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The City of Fernie is located in the southeast corner of British Columbia, Canada, surrounded by the Canadian Rockies. Founded in 1898 and incorporated in July 1904, the municipality presently encompasses a year-round population of approximately 5,000, although the population drastically increases throughout the winter. An additional 2,000 live outside city limits under the jurisdiction of the RDEK.
Fernie lies on the Elk River, along Canada's southernmost east-west transportation corridor through the Rockies that crosses the range via the Crowsnest Pass, 40 km to the east. As the largest and oldest community in the immediate area, Fernie serves as something of a regional centre.
A noted tourist destination, Fernie is home to Fernie Alpine Resort, one of the largest ski resorts in Canada. Unique weather patterns tend to bring much more precipitation to the area than one might typically find this far inland, making the area a mecca for powder skiing. The famous backcountry resort of Island Lake Lodge is also nearby. Summer in Fernie is generally far quieter than the winter months, though mountain biking, fly fishing and golf are increasingly important tourist draws.
While the slopes of the mountains are presently the focus of economic activity, until comparatively recently residents of the area were more interested with the mountains' innards. The vast Crowsnest Coal Field lies just to east of the city, and Fernie owes its origins to nineteenth-century prospector William Fernie , who established the coal industry that continues to exist to this day. Acting on pioneer Michael Phillipps 's twin discoveries of coal and the Crowsnest Pass a few years earlier, Fernie founded the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in 1897 and set to work at once. A townsite was laid out at a broad bend in the valley where the Elk River is intersected by its tributaries Coal, Lizard and Fairy Creeks; the Canadian Pacific Railway was built through the valley shortly thereafter and a downtown core emerged parallel to it. Underground coal mines were dug 10 km away from the townsite in the narrow Coal Creek valley and until 1960 a small satellite community known as Coal Creek stood adjacent to them. A variety of other mines were sunk into the coal fields in a fifty kilometer radius in the following two decades. No mining was ever carried out in Fernie proper; coking of Coal Creek coal was carried out at the townsite, but otherwise the town developed into an administrative and commercial centre for the burgeoning industry. Forestry played a smaller role in the local economy and a local brewery produced Fernie Beer from mountain spring water.
Like most single-industry towns, Fernie endured several boom-and-bust cycles throughout the twentieth century, generally tied to the global price of coal. The mines at Coal Creek closed permanently by 1960 and the focus of mining activity shifted to Michel and Natal about twenty-five kilometres upriver, which sat on a more productive portion of the Crowsnest Coal Field. Kaiser Resources opened immense open-pit mines there in the 1970s to meet new thermal coal contracts for the Asian industrial market, predominantly for use in blast furnaces. Fernie would remain an important residential base for mine labour, along with the new communities of Sparwood and Elkford that sprung up much closer to these new mines. Today, Fording Canadian Coal Trust operates all five open-pit mines, shipping out unit trains (often with more than 100 cars) along the Canadian Pacific Railway through Fernie to the Pacific Coast, where the coal is loaded onto freighters at Robert's Bank in Delta.
After a disastrous fire leveled much of the downtown core in 1904, the fledgling municipal government passed an ordinance requiring all buildings in the area to be built of 'fireproof' materials like brick and stone. Consequently, a new city centre rose from the ashes sporting brick buildings along broad avenues that would have looked more at home in a sedate and refined Victorian city rather than a rough-and-tumble frontier coal town. They were short-lived, however, as a second, larger inferno swept through the city on August 1, 1908. Whipped up by sudden winds, a nearby forest fire burnt its way into a lumber yard on the edge of the community and sparked a Dresden-style firestorm that melted brick and mortar and essentially erased the entire city in an afternoon. There were few casualties, however, and for a second time a stately brick downtown core rose from the ashes. Today, these historic buildings, most of which still stand, are a treasured and distinctive feature of the community.
Politics and Culture
Culturally, Fernie is an interesting community. The promise of outstanding recreational opportunities has led to the emergence of a somewhat Bohemian element in the population that often finds itself at odds with those who see Fernie as the epitome of all things blue-collar. Ski season brings a large transient population, including a disproportionately large Australian community, which adds a quasi-cosmopolitan feel to the workaday streets. The prospect of large-scale development has often polarized the community politically, with many residents fearing outside developers will destroy the community's character in their efforts to make it more tourist-friendly (in other words, more like Whistler).
Last updated: 07-15-2005 21:27:37
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