DAVID THOMAS

A Town for the Times

The authentic, unpretentious, economical Crowsnest Pass.

By David Thomas

Last autumn, five summers after the great Lost Creek wildfire that very nearly consumed the town of Crowsnest Pass, the burn area buzzed with the sound of wood stove owners harvesting winter fuel. The locals with their hefty Stihls and Husqvarnas tried politely to suppress their amusement at my little chainsaw, designed for not much more than backyard pruning. With the same grace, drivers who encountered my plucky little Neon, burdened by a backseat crammed with logs, generously extended the backroads greeting of a head nod and index finger lifted slightly from the steering wheel of their high-slung pickups.

The promise of free, carbon-neutral firewood was part of our decision to buy a 100-year-old cottage here not long after the hillsides cooled in 2003, and well before the current economic collapse changed “sustainability” from virtue to necessity. The fire had extinguished property sales for several months, and prices were especially affordable. Our $100,000 purchase had started out in 1908 as a square box framed with old-growth fir. According to the chalked inscriptions revealed during the gutting phase of our reno project, the house had been expanded in 1925 by C.H. Erickson, a Swedish carpenter whose varnished, art nouveau built-ins miraculously survived subsequent applications of paper ceiling tiles, panel board and, most puzzlingly, pseudo-hardwood plastic laminate laid atop an original and still beautifully waxed maple floor.

In Canmore and Fernie, mountain cottages such as ours were snapped up and gentrified decades ago. But, without the adjacency of a ski resort or national park, the coal bust of Crowsnest Pass did not make way for similar waves of ski bums, handyman renovators and, finally, commercial artisans of faux-cobblestone and timber-frame facades. The Pass remains an authentic and unadorned Rocky Mountain town whose honest and simple architectural charms are hidden behind layers of glass-studded stucco and vinyl clapboard.

Change comes slowly in The Pass. It may stay that way. Last fall’s gathering of firewood coincided with the shocking collapse of a decades-long speculative boom that had enabled the conversion of other old coal towns into mountain resorts. The return of economic hard times made me keenly aware that each scorched tree trunk was a gift of nature, unavailable to people dependent on the brittle linkages of urban employment, commercial energy and suddenly clueless governments. The Pass, with its modest housing and retail sector geared to the needs of working-class families, seemed like a good place in which to lie low and wait out the storm.

“The Pass has been here before, and it’s better prepared to ride out this recession than places that overindulged in the good times,” says Gary Carpenter, who with his spouse, Erica, crafts pure wood doors, windows and kitchen cabinetry in a workshop fitted with ponderous mechanical saws, planers and sanders rescued from a wave of digitization that has transformed the rest of the woodworking industry.

“There’s no opportunity to excel or demonstrate your superiority. The Pass is out of the rat race.”

Swish the Pass is not. Organics are scarce on supermarket shelves. Derelict vehicles easily outnumber copper fire cauldrons as backyard ornaments. An otherwise respectable surgeon, Mayor John Irwin himself has 16 vehicles in various stages of decay cramming his property. Economic disadvantage is not the explanation for the profound cultural distance between Canmore and The Pass. Average household income was a respectable $45,000 in 2001. More than 600 residents are employed by the coal mines on BC’s side of the Divide, and a job driving $3-million coal haulers pays very well indeed. But little of that income goes into climate-controlled wine cabinets or rimless kitchen sinks. Pride of ownership is more often invested in heavy-duty trucks rigged up to ferry snowmobiles and quads into the backcountry.

The 27 km long, 2 km wide municipality of Crowsnest Pass was forged 30 years ago from a string of depressed mining towns that could no longer sustain themselves independently. Those towns—Bellevue, Hillcrest, Frank, Blairmore and Coleman—had drawn immigrants from across Europe to claw coal from the mountains. Ethnic differences and shared difficulties meant recreational bar fights on weekends but mutual reliance underground and above. Immigration amid hard times blessed The Pass with an enduring ethic of cross-cultural tolerance and respect. Japanese-Canadians were welcomed to settle here after their release from nearby internment camps in 1945 and many of their descendants remain. Tokyo’s Nippon Institute of Technology renewed the bond in 1996 when it converted an old courthouse and a church into a gardened satellite campus for Japanese engineering students. Some of the early immigrant miners were accomplished musicians and gave this little community the gift of a symphony orchestra which continues to present seasonal concerts as it has for 80 years. Volunteerism born of necessity persists today in the community-run Pass Powderkeg ski hill, the Allison Creek cross-country ski centre, the art gallery and Rum Runner Days—the annual celebration of outlaw resistance against Alberta’s Bible-thumping temperance laws of the 1920s.

The community’s proud connection to gunpowder and booze is celebrated in the opera Filumena, which examines the 1923 hanging of bootlegger Florence Lassandro, who confessed, perhaps falsely, to shooting a local police constable. The streets and buildings that witnessed Lassandro’s crimes are essentially unchanged today. Downtown Coleman starred as 1940s “Snowy Valley” in the made-for-television movie The Secret of the Nutcracker. In 2007, IMAX camera crews captured Canadian Pacific’s Empress steam locomotive strutting by main street buildings looking just as they did in 1930, when the engine was new and Crowsnest Pass prospered on supplying it and its siblings with fuel. Most recently, National Geographic occupied The Pass to shoot scenes for a docudrama on the post-war search for German military secrets. The Pass is an archaeological trove of coking ovens, abandoned pit cars, mine portals and coal tipples, preserved by economic stagnation and melded into the landscape as cultural antiquities. A colony of native swallows nestles under the exposed conveyor tubes of Coleman’s big green coal tipple, making it a significant wildlife shelter as well as the centrepiece of a federally designated historic district.

Residential neighbourhoods too were freeze-framed as Canada’s post-war boom proceeded on oil rather than coal. A handful of small projects has refreshed the tired housing stock, but promises of grand construction projects have not panned out. A $1.8-billion scheme for a marina resort on Crowsnest Lake failed to break ground before the implosion of the investment markets. (A yellow excavator was trucked in for the promoter’s photo shoot and then immediately removed.) The same promoter’s separate promise of 300 homes on a former coal dump encountered regulatory objections from federal and provincial environment officials alike. The developer suspended work more than a year ago after stripping away the cover of grass and topsoil carefully placed by the province in 1988. The site is now a black gash along Highway 3, looking once more like a dump for coal slack and leaking coal dust into the Crowsnest River, one of Alberta’s signature trout streams.

With credit tight and incomes declining in the oil patch, prospects for a construction boom seem fanciful. Instead, attention is focusing on the opportunity for regular folks to acquire a modest home in an existing neighbourhood. A decent fixer-upper can now be had for $200,000 or so, compared to the $300,000 it would have commanded two years ago.

The fitful interest of speculative land promoters has spared much of the valley from exurban sprawl. The Nature Conservancy of Canada took advantage of persistently low property prices to scoop up fields and wildlife habitat along the Crowsnest River. According to registry records, the Conservancy is now the second-biggest landowner in The Pass after Devon Energy’s gas plant, whose buffer of grassland serves fortuitously as a de facto conservation zone. Certainly, the gas plant’s tall stack and exoskeleton of industrial piping intrude on what would otherwise be one of the most inspiring landscapes in creation. That, however, is a legacy too late to remedy, at least until the gas finally runs out. In the meantime, Devon has removed its glaring stockpile of sulphur, and will install a wind turbine to supply the plant with clean energy.

Which brings us, unavoidably, to the most-cited objection to life in The Pass. The narrow gap in the Continental Divide at Crowsnest Lake is a nozzle for Pacific air masses forcing their way through the Rockies. The powerful westerlies can blow out car windows and casually flip semi-trailers; this is no place for ancraophobics. On the other hand, winter winds often come in the welcome form of snow-melting chinooks. The reliable breeze and sunshine dries and sanitizes laundry, with the added pleasure of denying any financial tribute to Enmax. Wind across chimney tops also makes airtight wood stoves burn more brightly. It flushes away the pollution from Highway 3 traffic. Best of all, the prevailing westerlies float thousands of migrating eagles over The Pass each spring and autumn.

Tap water is drawn from aquifers replenished annually from unsullied snowfall at the crest of the Continental Divide. Pass water is the best in Alberta, in the opinion of the man responsible for keeping it that way, the towns’ chief administrative officer, Gordon Lundy. He is convinced that the clear air, pure water and surrounding wilderness will inevitably bring The Pass demographic success as a haven for the post-career professional class. Lundy bristles at the suggestion that the absence of Canmore-style social cachet might dissuade potential newcomers. “This is a working community, but there is nothing rough about it,” he says. “I’ve done this job in towns throughout Alberta, and The Pass exceeds all of them in volunteerism. I wish the weekenders would get more engaged in community organizations, but perhaps they will once they move here.”

That is visibly occurring. The Crowsnest Conservation Society is a fresh voice in town, one Lundy praises for its reasoned engagement in local issues. Its success is due to a young and capable full-time manager supported by a board of mature and accomplished newcomers, including an economist and an environmental engineer. The shift in basic values is evident in the municipal council’s reluctance to endorse a plan by Spray Lake Sawmills and the province to log the flank of Crowsnest Mountain, ostensibly to rid the proposed cutblocks of mountain pine beetles. Whatever the scientific merits of the issue, the fact that local politicians are siding with conservationists and tourism operators signals the end of unquestioned faith in resource extraction as the source of jobs and prosperity. Attracting newcomers is at least equal in economic priority.

Fully one-third of Pass houses are now owned by out-of-towners. The trend is easily visible in the transition of main- street businesses. Stores and restaurants such as The Gifted Crow, Crocket’s Trading Post, The Tin Roof, Cinnamon Bear, Stone’s Throw and Crowsnest Fly Shop & Café appeal to newcomers. There are as well a few old-time businesses treasured by the newcomers. The fresh-cut fries and fat burgers of Chris’s Restaurant remind us just how much we have lost to fast and frozen food. The Old Dairy Ice Cream Shoppe is everyone’s favourite summer oasis. The local barber shop, straight off a Norman Rockwell canvas, remains the font of local wisdom. The Orpheum Theatre has been in uninterrupted operation since showing its first silent film in 1923. 

Status-seekers and property flippers can do better elsewhere. The most likely prospects for contentment in The Pass are already satisfied with their personal and professional success, and comfortable with the imperfect reality of an authentic and unpretentious collectivity. “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody,” says Arne Andreasen, recently retired as head of Calgary’s roads department. Andreasen crafts and sells bamboo fly rods at his Alberta Rose Anglers shop in Lundbreck, a hamlet just beyond the eastern boundary of Crowsnest Pass proper with an unbroken panoramic view of the Livingstone Range. “There’s no opportunity to excel or demonstrate your superiority. The Pass is out of the rat race, and the scenery is tremendous.”

Like other mountain towns past their heyday of timber and coal extraction, Crowsnest Pass is redefined by the characters of its newcomers. If present trends continue, The Pass may reveal itself to be a town for the times—a preserve of modest and economical living, in an extravagant and generous landscape. 

David Thomas writes, photographs, fishes with a fly and lives in a centenarian home in the Crowsnest Pass.

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