The Forgotten Side of the Border

March 25th, 2021 2 Minutes

Some local history volumes continue to excite and interest the reader long after they are published.

A 1998 volume edited by Wayne Norton and Naomi Miller is such a book. The Forgotten Side of the Border – British Columbia’s Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass is more than a local history volume.

It is a gathering from many authors that gives voice to one of the most remarkable regions of this province.

This historical glimpse catches the craziness of prohibition and the unique physical potential of the Tobacco Plains, which allowed alcohol to flow south into Montana.

0039.0295 ca. 1910, a postcard of the mining operation at Coal Creek, BC. – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute

There is tangible coal dust in this book. When Reno Fabbro writes about Middletown, the reader feels the effects of living in a company town when the company ruled all.

 “In Middletown, there was room for three unequal rows of houses, bordered by Michel Creek on one side and the highway, railroad, some of the coke ovens, and a service road on the other. At the eastern end of Middletown were located the slag dumps. Except for the highway, the streets were dirt – more like alleys than streets. The air was not clean, especially on a windy day”.

The collection has a feeling of community that is more than a gathering of family histories. 

#0039.0449 Michel, B.C. 1906
Coal tipple and works, Michel, B.C., located in the Crowsnest Pass – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute

Collectively, the authors have caught much of the unique feeling that the Crowsnest pass gives to all who slow down and observe the physical grandeur of the mountains and the strong sense of place that the residents still have.

One story that has not had much attention is the internment of miners with German and Austrian nationality during the First World War. [Wayne Norton explores this in his 2017 volume Fernie at War 1914-1919.] Fernie and then Morrissey were used for this purpose, detaining approximately 160 miners. 

Several pieces on mining disasters in the coalfields and their impact on the Pass’s small mining communities are in print. 

# 0039.0435: Michel, B.C. ca 1905
A guide outfitter’s pack train set to depart from Michel, B.C. – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute

A very poignant piece is “Childhood Remembered: A Coal Creek Memoir” by Grace Dvorak. She explores the meaning of community, remembering the miners’ picnics, the sports days, and the M F & M Railway.

A minor criticism of this volume is that it didn’t fully explore the area’s labor history and the other strands that make the Elk Valley and Crowsnest pass a unique part of the world. That leaves room for others, such as the 1978 work by David Jay Bercuson, Fools, and Wise Men: The Rise and Fall of the One Big Union.

‘The Forgotten Side of the Border’ deserves a place on any local historian’s bookshelf.

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