Lille Townsite Full of History
Two teams recently visited the historic Lille town site in the Crowsnest Pass to learn about its history and the early exploration of energy sources in Alberta. Storyboards are posted throughout the abandoned site and this way of learning parallels the importance of story to Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous peoples are known for their oral story telling; it is how they pass on their culture, language and ways of life. Stories are how they connect with their ancestors.
While visiting the site, the team learned that the coal and coke industry exploded at the start of the twentieth century, creating a boom economy. The coal mining town of Lille, originally called French Camp, existed for about a decade from approximately 1901 to 1913. One French and one German prospector came to the area in hopes of finding gold, but instead opened coal seams along a river. A railway was required to be built to haul the coal from Lille, but unfortunately it was destroyed, just six weeks after being completed, during the Frank Slide of 1903; however, it was rebuilt and the town thrived. The community of Lille had a population of 400 by 1910, complete with a hotel and a growing business district. They even had a hockey team and a 15-bed hospital. Three mines produced almost a million tonnes of bituminous coal between 1901 and 1913. Unfortunately, by 1908 it was common knowledge that the mines were producing an inferior quality of coal with high ash content. This and an economic slow down in 1912 led to the demise of Lille, which was named after a city in Northern France, where the mining company’s head office was located. One-by-one families left and the buildings were left empty.
Several structures, or remnants of what once was, still exist at the Lille site. One of the most impressive is the Bernard Coke Ovens, which was designed and prefabricated in Belgium; each brick was numbered and assembled in Lille. The railroads and buildings were all removed or demolished in the 1930's, but slack piles (coal waste) can still be found nearby. They are easy to spot because they are so black compared to the surrounding mountains and hills. In the meadow, small depressions in the earth exist where once storage cellars underneath people’s houses existed. It is worth the incredible hike to appreciate and learn a little bit more about Alberta’s coal mining history.