The communities of Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass lie like a grimy string of pearls along the narrow, spectacularly beautiful valley that cuts across southwestern Alberta into British Columbia. With their fortunes tied to the coal industry they have lived an up-and-down existence, but there has been one constant to life throughout the century: a cantankerous rivalry among the towns. Now, however, the old battles are being abandoned. On New Year’s Day, the towns of Coleman and Blairmore, the villages of Bellevue and Frank and the hamlets of Hillcrest and East Coleman amalgamated to become Crowsnest Pass, Alberta’s newest town and 12th-largest urban centre.
But individuality dies hard. “All that is changing is the system of government,” says Brian Cecchini, a Blairmore realtor, pointing out that the towns and villages will all retain their own names except on formal occasions. Nevertheless, Cecchini, like most Pass residents—67 per cent approved amalgamation in a summer referendum—sees that the move will give the community a better tax base and more accessibility to government money. It will also end the time-consuming, expensive debates over who should get what.
The area’s major problem has always been inter-municipal bickering by the five separate councils and the inevitable duplication of services and projects. The towns argued for two years over where to put a new swimming pool before Blairmore finally won. In the meantime, Pass swimmers had to drive 30 miles to Pincher Creek whenever they wanted a dip. Five years ago, when all the community dumps were condemned, each town found itself faced with buying a truck to get refuse to the new, joint landfill area. “We’ve lost the opportunity to have several industries settle here,” says Bill White, a former Bellevue councillor. “The towns all competed with each other to grab new industry, but not one of them could offer everything the new industry needed. And we had a housing shortage for years because no one town alone could service new areas.”
Crowsnest Pass is one of Canada’s longest and leanest towns: 8,000 people are stretched for 10 miles along Highway 3 while Blairmore—caught in
the worst of the mountain squeeze—is only IV2 miles wide. Pass residents are hoping fervently that a master plan for the area will end the proliferation of arenas, curling rinks and administrative boards and solve the area’s geographical problem, based on the fact that the towns can only grow east and west since they share the skinny mountain pass with a highway, a railway, a couple of pipelines and major electrical transmission lines.
Coleman, which owned its own utilities and had the lowest mill rate, has long been a vehement opponent of amalgamation, while Bellevue and Frank, the worst-off economically, were for it. Oldtimers are still not reconciled to the idea, admits new Mayor Jerry Rejman, former mayor of Coleman. “But newcomers saw the wisdom of the move.” The first job of the new council, elected in December, will be to decide where to
put the new town hall—Coleman’s is the biggest now—and then it will get on with completing projects already started by the various towns: Coleman’s new arena, Blairmore’s library and Frank’s sewer and water system.
Despite a provincial grant of $2 million to the new community, there are financial problems to be faced. The coal market is currently soft and there were recent layoffs at both Coleman Colleries Ltd. and at Phillips Cables Ltd., one of the Pass’s few successful attempts to diversify its economic base. The Pass has ridden a roller coaster of prosperity and catastrophe since 1883 when a Hud-
son’s Bay official reported that the Pass was “nothing but coal and coal everywhere.” At the turn of the century, Blairmore billed itself as the Eldorado of the Golden West and people there were buying, building and predicting everlasting prosperity. A dozen years later, the bottom dropped out of the coal market and a dozen towns and mines lay dead. Both world wars brought rushes of affluence but the Depression and the 1950s’ oil and gas boom squashed the towns flat again. However, the mining towns struggle on, worrying about Japanese markets for coking coal and coping—particularly in Coleman—with black snow, black icicles and greasy soot that kills gardens, blights the air and keeps people scrubbing. In fact, Pass residents retain an indomitable sense of humor amid the inter-town scraps and the precarious economic situation. The Bellevue mu-
nicipal office, which will likely soon disappear, has a notice on the wall:
The old man knocked at the heavenly yates:
His face was scarred and old.
He stood before the man of fate for admission to the fold.
"What have you done, ”Saint Peter said, “to gain admission here?"
‘7 have worked for the village of Bellevue, sir, for many and many a year. ”
The Pearly Gates swung open wide, Saint Peter touched a bell.
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