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Coal and Coke

Coal produced in the Crowsnest Pass mines was a high quality bituminous coal. When burned, it produced little ash and was very good for generating steam in locomotives and power plants. It was used extensively in steam locomotives on the Canadian Pacific and also by the Great Northern. Coal was also used in steamships, as a domestic fuel for home heating and to power industrial machinery in sawmills, mines, mills, smelters and factories.

Coal was more valuable in larger lumps which could be more easily handled and was not as messy. Coal from the mines was graded into different sizes and the fine pieces or slack, which could not be used as easily in locomotives or in steam plants, were used to make coke. The slack was also made into briquettes.

One of the most important uses of coal from the Crowsnest was in making coke which was used in smelting ores and particularly for the production of pig iron which is one of the components of steel. Coke was produced by roasting coal in large banks of "coke ovens" at temperatures of about 1000 degrees C for about 48 hours. In these ovens, there was not enough oxygen for the coal to burn; instead, it was roasted which removed gases and left the almost pure carbon called coke. The coke was used in smelting copper and other ores mined and smelted in southern British Columbia, Montana, Idaho and Washington. It was also used in smelting iron ore. Normally, the coke was shipped by railway in open gondola cars or boxcars.

Major coke manufacturing facilities (coke ovens) in the Crowsnest Pass were located at Fernie, Michel, Morrissey and Hosmer in British Columbia and at Lille and Coleman in Alberta. The Crowsnest Pass coal was found to be excellent coking coal and was superior to the coal mined on Vancouver Island for this purpose. On average, it took about 1.43 tons of coal to produce a ton of coke. The production of coke depended to a great extent on the market demands for it. These were determined by the production of smelters in British Columbia and the Northwest states. For example, in 1904, 350,900 tons of coal, which was 54 percent of total production from the British Columbia mines in the Crowsnest, was made into coke. However, in 1922, after the closure of the smelters at Grand Forks and Greenwood only 61,497 tons of coal or 11 percent of production was made into coke.

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