December 2nd, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 46
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Eight Pages of Remarkable History
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
courtesy of John Kinnear
The aftermath, city hall visible in the center
One of the most comprehensive coal mining archives that exist in Canada is that of the former Crowsnest Pass Coal Company, which is stored in the basement of Fernie City Hall and at the Glenbow Archives. I was fortunate enough to study this collection for years and amongst the thousands of pictures, artifacts, reports and company files I found an extraordinary eight page letter. It is from the general manager of their Fernie office Mr. G.G.S. Lindsey to the main headquarters of said same company in Toronto and is dated August 5th, 1908. It is his report to them of what was one of the most catastrophic few days the Elk Valley has ever know. It contains comments of a train accident, the August 1st, 1908 fire that consumed the town of Fernie and most of the lower Elk Valley, comments on a mine disaster and descriptions of actions taken by this important officer of the company who found himself in the midst of a severely damaged corporation and his city in ruins.

It is a jaw dropper and I thought I might share some of its contents in order to give you a view into this chaos from his eyes. I will set up each of his comments with a bit of background so that the picture is clearer. The first paragraph talks about visiting Morrissey Mines which were seven miles south of Fernie. They operated from 1902 till 1909 when it was discovered the coal didn’t coke and that the seams suffered from deadly outbursts of gas.

Mr Lindsey opens by saying: “On Saturday morning early, Senator Jaffray, Mr. Hurd, Mr. Simister and myself visited Carbonado to see the new seam of coal and when going up the Branch in a caboose ahead of the locomotive were two run-away cars of rock coming down at about twenty-five miles an hour. We were all sitting in the cupola when the train crew jumped and called for us to jump, which we did. Mr. Hurd, Mr. Simster and myself got out the different doors of the caboose just the instant of the collision but the Senator was unable to move as quickly as ourselves and was left in the car, which was telescoped completely into the first box car, breaking off the trucks and wheels and smashing the car to splinters.
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He threw himself on the floor and when we went to pick him out from between the end of the locomotive which was smashed, found him quite unhurt. We made our inspection of the mines and returned to Morrissey Junction, where we said good-bye to the Senator, who is on the road to the Coast, and were waiting for orders to get to Fernie when we noticed a tremendous fire in the valley. We were unable to obtain orders, by reason of the lines being burned out, so were kept until the C.P.R. train came along, when headed by a hand car as pilot we made our way to Fernie and found the place all on fire.”

Imagine what he must have thought as he saw this maelstrom driven by high winds on a hot August day charging towards Fernie. On arriving his view was of a town completely ravaged by fire and chaos everywhere. He gives in the letter an overview of what few buildings survived which included, remarkably, the Western Canada Wholesale Grocery which had a $100,000 stock of provisions and the company office which was an all stone building they had built in 1905. It is now City Hall and was deliberately built by the company in the middle of a block so as to ensure that it would be not lost by just such a conflagration. 
In his letter he says: “The slack bins have gone and all the cars of the ovens, all our coke oven locomotives and all our larries. (hopper cars used to charge the ovens with coal) The wharves were burning and cars of coal and coke, as well as the cars burned up in their yard. Mr. Brownlee, of the CPR, tells me that their estimated loss is $60,000. Our total loss, as I wired you today, is $199,000.” There were 454 coke ovens operating in Fernie at the time.

Fernie had two railroads running through the town back then. The second, the Great Northern (G.N), ran along what is now Highway 3 and the highway tunnel near Elko was originally a railroad tunnel. Lindsey goes on to say: “ The women and children were all gotten out on the G.N. to Hosmer in box cars, and spent the night in the coke ovens, but as Hosmer was in imminent danger we had to bring them back and the C.P.R. had two trains waiting to take them to Cranbrook..... Altogether we sent out that night and Sunday about four thousand people to Cranbrook.”

He goes on to talk about relief efforts and committees being formed to help feed and house families and generally “restore equilibrium”. He informed head office that he had been able to house most miners and hoped to gradually get them back to work. He reminds the office that incredibly just one week prior No. 2 Mine had endured a rather serious accident (explosion) which had put working staff under even more pressure. “My latest information to you of the disaster was that twenty-one out of the twenty-four had been recovered alive. Two, Beever and Powell, were taken out dead. Beever was buried and Powell’s body was cremated in the Fernie fire! Poor Hitchmouth, as assistant track-layer, has not yet been found.” He finished the paragraph with this rather disturbing sentence. “I think we will get a fair tonnage out of Coal Creek by the end of the week.”
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The Fernie fire was actually a firestorm that ripped up the valley as fast as the freight trains that were trying to evacuate people away from it. It menaced Coal Creek, caused the powder magazine at Hosmer Mine to blow up and entered the Michel Creek valley from both ends. Lindsey’s description in the letter reads: “It commenced about seven miles down the west bank of the Elk River below West Fernie, coming through the woods, and jumped across the river at Mutz’s Brewery, burned down through the Old Town, hit the slack bins and ran down the C.P.R. track and jumped across at several points, and extending up the valley through Hosmer to Michel and McGillivray and is now burning up the Elk Valley. Roughly speaking there is a fire area of thirty miles in length, and from two to ten miles wide. Everything is cleaned up on both sides of the river, and the trees in many instances were uprooted before they were burned.” Now that’s a firestorm!

The source of the fire is often attributed to slash burning near the Cedar Valley Lumber Company whipped up by high winds. For further contemplation on the probable true source check out the Elk Valley archives on line, 2013 May 14th issue pdf for an intriguing article I wrote entitled:”Is This the Way it Started?”

Towards the end he indicates that: “The women and children of Michel were taken on Sunday to Frank, but are coming back, and the women and children are coming back from Cranbrook, but our men have no money to rebuild their homes with and an appropriation of $100,000, such as I telegraphed about, for the purpose of helping them to put up kitchens on their lots, to which they could afterwards build their homes, would give them protection for the winter.”

And so it was that they rebuilt, out of brick and stone, rising out of the ashes like a Phoenix.
December 2nd ~ Vol. 85 No. 46
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