Canmore owes its start to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Railway construction crews reached the flats north of the Bow River in the fall of 1883. It was on these flats that the CPR established Canmore first as a siding and then as a depot where crews could be housed and locomotives could take on fuel and water. The CPR built a 12-bay roundhouse, a station, a maintenance shed for the trucks and a store yard for wood cut on the nearby mountain slopes to feed the boilers of the engines. Canmore’s railway history was short-lived, however, ending in 1898 when more-efficient and powerful locomotives meant the depot was no longer needed.
Coal was discovered in Whiteman’s Creek – now Canmore Creek, located on the south side of the river – three years after the railway arrived in the Bow Valley. After securing a charter from Queen Victoria giving it permission in 1887 to mine coal and develop the land on an industrial scale, the Canadian Anthracite Coal Co. was in business. And, at first, the business of mining coal at Canmore looked promising.
The coal extracted from the No. 1 Mine was a high-quality semi-anthracite coal, a hard, lustrous coal that burns hot with little smoke, making it ideal for steam generation. And as the only location outside of Pennslyvania to have anthracite coal, the anthracite coal initially offered Canmore and the other Bow Valley coal mines great promise. But Canmore faced challenges that would lead the Canadian Anthracite Coal Co. towards ruin in its first few years. The distance to available markets was too great and the difficulty of mining coal in the Rocky Mountains where the thrust-fault action of mountain building bent and broke the coal seams increased production costs.
The Canadian Anthracite Coal Co. tried to sell its mine at Canmore. But a deal with Hobart W. McNeill, a prominent American businessman based in Seattle with ties to coal companies in Iowa fell through when he declared bankruptcy. Undaunted, McNeill offered to lease the Canmore mine. Soon, McNeill, who had close ties to the CPR, had begun to overcome the challenges of operating in such a remote and difficult place through investing the mine and negotiating a reasonable freight rate with the railway.
Canmore got an unexpected push forward when Charles Carey, a locomotive engineer based in Canmore and known for his daring, found a way to burn Canmore’s hot-burning anthracite coal in a locomotive by modifying the firebox grates and setting a new locomotive speed record. Carey’s achievement, along with a positive evaluation of the quality of Canmore’s coal by the CPR, the railway quickly became McNeill’s biggest customer.
But as the CPR purchased three quarters of Canmore’s coal, it meant the Canmore mines were governed by the CPR’s schedule of a busy summer and fall and slow winter and spring. Even so, Canmore struggled to produce enough to meet the CPR’s needs as flooding forced the coal mines at Anthracite, also operated by the H.W. McNeill Co. to close. That disaster was soon followed by the death of H.W. McNeill in 1900 at the age of 52. H.W. McNeill’s brother, Wilbur, and his nephew, Walter, continued operating the mine until 1911 when the Canadian Anthracite Coal Co. passed the lease to the Canmore Coal Co.