Beneath the Coal Dust

Historical Journeys through the Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass

By Wayne Norton

Categories: BC History
Imprint: Caitlin Press
Paperback : 9781773860923, 208 pages, September 2022

Go “beneath the coal dust” to discover the unexpected stories surrounding the Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass.


In Beneath the Coal Dust, author Wayne Norton digs deep, exploring the fascinating and sometimes sobering stories of the mining communities in the Elk Valley and the Crowsnest Pass. In this new collection, Norton chooses mainly a micro view, focusing on the stories that are specific to this isolated and unique geographic region. These tales span from the notorious red-light district of Fernie to women’s ice hockey in the 1920s, to the civic financial crisis caused by the Home Bank collapse, the regional history of breweries and prohibition, and the experiences and amazing fortitude of both Chinese and Syrian immigrants in what was a predominantly white settler town. This is a book about the local past, intended for those interested not necessarily in the broad sweep of national history, but rather in the smaller stories that are specific to this remote and historically rich area. And instead of dealing with the core regional narrative surrounding the coal industry, these explorations reveal some of what has been neglected and hidden “beneath the coal dust," as the title suggests.


“Norton has a real knack for rescuing fascinating stories from obscurity, revealing surprising and sometimes difficult truths about Fernie’s past. Whether he’s looking at little-known Syrian merchants, a young Boris Karloff, or often marginalized groups, he breaks new ground at every turn.”

—Greg Nesteroff, The Kütne Reader

“In Beneath the Coal Dust, award-winning author Wayne Norton presents a collection of twelve stories about people and events from the early decades of the twentieth century, focussing on Fernie. Some of the chapters have a light touch, while others are weighty in two senses—the thoroughness of Norton’s historical research and the way a story challenges what we think we know about how the past informs the present. The anti-Chinese racism propounded in Fernie’s newspapers and the devastating impact on Fernie and Coal Creek of the failure of the Home Bank of Canada in 1923 have timely lessons for today’s reader.”

—Tom Langford, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Calgary

"These pages are filled with memorable characters, including well-known names like Ginger Goodwin and Boris Karloff, along with others who deserve our attention: 1920s women’s hockey teams; Chinese and Syrian immigrants, as well as Germans who faced wartime prejudice; a brewer who established a local empire; and a long-serving politician who fought to end Prohibition in BC by holding up a beer bottle in the provincial legislature."

—Joe Wiebe, the Thirsty Writer, author of Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to BC Breweries

Beneath the Coal Dust touches on the growth and development of Fernie and region through everything from football and women’s hockey to live theatre and prohibition. Norton explores the impact of the Syrian immigrants and Chinese residents as well as the experience of “enemy aliens” during the First World War, alongside the ever-present role of the miners and their unions in shaping the communities of the Elk Valley and the Crowsnest Pass. His accounts of brewing and beer in the region, including the role of long-time MLA Thomas Uphill and his fight to ensure the workers could have their beer, adds to the colourful history hidden ‘beneath the coal dust.’ 

—Ken Novakowski, past-Chair of the BC Labour Heritage Centre

“As a historian I understand fully what drives one to delve deeply and systematically into the unexplored realms of an area’s history. Author Wayne Norton latest compilation “blows off the coal-dust” that obscures little known but fascinating pieces of the Fernie-area history puzzle. His previous efforts in unfolding these types of stories are well known but Beneath the Coal Dust is undoubtedly his most provocative effort to date. Norton has chosen to return time and time again to root out and go deep into profoundly important stories hidden by time in the place from whence he came.” 

—John Kinnear, Fernie/Crowsnest Pass historian, Fernie Free Press