New book looks at neglected Fernie history

Syrian and Chinese immigrants. Horror movie star Boris Karloff. A championship women’s hockey team. A catastrophic bank failure. All are part of Fernie’s history, but you probably didn’t know it. 

In his new book Beneath the Coal Dust, to be launched on Saturday, author Wayne Norton explores those subjects and others that have largely eluded historians until now. Norton is a Victoria resident with several other books to his credit a long interest in Fernie.

“The book is encouraging people to join me on historical journeys,” he says. “I hope some people accept that invitation.”

The following is a slightly edited transcript of our interview with Norton.

What is this book about?
This derives from Fernie at War, my last book. There were a number of interesting details that didn’t fit into that particular narrative but were intriguing enough that I thought I might want to follow them back or forward in time. Most of the articles in this new book derive from that curiosity.

Give us some examples.
The red light district is a good example. I knew it was shut down amidst much controversy in 1917. So I started to think “Well, how did it get set up?” I had already known a few details about the police monthly raids and money coming into Fernie city coffers. I also knew about the death of Lena Bell in the fire of 1908. She was described as a “prostitute from the red light district in the north end.” That’s a case of tying threads together. I also come across [labour activist] Ginger Goodwin in 1914 and 1916. I wondered some more about him.

How did you stumble across these stories? Was it mostly things you came across in the newspapers or what was your starting point?
Some of it in the newspapers, some of it in files at the BC Archives in Victoria. Little things come up and get you interested. That’s how I got interested in Fernie history in the first place. I’ve been looking at Fernie history for 25 years now. I came here in ’96-97. Went to the museum at the time and stumbled across the women’s hockey team and the miners revolt of 1915. I didn’t know anything about either of those. It all followed from that.

Have these stories not been told at all or just not in the depth you’re telling them?
Most have not been told at all. Perhaps a couple have been told to some extent. A historian in Fernie, John Kinnear, wrote regular articles about history in the newspaper. He always did a good job but didn’t have access to the files in the BC Archives. Even newspaper files were hard to find in those days. Now it’s all online. I wish it had been for the last few years when I was doing all this work! Would have saved me a lot of time with microfilm. I did find every time I looked at a topic, in other words under every rock I turned over, there seemed to be something else unexpected that led me in one direction or another.

So access to sources is one reason these stories haven’t been told. But is it also the groups you’re writing about didn’t get the attention they deserved?
There’s a reason, I believe, that the history of Fernie and the Elk Valley has been so neglected. The region just doesn’t fit the main themes of BC history. So it’s left out of academic history. It’s also a small region. It hasn’t generated too many local historians and it’s also true that the region doesn’t have the glamour and romanticism of West Kootenay, for example. There are no lovely lakes and silver mines and lost gold mines. Fernie was coal. Hardly appealing to the romantic imagination. But I can’t fully explain why all of these things were left there for me to start digging into, but I’m glad they were because I have had a wonderful time exploring these historical journeys, as I put it in the book.

Tell us about what’s going on for the launch.
It’s been organized by the Fernie Museum, especially by one young man, Cory Dvorak, who has been absolutely essential throughout the creation of this book. I’m sitting in Victoria far away from the region I’m writing about and questions would always come up. So it would be “Dear Cory, what about this?” He’d get back with the relevant detail. I’m very grateful to him.

Saturday’s event begins at 11 a.m. at the Fernie Museum with an historical walking tour hosted by Lindsay Vallance. At noon there’s a luncheon at the seniors drop-in centre, to be followed by a presentation by Norton, who will be introduced by John Kinnear. The cost is $20 for the walking tour, lunch, and presentation ($15 for members of the Fernie, Sparwood, and Crowsnest museums, Fernie library and seniors).

You can listen to the entire interview here: