Fernie's early history is as dark as the coal that was mined here.
Legend has it that in the late 19th century, the daughter of a Ktunaxa Chief was courted and then jilted by the unscrupulous William Fernie – all Bill was after was the source of the black coal pendant that she wore around her neck. He subsequently found the coal deposits and, as early as 1897, the Crow's Nest Pass Coal Company commenced mining operations in the Coal Creek Valley.
Fernie's Coal Mining History
Fernie was founded as a company town in which CNP Coal erected hundreds of cheap cottages to rent to its workers, and offered leases to merchants who wished to erect their own buildings. Clothing and food was available only through the company's own store, which charged exorbitant prices. Labour unrest brought change in 1901, when the company began to sell residential building lots.
Daily life in Fernie was no picnic. The operation of primitive coke ovens created appalling atmospheric conditions in the town. The lives of 128 men and boys were lost in a 1902 mine explosion.
Fires in Fernie
There were also devastating fires in Fernie. In 1902, the first major conflagration destroyed the city's core block. In 1904, a fire destroyed six entire city blocks – but the worst was yet to come. On the first of August 1908, fanned by a night wind that blew up the valley, fire reduced the town to ashes in just 90 minutes. Only 23 houses survived. The city subsequently enacted a by-law requiring that new downtown buildings be constructed only from noncombustible materials.
In the following decades, a boom and bust economy brought more hardship to Fernie, which in turn meant huge fluctuations in the size of the population. In 1923, a bank failure cost many people their entire life savings.
Lifting the Fernie Curse
Locals attributed all this suffering to a curse said to have been put on the town by a Ktunaxa medicine woman as an act of revenge against the fickle William Fernie. It was not until 1964 that, at the request of Fernie's Mayor, a ceremony was conducted to lift the curse forever.
Look for the mysterious form of the Ktunaxa Chief on a rock face north of town on Mount Hosmer. Mounted on a horse with his jilted daughter close behind, the image of the "Ghostrider" is an amazing optical illusion that appears on summer evenings when light falls on the slope from a particular angle.
From Coal to Snow
When the last of the Coal Creek mines was sealed in the spring of 1958, there were those who predicted that Fernie would become a ghost town. However, the development of the "Snow Valley" ski resort in 1963 was the beginning of a tourism boom that has continued unabated ever since. Choose from a wide range of things to do, like cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, river rafting, hiking, mountain biking and fishing.
Fernie's Culture Today
A visitor arriving in Fernie could get confused by the local accent. No, it's not a peculiar mountain dialect, they really are from Australia. Lots of service industry jobs here are filled by young people from Oz, and they love it here. Consistent with its history, this city built of yellow brick continues to evolve with the times.