The Crow’s Nest Coal Company (CNP Coal)
braced itself for success upon the opening of a mine site in the
Michel Creek Valley in 1899. Tests on the bituminous coal
revealed a low ash content and 68 percent fixed carbon, meaning
the coal was perfect for coking and selling for huge profits.
CNP Coal started slowly on the Michel mine, but after prompting
from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), they began producing
more than 11,000 tonnes per year by 1900.
While mining operations were successful,
the town of Michel experienced problems in its first years.
Starting in 1901, the town was struck with fire for three
consecutive years. The first blaze had the greatest impact on
new residents, devastating many who began their lives anew
despite the loss of everything they owned. For the following
years, the damage of the fires lingered in the memory of the
town. Just as a sense of safety was being restored, the Great
Fire of 1908—perhaps the most memorable blaze of that era raged
throughout the Elk Valley. Beginning in Fernie, 35 kilometres
away, the fire travelled upward to Michel Creek. The blaze was
thought to be so dangerous that women and children were rushed
out of the province and into Alberta for safety.
Also affecting the townspeople to a
profound extent were the numerous mining disasters. In 1904,
tragedy struck when an explosion shook the No. 3 mine. Rescue
crews immediately descended upon the scene in the hopes of
finding survivors. In discovering a blocked mine shaft, it
became quickly apparent that there would be few, if any, left
alive. Using pickaxes and shovels, even retrieving bodies took a
long time. By the time rescuers reached the miners, their fears
were confirmed. Seven miners, newly immigrated from Britain,
were found dead beneath a collapsed wall.
Another mining disaster occurred on 11
August 1916. The three explosions that occurred were more
massive that the 1904 tragedy, and the consequences far worse.
This time the explosion extended beyond the mine, demolishing
nearby buildings and shaking the town. Again the rescue crew
made a vain attempt to reach the trapped men, but with high gas
levels in the cave, they were forced to turn back for several
hours. It became clear that there were no survivors when
rescuers continued, only to find a tiny passageway that remained
open. As a result of the explosion, 13 dead bodies were hauled
from the mine.
The Great Depression strained
relationships between workers and their companies. Many miners,
reeling from the previous accidents and poor labour relations,
turned to communist doctrine and unions in an attempt to protect
By the 1960s, oil and gas replaced coal as
the major fuel used in North America. After years of neglect and
armed with no new money to invest, Michel's future was
uncertain. Export company, Kaiser Coal had established Sparwood
as the centre for the burgeoning coal export industry, and
expanded the town with new commercial and residential
development. Work was available to Michel miners, as long as
they would relocate. If any uncertainty remained for residents
of Michel, it was erased when the British Columbia government
decided to destroy the Michel-Natal settlements. Though some
residents refused to leave, they were ultimately left with no
choice. By 1978, the last vestiges of Michel were destroyed.
Though some residents refused to leave, they were ultimately
left with no choice.