner and the bride felt her dress could make it through the day without turning gray.

Politics was always a hot button issue in Michel-Natal.   Like most miners, the men saw the flaws in capitalism and with so many of them coming from eastern Europe, dabbling in communism and Technocracy was widespread.

Most of the mine jobs were contract work and the miners struggled continuously for a fair price for their work and safer working conditions.  Fires and mine explosions were all too common.

Even with Michel and Natal having their share of setbacks, the mines always managed to re-open or stay open.  One odd disaster involved a thunderstorm that sent a bolt of lightning 1,200 metres down a mine shaft via a steel rail line and ignited a gas bubble, killing three miners.

From 1916 to 1923, Alberta outlawed the sale of liquor.  B.C. followed suit in 1917 but by then the business of delivering illegal alcohol into Alberta was well-established.  After 1917, backwoods stills blossomed in the area from Fernie to the Alberta border.  Michel-Natal were front and center in the trade.  The notorious Emilio Picariello (Emperor Pic), who lived in Fernie, was the acknowledged kingpin but he had lots of associates in the two towns nearer the border.  In spite of the illicit nature of the trade, it was an interesting time for coal mining towns in the Crowsnest.   One imagines some very lively conversation in the coffee shops and in lunch breaks revolving around the escapades of the rum runners.  Rum running died out in 1926 when B.C. repealed Prohibition.

Through it all, the two communities flourished even as they participated in the constant struggle to receive fair compensation and safer working conditions when yet another mine explosion or accident took a miner’s life.   Remaining viable communities for almost 70 years or three generations was no small feat.

But even their energetic town spirit couldn’t overcome two factors.  One was the railroad’s switch to diesel engines.  This was a blow that might have been survivable – the demand for coke was still robust – if it weren’t for factor number 2.  BC tourism wonks, anxious to promote their beautiful province, realized that the westbound motorist’s first impression of the province after leaving Alberta was the dreary images of Michel and Natal. The coal tipple in Natal and the rows of gray, grimy buildings were huge eyesores.  This would not do.  Surely the province could do better.

The government developed plans to have the two towns demolished  and the residents moved to Sparwood.   It’s also probable the government did not think it would take twenty years for the transition to be completed.

Why would the federal and provincial governments care about 2 small mining towns in an out-of-the-way corner of B.C.?  Well, in the 1950’s, they weren’t so out-of-the-way.  If, in 1960, a motorist wanted to drive from Halifax to Vancouver, his ONLY Canadian route was highway 3 through the Crowsnest pass.

Highway #1, today’s trans-Canada highway, was stalled between Golden and Revelstoke.  Rogers’ Pass wouldn’t be completed until 1963.   The Yellowhead Route through Highway 16 and Jasper was stalled between Jasper and Tete Jeune Cache.  The only route was to hug the US border on Highway 3 and the Crowsnest pass.  The pass ended in Fernie.  Then it was on to Cranbrook, a turn south and on to Yahk, west to Creston, then Grand Forks, Trail, Osoyoos, Princeton, Hope and on through the Fraser Valley to Vancouver.

Sparwood started some time after Natal and being mercifully clear of dirty mine shafts, coke ovens, and the accompanying dust and grime, was established originally to provide homes for the mine managers.   The government offered compensation to move the miners but it was never enough to offset the loss.  Moreover, new building lots in Sparwood were becoming more expensive every year.  Many residents refused to move while others simply packed up and left the valley.

A bad mine explosion in 1967, the pressure to move to Sparwood and a shift to strip mining pretty much sealed the fate of Michel and Natal. By 1970, most of the residents had been moved to Sparwood and by 1990, the only trace of either town was the old Michel Hotel. By the end of that decade, the hotel, too, was no more.

One final inducement appeared in late 1967 and early 1968.  In Aberfan, Wales, a slag heap collapsed, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.  A 60-year old similar slag heap loomed in Michel and near their school.  In 1968, it partially collapsed, covering 1000 feet of highway and killing two.  It was another compelling argument for seeing the towns disappear.

In the 1960’s, a strip mine was begun a few miles from Natal and some years later, it expanded into a huge operation when Kaiser coal signed a contract to supply the Japanese auto industry.  So the coal had not run out.  In fact, Kaiser, in announcing the new contract, claimed the area contained 60 billion tons of coal.  If the Japanese were looking for a reliable source, they found one.  Users of the BC ferry from Tawassen to Sydney are familiar with the huge coal shipping site north of the ferry terminal.  That coal is from the Elk River strip mines.  Needless to say, the strip mines are well hidden from public view. I am sure the irony of two small unsightly towns disappearing while colossal and brutal wounds in the earth continue to produce the same product is not lost on the survivors of the move.

What can you say about seven decades of ups and downs in two communities, rich in community spirit but committed to trying to wrest a dangerous living from a dirty product and eventually losing when events conspired to force major changes.   The reported facts involved in Michel-Natal’s rise and fall – of any ghost town, for that matter – too often sound like the unadorned box score of a baseball game, everything except the action and emotion.  The life span of Michel and Natal was subject to many of the ups and downs that alternately vitalize and stifle community welfare  – mine explosions and fires, employer bullying, fluctuating coal prices, and boom-bust economics.  Yet civic pride and a consistent academic achievement record for the youth of the area were never ignored.  The politics of the area was as lively as any place in Canada and, despite the ravages of coal mining, outdoor activities in a mountain environment flourished.   Not bad for two small communities that, sadly, became a blight on what was – and now is again –  a congenially scenic spot in southeastern British Columbia.  And you can’t see the strip mines.

Robert Alan Davidson

September, 2018

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