By Ezra Black
Free Press Staff
Everybody drank, racism was casual, sex work abounded and the place smelled like sulfur.
Sounds like the description of a sinful town from the bible but actually it was Hosmer in its heyday.
On Nov. 25 Fernie Museum curator Ron Ulrich spoke about the history of Hosmer: a flash in the pan coal mining town that peaked and very nearly died in the space of less than ten years.
Using archives from the Hosmer Times and police records, Ulrich painted a vivid picture of life in the hardscrabble frontier community to about two dozen attendees at the Fernie Seniors’ Drop in Centre.
“I grew up with coal mine dust in my blood,” said Ulrich. “One of the things that’s always fascinated me about this whole area are these pop-up coal mining towns. I have always been fascinated by how people very quickly built a sense of community.”
The event was the second Lunch and Learn event hosted by the Seniors’ Centre and the museum, which invited guests to learn local history, and enjoy a nice lunch.
The community of Hosmer was founded by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which needed a coal mine to fuel the company’s smelters in Trail.
Construction of the tipple, boiler house, machine shops, lamp house, powerhouse and 240 coke ovens was completed by August 1908 by a workforce of about 500 men. The first shipment of coal left the Hosmer mine in December of that year.
“The early mining communities in the Elk Valley were boomtowns which rose almost overnight,” said Ulrich. “Built within a short distance of new mines, these communities promised a better life for thousands of immigrants that came to the region. The communities of Coal Creek and Michel-Natal, where the coal seams were lucrative, survived for over 50 years. Others popped up and then disappeared just as quick when the mines were not as profitable. Such was the fate of Hosmer,” he said.
In 1910 Hosmer was a budding community of about 1,200. It was divided into three sections, said Ulrich: Company Town, where CPR built their offices and company housing, Public Town, a subdivision made up of private and residential lots and Shanty Town, where the least advantaged eked out a living.
The name of this part of the community betrays some of the prejudices of the day, said Ulrich. Shanty Town was also known as “Slav Town,” “Little New York,” or “Tony’s Camp,” due to a high number of Italians and other ethnicities.
It was the least desirable place to live in Hosmer as its residents endured the smell of sulfur emanating from the community’s 240 coke ovens, said Ulrich.
Excerpts from the Hosmer Times, which promoted community events, commerce and recorded the comings and goings of townsfolk, also reported on crimes. Quotes from the paper underscoring a suspect’s Italian or Slavic origin were conspicuous, said Ulrich.
“Reading the Hosmer Times today provides us not only with information about life in this boomtown community but also insight into the social norms and prejudices of the day,” he said.
Hosmer’s police force, though small, was busy dealing with many alcohol related offences, “especially on payday,” said Ulrich.
The community’s four hotels: the Hosmer Hotel, the Pacific Hotel, the Queen’s Hotel and the Royal Hotel were home to a lot of boozing and the local sex trade.
There was a thriving red light district near Little New York. Prostitution was discussed at a public meeting in 1910 where the Reverend D.L. Gordon sought to ban the local sex trade. After a vote, it was decided leave the “ladies of the night,” alone.
Life was not all bad. The town had an excellent telephone system, complements of the Kootenay Telephone Company. It also had electricity, which was a rare thing for many rural communities at the time.
It had every business and service a person could need including a confectionary, a sweets shop, schools, a hospital and a Chinese restaurant.
Its citizens joined men’s and women’s societies such as the Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, Sons of Scotland and the Order of Owls. They had dances, watched silent movies in the Hosmer Opera House and played hockey.
Hosmer was a thriving community until June of 1914 when the CPR announced that it was closing the Hosmer mine and people abandoned the town en masse. Enrollment in the East Kootenay 54th Battalion and internment of “enemy aliens,” at a camp in Morrissey contributed to the depopulation.
Today, Hosmer has about a hundred residents. Only a few of its original buildings remain but the old mine site and the ruins of 45 coke ovens can still be seen not far from Highway 3.
“It remains an enduring monument to the undying pioneer spirit of Hosmer’s early miners, businessmen and their families,” said Ulrich.