Imagine beginning your work day, every day, in pitch blackness. The only sounds you hear are those of your fellow workers echoing off the damp cave you stand in; you wield a pickaxe and load the small train cars full up, always wary of the imminent danger, and equipped only with your headlight to guide your way.
The tough life and the brotherly camaraderie of the coal miner has been written, talked, and sung about for years by miners and their descendants. Fernie shares in that heritage and culture; this town came into being for one reason: coal.
More than 100 years ago, the “black gold” was discovered by European settlers in the Crowsnest Pass and Elk Valley areas. When William Fernie (Fernie’s namesake), and his colleagues succeeded in getting a railway started in the late 1800s to access the area, the region boomed.
Fernie was one of the most prosperous towns in BC after the development of the Coal Creek mines just outside of town. Workers from all over the world flocked here, with hopes of finding a better life. They worked the mines at Coal Creek, now long abandoned, and the remants of those mines and townsites are still visible today.
Without coal, Fernie almost certainly would not have grown out of the wilderness that was the Valley at that time. Coal provided the foundation for Fernie’s economy and society, and helped foster a truly unique local culture.
Despite Fernie’s renown as a recreation haven, coal remains a vital part of the economy . Elk Valley Coal Company continues to operate some of the largest coal mines in the world. While the coal is now mined elsewhere in the Valley and very differently than a century ago, many of Fernie’s residents still work in the same profession as their forefathers.
This year, Fernie and several other communities in the region will celebrate the Year of the Coal Miner. For those interested in experiencing some local mining culture, there are several events and attractions that fit the bill.
Participants and fans will no doubt come from far and wide to be a part of the Centennial Provincial Mine Rescue Competition in Fernie, June 10-12. Miners put their training to the test in contests at several locations throughout town as spectators look on. A banquet will cap off the event at the Community Centre. For more information, contact the Fernie Info Centre at 423-6868.
The Men of the Deeps, Cape Breton’s internationally renown miners choir, will peform live in Fernie at The Fernie Community Centre on June 17 at 7pm. The choir performs traditional favorites and contemporary tunes as well; for more information, contact the City of Fernie at 423-6817.
For those interested in exploring Fernie’s mining heritage, check out the Coal Creek Heritage Trail, starting in town just behind the Aquatic Centre. It takes mountain bikers and hikers to abandoned Coal Creek Mine #9 and also through the abandoned townsite of Coal Creek.
And for those interested in a look at present-day mining operations, Elk Valley Coal Corporation offers guided tours of their mines in Elkford and Sparwood in the summer. Call the local Info Centres for tour times at 877-485-8185 (Sparwood) or 877-355-9493 (Elkford).