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Nicholas Sheran opened the first commercial coal mine in the
Lethbridge region in October 1874 and supplied coal to the
North-West Mounted Police during their first winter in Fort
Macleod. By November 1875, coal from Sheran's mine was sold as
far away as Fort Benton, Montana. The Benton Record stated: "...
the coal recently imported from British America by T.C. Power
and Bros makes excellent fuel and even at the price of
twenty-five dollars per ton is more economical than dry
cottonwood at eight dollars a cord".
Nicholas Sheran's mine was a small and often dangerous
one-man operation. By 1881, he quarried 15 to 20 feet into the
valley wall with no timber supports to protect him. Coal was
quarried by pick and shovel and hauled out in wood crates on
The North-Western Coal and Navigation Company Limited started
commercial drift mining on October 13, 1882. The Company's mines
were more sophisticated, employing skilled miners, mostly from
Nova Scotia, and using the most up-to-date machinery and
techniques. Miners were equipped with protective hats and
identification tags. Although basic techniques were used,
mechanized drilling equipment helped to improve efficiency. Coal
was hauled from the mine in ore cars drawn by mules or horses.
The seam was quarried as far as 1,000 feet into the valley wall,
the maximum distance possible with early ventilation techniques.
The first miners lived in the valley near the mine entrances.
Eventually, this settlement became known as
Coalbanks. The North
Western Coal and Navigation Company quickly established all of
the facilities needed for the mining operation. By the end of
1883, four drift mines had been opened and a dock had been built
into the Oldman River for barges to ship coal to the CPR
mainline. Other company facilities included an office, store and
The Company also built homes for the miners and their
families. A large home, called Coaldale, was built for
Galt, the General Manager. A slightly smaller home was built for
William Stafford; Stafford's wife and their nine children were
among the first families to settle at Coalbanks. For the miners
without families, the Company built boarding houses, bunk houses
and shacks. By 1884, the population of Coalbanks peaked at about
250 and included a saloon and hop brewery, a post office and a
slaughterhouse. The company town of Coalbanks flourished and
faded in three short years, from October 1882 to October 1885.
In 1885, the Manitoba Free Press visited Coalbanks and
"At present, the miners are at work as far in as 900 feet.
Along this leading drift, there is a tramway laid, on which
the loaded trucks are drawn out to the entrance by horses.
Each horse generally draws five trucks at a load, that being
Two miners work together and ... average five and six tons of
coal a day. They are paid $1.00 a ton for the mining of the
coal and the filling of the trucks ... The output of the mine
at present is about 300 tons a day, and the coal must be
giving the public satisfaction as the coal company at present
are not able to supply the demand ... The company at the
present time have nearly 300 men employed ... most ... are
from Nova Scotia, men who have been brought up to mining all