Lille

The most far-removed ghost town of the Crowsnest Pass, Lille was a french mining camp that was advanced and promising. After a devastating economic crash in 1913, Lille was left to rot in isolation until 1978 when it became a designated Provincial Historic Site to protect the numerous artifacts within the townsite.
Legend:
Red: Hotel
 
White: Coal Slack Heap
 
Green: Coke Ovens
 
Blue: Washery
 
Purple: Town Dump
 
Yellow: Residential Area
 
Black: Wealthy Residence 
 
Orange: Stables

 
 
          In comparison to the other towns within the Crowsnest Pass, Lille, approximately 6 km north of the Frank Slide Interpretive Center, is by far the most isolated ghost town in the region - built on the spirit of the resilient settlers of the Crowsnest Pass. 100 years ago the town was occupied with the diverse sounds of a multi-lingual community, the pungent smell of the local bakery, and the impressive sight of a towering 3-storey hotel welcoming visitors of all nationalities. From the empty meadow marking the original townsite, to the ruins of the coke ovens, there is an air of mystery as to why such an elaborate operation vanished virtually without a trace. The graveyard had an even more mysterious allure with a noticeable lack of grave markers for those who are at rest. Except for a few graves that somehow survived the passage of time, and an information sign provided by the Government of Alberta, there was no indication of knowing who was buried there. Hiking through the townsite revealed the few remnants of Lille’s short existence, such as impressions in the meadow where old log cabins housed the miners, or fire hydrants to mark the location of the upper-class neighbourhood. The epitaph of Lille’s economic potential is the massive coal slag that forms a black hill nearby the coke ovens. It is composed of low-quality coal that would have been used to manufacture briquettes, left for an entire century to never see market. For over 100 years nature has completely taken over the once-promising townsite, never to see industrial activity again.
          The story of every town in the Crowsnest began as early as 1882 when G.W. Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada attempted to assess the extent of the coalfields in the Crowsnest Pass (Allen, 1979, pg. 121). He found that the seams, mostly located in Cretaceous strata, were accessible through mining in the main valley. In 1901, J.J. Fleutot and C. Remy of United Gold Field Limited prospected north of Frank and found the rich coal seams that Grassy Mountain had to offer. Encouraged, they began their operation by developing a camp, which became known as the “French Camp” because the majority of workers and officials were francophone. Initially the only access to the outside world was a trail, then a wagon road, and finally a railway with 23 trestles that was built along Gold Creek (Allen, 1979 pg. 121). Despite the fact that the engines were only able to haul 3 boxcars because of the incline of the mountain, the railway created a strong connection to the outside world, which allowed the “French Camp” to seem like an economic prospect. Unfortunately the Frank Slide of 1903 destroyed the Grassy Mountain Railway, which ceased all mining operations until a new switchback was completed in November of the same year.
            After the tragedy, it was evident that the “French Camp” experienced a rebirth. In 1903, both Fleutot and Remy needed to find new financiers to fund the rebuilding of the Grassy Mountain Railway. Once they obtained new capital, the partners reincorporated as the "Société anonyme du Chemin de Fer Houillier du Canada" and changed the name of the town to Lille, which was the name of the town in France where the head office and the financiers of the operation were located (Allen, 1979, pg. 121). In the same year they imported the battery and bricks of the Belgian “Bernard” coking ovens, and constructed it within the townsite of Lille. These ovens were considered the most advanced of the day, and of course very unique to North America. In the same period, from 1903 to 1904, there was a multi-cultural community growing in Lille (Crowsnest Heritage, 2010). To illustrate this, a man named Virginio Marcoline, who moved to Lille only knowing the Italian language, was assigned work in the mine with a partner who only spoke French. Since Francophones dominated the camp, Virginio learned French but it turned out that his partner learned Italian to communicate with him. Funny enough, neither of them could speak the English language.
          In a few short years the community sprout up. According to information signs in the townsite, there were many houses built for the officials and miners, a boarding house, a hotel, a school, and a liquor store. A fifteen-bed hospital that was operated by Dr. Thomas O’Hagen was erected in 1904, just in time to take care of patients during the typhoid and smallpox epidemics in the same year. Tragedy only struck a few times during Lille’s short existence. One near-miss was a major forest fire that threatened the townsite. As volunteers were loading women and children by horse and buggy to leave for Frank, the fire was put out by the opposing wind - leaving the town untouched. If the fire did strike the town there wouldn’t be much help nearby, possibly dooming the town. For a short time luck was on Lille’s side.
          The mining operations in Lille were located at three main sites along Gold Creek, close to the Grassy Mountain Railroad. Lille No. 1 mine was at Green Creek, No. 2 at Bear Valley, and No. 3 at Morin Creek. All of these prospects were west of Lille within the bowels of Grassy Mountain. Lille No.1 was the most productive mine and had a large tipple and support buildings to match its productivity (Allen, 1979, pg. 121). The entire mine network was connected like a hive through a main tunnel which allowed the No. 2 and 3 mines to haul their loads to the tipple to be loaded on the Grassy Mountain Railcars. From 1901 to 1913 the three mines produced almost a million tonnes of bituminous coal. The historic coal seams were most likely focused in the Mist Mountain Formation, which is lower cretaceous in age, that contains sandstone, mudstone, siltstone, coal, and conglomerate. This description stays relatively consistent with Dawson’s original geological survey. Even though the operation was well engineered, it wasn’t completely safe. According to the Crowsnest Heritage signs, a man named Tom Palidaro died tragically while trying to loosen a plugged coal chute by kicking at the large lump of coal. The coal was dislodged and crushed Tom, making some miners quit to find safer work.
            1908 was the year the “French Camp” was taken over by the Anglophones. West Canadian Collieries Limited (WCC) was formed after the purchase of all the assets of the Societe Anonyme Due Chemin De Fer Houiller De Canada for 100,000 British pounds (Allen, 1979, pg. 121). Unfortunately this investment was successful for a short time as the quality of the coal was discovered to become inferior that same year. At its peak in 1910 Lille experienced a population of 400, and had services such as a butchers shop, bakery, general store, post office, and NWMP barracks. 1912 was the year if decline for the WCC, with rising production costs, greater impurities found in the coal, and coking coal markets decreasing. The final nail in the coffin was the additional cost of the company owned Grassy Mountain Railway, which was hard to maintain with the local market at the time. In 1912 alone they suffered a net loss of $40,000 ($848,000 in 2015 dollars) as labour costs exceeded revenue by that amount (Porter, 2006, pg. 15). The collieries closed in Lille in 1913, but it did not spell the end for the WCC. They moved their operations to both Blairmore and Bellevue, which had higher economic potential with the CPR running a main line nearby each townsite, making investment in mining and infrastructure more appealing than in Lille.
            The narrative of Lille did not end in 1913. In 1978 the Alberta Government declared Lille as a Provincial Historic Site to protect the beautiful ruins that mark an important chapter of Alberta’s early resource exploration (Crowsnest Heritage, 2010). Upon entering the site you see markers warning visitors of the legal consequences under Section 20 of the Alberta Historical Resources Act, which prohibits the collection of artifacts or disturbing any of the remains on the site The cemetery in Lille, which is hidden by overgrowth, has a marker from the Provincial Government that has a brief list of those who lay in the burial site. The preservation of this century old town has allowed many visitors to see the impressive coke ovens that were once state of the art technology. Unlike some of the ghost towns in Alberta, the ghosts of Lille can rest in peace knowing their town is protected.
    
Photos
  1. Lille Graveyard
    Lille Graveyard
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  2. Pipe Debris
    Pipe Debris
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  3. Lille Graveyard
    Lille Graveyard
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  4. View of the Mountains
    View of the Mountains
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  5. Townsite Debris
    Townsite Debris
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  6. Debris on the Path to Lille
    Debris on the Path to Lille
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  7. Path to Lille
    Path to Lille
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  8. Destroyed Bridge
    Destroyed Bridge
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  9. Coke Ovens
    Coke Ovens
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  10. Lille Townsite
    Lille Townsite
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  11. Within the Woods
    Within the Woods
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  12. Basement Depressions
    Basement Depressions
  13. Belgian "Bernard" Coke Ovens
    Belgian "Bernard" Coke Ovens
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  14. Relics of a Prosperous Past
    Relics of a Prosperous Past
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  15. Isolation
    Isolation
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  16. Meadow Where The Stable Used To Be
    Meadow Where The Stable Used To Be
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  17. Coke Oven Ruins
    Coke Oven Ruins
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  18. Washery Foundations
    Washery Foundations
  19. Pile of Bricks...
    Pile of Bricks...
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  20. Fire Hydrant Marking the Wealthy Residential Area
    Fire Hydrant Marking the Wealthy Residential Area
    Photo by Jason Ferris
References
Allen, Peter B.R. "Lille”  Crowsnest and Its People. Coleman, Alta.: Crowsnest
Pass Historical Society, 1979. Print. Pg. 243.
 
Crowsnest Heritage. "Lille Mines and Townsite Trail." Discover Crowsnest
Heritage » Lille Mines and Townsite Trail. 2010. Web. 2 Aug. 2015. .
 
Porter, Meaghan. Historical Arcaeology at an Industrial Town Site: Lille, Alberta.
Saskatoon: U of Saskatchewan, 2006. Print.
 
Photos taken by:
Deadwood Imaging (Jason Ferris)