The Age of Coal

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the founding of Fernie is rooted directly and deeply in the urges and imperatives of the British and European people living during the late Victorian and Edwardian Era. What was so unusual about this period and why did it lead to the Fernie that we know today?

To understand the period in which Fernie was founded and to understand its settler’s aspirations we need to examine in a very brief way what happened before the Edwardian Era. From about the 1760’s onward Europe and Britain began to undergo a profound change that is well captured in the name the “Industrial Revolution”. For a revolution it was: in every aspect of the industry of humanity whether it was production, distribution, or consumption change was brought about by the invention of numerous mechanical devices and methods that replaced hand labour with machines. These processes and machines led to the ability to create continually larger quantities of goods, faster and more efficiently than ever before. Goods which could then be transported in greater quantity and more quickly than ever before.

The list of the inventions during the Industrial Revolution is remarkably long and included things with odd names like the cotton gin, the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, names which are largely not familiar to us today. Every one of these machines had in common that they were replacements for jobs that had for centuries been done by hand, meaning more particularly that they had been done with the use of human labour as the source of power to drive the process.

This was one of the central and fundamental changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution: thinkers, scientists and even lay people developed or improved new ways of deriving power from raw materials which could be harnessed to drive processes. At first wind and water (which had been sources for power since ancient times) were better harnessed but by the later years of the Industrial Revolution the most important harnessed power was that created by the steam engine.

The steam engine was unique for its time because it did not need to be located where there was wind or water power, it was mobile and could be built anywhere, and most importantly it could harness and direct power in ways that allowed many machines to operate simultaneously from one source of power, no longer did one hand turn a wheel, suddenly hundreds of wheels could be turned at the same time and one hand could be used to control the machine and the other hand to feed the machine.

Steam Engines were incredibly powerful and efficient but they required a great deal of fuel – fuel that could not be supplied by wood. Wood was expensive because it had many uses and in Europe and on the British Isles forests had already long before the Industrial Revolution been depleted. There was however an abundant resource that did not have much use other than the creation of fire and this was coal. Coal was abundant in Europe and England – far more abundant and cheaper than wood and only really useful for creating heat, therefore it was a simple and logical step to use coal for the powering of steam engines.

The relationship between coal and the steam engine was symbiotic – they truly were made for each other. Coal had long been used as a source of fuel but it was difficult to obtain large quantities of coal because of where coal was located – generally below the surface of the earth. Up until the Industrial Revolution coal had been hard to mine because hand removal of the coal meant that the coal had to be extracted from surface type pits where a coal seam came to the surface (think a miniature version of today’s open pit mines where people used picks and shovels to extract and move the coal) or from shafts that went into the ground. Neither the pits nor the shafts could run very deep because ground water would fill the pit or shafts. And in the case of the shafts there was the additional problem of firedamp – the name given to gases that exist in coal seams. These gases were responsible for many deaths in mining and Fernie was no stranger to the horror of explosions about which more in some later post.

The steam engine solved the problem of water seeping into the mine shafts because steam engines could tirelessly power enormous pumps that pumped the water out of the coal mines allowing for deeper shafts and removing the necessity for shallow pits. Steam engines needed ever more coal and ever more coal could be extracted because of steam engines – hence the symbiosis.

The need for coal accelerated with the discovery and refining of the coking process which changed coal to coke, a substance which burned hotter and cleaner than coal and which was more useful in heating and cooking and which made the production of iron and steel in quantity more efficient. The Anglo – European world thus entered what might crudely be called the “coal age” in a way that we might now say we live in the “oil and gas age”.

By the time the early Anglo – European explorers were tramping through the Elk Valley the relationship between coal and the steam engine was so powerful and so necessary for the fueling of all other industry that the demand for coal by Britain, Europe, as well as the developing and growing Canada and United States of America was insatiable. And this is why Fernie or rather the vast reserves of coal it sits near attracted the attention of the Edwardians.

Leave a reply