Description of Historic Place
The Village of Lille is situated in a meadow on an alluvial terrace near the confluence of Gold and Morin Creeks, six kilometres northeast of Blairmore, Alberta. Located on approximately 130 hectares of land, the site includes the processing facilities and associated townsite related to three of the many coal mines operating in the Crowsnest Pass during the early 20th century. Of the original site features, all built between 1903 and 1912, only the remnants of the Bernard coke ovens, coal waste (slack) piles, fire hydrants and the foundations of the hotel remain visible. Other landscape elements that record the former presence of the village include numerous cellar depressions, settling pond embankments and debris scatters of cultural material.
The heritage value of the Village of Lille lies in its representation of an early twentieth-century coal mining town established during the early industrial development of the Crowsnest Pass. Additional value is reflected in its unique, isolated, high elevation location, well above the main valley of the Pass.
In 1901, Charles Remey and Jules Justin Fleutot of the French company United Gold Fields of British Columbia claimed a coal prospect on Gold Creek and established the mining community of "French Camp". By 1903, the prospect had been developed to include three mines operated by the newly incorporated West Canadian Collieries. With the establishment of a spur line of the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway to provide transportation, French Camp became the location of the coal processing facilities for the mines. It was re-christened "Lille" in honour of the French town that was Western Canadian Collieries' headquarters.
By 1907-1910, Lille had become a major base of mining operations, housing nearly 400 residents in a community supplied with both waterworks and electricity. Within the village, up to 80 structures existed, including residences (miner's cottages, a boarding house, residences of company personnel, the mine superintendent and the doctor), commercial buildings (general store, bakery, butcher's shop, hotel, liquor store), a post office, a North West Mounted Police detachment, a four-room schoolhouse, a hospital, a mine stable and corral, a coal washery and 50 Bernard-type coke ovens. The coke ovens, built in 1904, had been assembled in Belgium, tested, dismantled and reassembled in Lille. The coke produced from these ovens was transported via the spur line of the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway to Frank for delivery to their markets.
Closure of the Lille mines occurred in 1912. Between labour unrest, increasing production costs and the decreasing quality of the Lille coal, West Canadian Collieries elected to move their operations to more profitable mines in the south, including those at Bellevue and Blairmore. By 1914, Lille was abandoned and its buildings were either demolished or were dismantled and moved to other mining towns in the Crowsnest Pass. Archaeological excavations at Lille in 1979 and 1981 have resulted in the collection of more than 4500 pieces of cultural material, including metal, glass, ceramics and fractured animal bones, which provide evidence of the domestic and industrial activities conducted during the village's florescence.
Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 610). Porter, Meaghan. 2006. Historical Archaeology at an Industrial Town Site: Lille, Alberta (Master of Arts thesis, University of Saskatchewan).
The character-defining elements of the Village of Lille include such features as:
- the location of the site, which is physically circumscribed in the Gold Creek valley, between Bluff Mountain and the Livingstone Range, and is the only well-drained terrace in the narrow valley, permitting control of the mined bedrock outcrops located upstream;
- remnants of domestic and commercial structures, which provide the most intact example of urban development associated with early 20th century coal mining in the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta;
- remnants of industrial facilities that represent one of the earliest industrial sites in the Crowsnest Pass;
- remnants of the wooden coal washery, which assisted in decreasing the ash content of coal prior to coking and was the first of its type used in Alberta;
- remnants of the coke ovens, constructed of Belgian brick, which are unique in western Canada and were the only known Bernard-type coke ovens in Canada outside Nova Scotia;
- the historic records for this site, which identify it as an anomaly in regional historic settlement patterns, as it was the only major mining community located outside the Crowsnest River valley;
- the archival documents related to the site, which provide information about many facets of domestic and industrial (coal processing) activities;
- archaeological remains, which provide the opportunity for detailed, problem-oriented research that may yield information about a remarkable early coal mining community in the Crowsnest Pass that was not re-settled and modernized after abandonment, and therefore possesses high levels of integrity.