Burmis

Close to what you could consider a "classic" ghost town, Burmis is a rare example of a municaplity that tried to diversify its economy and failed. Today Burmis is nothing but a shadow of its former self, with no attractions or business in the area with only the Burmis Tree as an attraction for the passer-by.
          Burmis, located just off of the Crowsnest Highway, is just a vestige of its former self. With only a handful of occupied houses and many artifacts of former industrial activity within the vicinity, Burmis is quite close to what the passer-by would consider a “classic” ghost town. The most distinct feature of the town is the famous Burmis Tree that stands ominously just off the highway, welcoming visitors into the town with its grotesque hand-like branches. It seems that the government did not bother to talk about the actual history of Burmis in their sardonic “Alberta’s History” signs, and instead talk in greater detail of the tree that has been dead since the late 1970’s. Funny enough to think that the tree died at the same time the town did, being more of a grave marker than “a symbol of the endurance of the people of the Pass.” It is unfortunate that many of the original buildings were torn down long ago, mostly at the hands of historians that believed Burmis has served its purpose and has no historical significance.
          Writings on the town in the late 1970’s believed that Burmis was going to vanish without a trace. Evidently this hypothesis was disproved not only by a handful of residents living happily in the locality to this day, but also from looking through documents in some of the abandoned houses. One house was last occupied as late as 1995 before the resident decided to pack up her bags and leave. Of course, we do not recommend on entering these buildings as they are on private property and are extremely dangerous.  Modern industrial activity took place as late as 1997, when the townsite was used as a lumber yard for the "skinny twigs" that were collected on the east side of the Pass (Wilson, 2005). Regardless of its recent history of residents and industrial activity, Burmis at one point had promise to be a lucrative community to live in. In 1901 there were several coal seams near Burmis that were discovered. In addition, the CPR was in need of a marshalling yard for shipping coal from the Pass - heading as far east as Winnipeg. After laying down the tracks the CPR decided to aptly name the siding the Livingstone after the prominent Livingstone Range. However, the people of the Livingstone Valley nearby were worried about the confusion that the yard would cause their town. After contemplating the request, the CPR renamed the area Burmis after combining the names of two local ranchers, Robert H. Burns and Jack Kemmis, who were the first two names on the petition (Wilson, 2003).
          Seeing the resource potential of the locality, in late 1907 the East Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company (ECNP), a Spokane based company, bought the mineral rights to a square mile of Crown land that was explored by Sam Gebo who abandoned the site in 1900 to begin the Turtle Mountain project (Wilson, 2003). In 1910, James Dougall, an official of the ECNP, incorporated the Davenport Coal Company and began mining in the area (Kerr, 1979, pg, 239). The mine was focused in the Blairmore Group with most of the coal seams located in the middle unit of the formation. The Davenport Co. found the second and fifth deepest seams to be the most lucrative. With the construction of a tipple and a spur line to the mine itself, the mine was proving to be successful. Despite the labour disputes of 1911 the production for the Davenport mine was high. However due to low coal prices the income for the company’s debut production year was not as high as they were hoping. Most of the price issues depended on the removal of import duties for coal coming from the Crowsnest Pass into Ontario. This loss of import duties increased production, therefore driving the cost down to a point where companies would bleed money if they continued production. Total production for the year was just over 16,000 tons of coal and the average payroll amounted to nearly $3,500 (just over $106,000 in 2015 dollars) (Pincher Creek Echo, 2007).
          The microeconomic success of the town relative to the macroeconomic situation in the market proved Burmis to be a great prospect for settlers looking to work in the Pass. In 1911 alone 10 houses were built, and both Claude Clegg and W.A. Brown opened up general stores to accommodate the budding town (Fryer, 1982, pg. 13). Brown’s store was not the first to open up in Burmis, but it did have a significant historical significance for the townsite. Not only was it the longest standing, it also served as the post office for the area beginning in 1910 and lasting until 1976 (Fryer, 1982, pg. 14).  Eventually a restaurant, pool hall, barbershop, school, and a Presbyterian Church (built by none other than James Lang) were opened up to give the town of Burmis the comforts of a true booming community with about 75 families living within the townsite (Kerr, 1979, pg. 239). 1913 proved to be the peak of Burmis’ mining legacy, with a production of 40,000 tons during the year with the help of an electrica generator, steam engine, 140 men, and an upgraded tipple (Pincher Creek Echo, 2007). Unfortunately Burmis was never destined to see another year as prosperous as 1913 with WWI beginning the following year and disrupting financing from European investors, especially in the Balkans. With dried up financing and crippled markets the mine was forced to close in 1915 and all of the equipment was sent to Drumheller for the mine at Wayne (Wilson, 2003). The year 1920 marked the first official “death” of the town, with most of the buildings being torn out and families packing their bags. All hope was completely lost. The rate of decline was quite impressive looking at an annual report for 1915 by the NWMP - with the population being only 55 people immediately after the operation ended (Pincher Creek Echo, 2007). Compared to most mining communities, the remaining people of Burmis actually diversified their employment to keep the community alive. Most of the remaining men were employed by the marshalling yard and kept resilient during the depression years. It was at this point where the story changes for Burmis.
          As early as 1933, Cornelius Van Wyk visited the Crowsnest and bought out a timber lease 35 km south of Burmis and formed the Burmis Lumber Company (Fryer, 1982, pg. 13). This was a very unique situation for most mining towns since the locality actually was able to find lucrative employment in an alternative industry. The company set up two mills, one at Lost Creek on the Carbondale River and one in the townsite. A total of 80 men were hired for the two mills and prosperity blessed Burmis once again. By 1939 H.G. Allan bought the firm and the demand for lumber skyrocketed with the construction of Prairie airfield hangars for the Canadian war machine (Wilson, 2003). Unfortunately at the camp there were no recreational facilities for the workers, which led to alcohol smuggling and fights between coworkers being a regular phenomenon. When Van Wyk was running the company he decided that the business was too big for him to manage alone and hired on Robert Sly, a former guard of 15 years at the Prince Albert Penitentiary, who knew how to handle men – with reasonable but strict laws (Fryer, 1982, pg. 14). Sly was a great manager for the bush camp, mandating hot and cold running water, modest cabins for families, a school, general store, bunkhouses, and a laundry service. With these accommodations he firmly disallowed liquor, but created a pool hall and brought movies in regularly to keep the men happy. With Sly’s leadership the productivity of the mill was optimized, and the loyalty of the workers was evident with every cut. Unfortunately 1956 was a terrible year for the workers and residents of Burmis. The timber lease had expired and all of the best lumber had been depleted, leading to the mill being forced to close (Wilson, 2003).
          The Burmis Lumber Co.’s closing was the death knell of the town of Burmis. The post office had to be closed down but a few residents remained. Eventually the highway crews were trying to realign Highway 3 into the heart of the old townsite of Burmis, taking down Brown’s store that was owned by the Eddy family since the 1920’s. All commercial activity has since ceased in Burmis. This boom-bust cycle Burmis experienced is unique for the aspect that it experienced two different booms in different industries related to resource exploitation – mining and forestry. Economically speaking, this is a very important case study for Alberta because the variety of industry the townsite witnessed actually saved Burmis from dying out early in its life. This is the reason that Burmis is historically important in the Crowsnest Pass; it illustrates the true resilience of the people in the pass – not some dead tree.
     
        
Photos
  1. Old Shack
    Old Shack
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  2. Bedroom of Abandoned House
    Bedroom of Abandoned House
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  3. View of Abandoned House
    View of Abandoned House
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  4. Old Shed
    Old Shed
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  5. Recent Relics
    Recent Relics
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  6. View of Burmis
    View of Burmis
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  7. A Few Items We Found
    A Few Items We Found
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  8. Rooms Within the House
    Rooms Within the House
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  9. Living Room
    Living Room
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  10. Inside the House...
    Inside the House...
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  11. Kitchen
    Kitchen
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  12. Uhh...
    Uhh...
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  13. Ruins
    Ruins
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  14. Outside of the Abandoned House
    Outside of the Abandoned House
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  15. Broken Windows
    Broken Windows
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  16. Roads In Burmis
    Roads In Burmis
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  17. Ye Olde International
    Ye Olde International
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  18. Inside the Forlorn International
    Inside the Forlorn International
  19. Good As New
    Good As New
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  20. Burmis
    Burmis
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  21. Taxidermy Eh?
    Taxidermy Eh?
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  22. A View of the Main Line
    A View of the Main Line
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  23. View of Old Burmis
    View of Old Burmis
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  24. Survey Signs
    Survey Signs
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  25. Burmis Tree Sign
    Burmis Tree Sign
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  26. Survey Stakes
    Survey Stakes
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  27. The Burmis Tree
    The Burmis Tree
    Photo by Jason Ferris
References
Fryer, Harold. "Burmis". Ghost Towns of Southern Alberta: Volume II. Surrey, B.C.:
Heritage House, 1982. Print. pg. 12 - 14.
 
Kerr, Florence E. “Burmis.” Crowsnest and Its People. Coleman, Alta.: Crowsnest
Pass Historical Society, 1979. Print. Pg. 239 - 240.
 
Pincher Creek Echo. "Early Coal Mining." Pincher Creek Echo. 2007. Web. 10 Aug.
2015. .
 
Wilson, D.M. "Burmis." Crowsnest Highway. 2003. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.
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Photos taken by:
Deadwood Imaging (Jason Ferris)