Fernie is a town of 5,200 people (2016) in British Columbia that is fully encircled by the Rocky Mountains. It began as a mining town, but its location in the Canadian Rockies has led to the development of the Fernie Alpine Resort (FAR). Fernie is renowned for its powder skiing and snowboarding – the resort receives an average of 875 cm of snow per year!
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 (25 miles) to the east.
The vast Crowsnest Coal Field lies just to the east of the city, and Fernie owes its origins to 19th-century prospector William Fernie, who established the coal industry that continues to exist. Fernie founded the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in 1897 and established a temporary encampment near Coal Creek. The Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in the valley the following year, and a townsite emerged parallel to the railway line slightly north of the initial encampment, or “Old Town”. A war-time internment camp was set up at rented premises in Fernie from June 1915 to October 1918.
Underground coal mines were dug 10 km away from the townsite in the narrow Coal Creek valley and until 1960 a small satellite community was known as Coal Creek stood adjacent to them. A variety of other mines were sunk into the coal fields in a 50-km 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 Brewery Creek (mountain spring water).
Like most single-industry towns, Fernie endured several boom-and-bust cycles throughout the 20th 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 25 km upriver, which sat on a more productive portion of the Crowsnest Coal Field. Fernie would remain an important residential base for mine labour. Today, Teck Resources 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 Roberts Bank Superport in Delta on the Pacific coast.
After a disastrous fire levelled much of the downtown core in 1904, the 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. 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.
Warm summer days, cool summer nights along with cold and snowy winters. Influenced by chinook winds and being to the west of the continent, Fernie’s winters are mild for its latitude in North America, although the climate is a lot more continental than coastal British Columbia.
The closest airports to Fernie are Cranbrook/Canadian Rockies International Airport (YXC) and Calgary (YYC). Cranbrook receives mostly domestic flights (Vancouver, Calgary, Kelowna), but also some international charter flights. Shuttles to Fernie from these airports run regularly but can be expensive.