Prince Albert’s home heating fuel storage

I wonder how many of you remember, or recall hearing about, the home heating fuel shortage of January, 1943?

My colleague, Ken Guedo, came across this story while researching something else in the Bill Smiley Archives. He thought it might interest me, and drew it to my attention. Neither Ken nor I had ever heard about the fuel shortage, and an octogenarian with whom I discussed it had no recollection of it either.

The fuel shortage was first brought to the public’s attention on Wednesday, January 20th. The temperature in Prince Albert that day was minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 49.7 degrees Celsius). The bins of local coal dealers were empty and, although the Canadian National Railways assured Prince Albert’s mayor that there were five carloads of coal on the way from Saskatoon, the coal dealers saw little optimism as at least one car was steam coal for a local hospital. The remaining coal was expected to meet only 10 per cent of the orders which the dealers currently had on their books. The dealers suggested that deliveries of wood from the northern forests might have alleviated the fuel shortage, but various factors were negatively impacting such shipments.

The weather on Thursday, January 21st had moderated somewhat. Prince Albert’s temperature that day was a mere minus 41 degrees (minus 40.5 Celsius). However, even though two more coal cars than expected had arrived the day before, the fuel shortage looked to be even worse than anticipated. Word was spreading that strikes by Alberta coal miners rendered further coal deliveries to be unpredictable. According to the agents for the Atlas and Midland Mines, fifty men had failed to turn up for work at Drumheller’s Roseland mines. Furthermore, additional cars of coal being brought in on the Canadian Pacific Railroad were being delayed by a derailment at Craven, Saskatchewan.

At the same time, little wood was coming into the city. Cold weather and snow were making trucking difficult, further impacting the shortage of available trucks due to the ongoing world war. There was also, according to the dealers, a shortage of fuel wood at the source.

Later in the evening of January 21st, Mayor G.E. Brock sent a telegram to Prince Albert’s member of Parliament, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, encouraging the federal government to intervene in the situation. With the lack of supplies coming from the Alberta coal mines, no reserve stocks in the hands of local dealers, and extremely low temperatures locally, Brock suggested that “serious physical suffering will occur”.

While the people of Prince Albert awaited a response from their member of Parliament, Mother Nature certainly showed them no mercy. The next day, Friday, Prince Albert once more took the honours for being the coldest spot in western Canada. The temperature was minus 49 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 45 Celsius), and there was little prospect of a warming trend.

A survey of local suppliers of home heating fuel reinforced the dangerous situation. One dealer suggested that patrons might be able to “pick up a few sacksful of dust” from their bins, and went on to say that he had been told by potential customers that they would need to “shut up their homes and move out”. Another dealer advised that there was not one ounce of coal left in their bins. One of his customers, on being unable to get any coal from him or any other dealer “had to spend the night at a neighbor’s home”. Fortunately, a half ton of coal had arrived since then and the lady was able to be back in her home.

The Northern Cartage Company noted that a carload of coal which had been destined for a block within the city was being doled out by the sack full to persons in desperate need of fuel. One family, their agent noted, had to spend the night on the floor in the kitchen where they used what limited fuel they had in the kitchen range.

Although all the dealers expected to receive a limited supply of coal within the next several days, it definitely would not be enough to provide sufficient quantities to amply supply all the homes and blocks within the city. In the meantime, the McDiarmid Lumber Company, which had been supplying customers with small sacksful of coal (provided the customer brought his own sack and carried it away himself), felt that those with ample supplies should share with those who had none.

No coal would come in on Friday January 22nd, and it had become obvious that the situation would become worse before getting better. Each day, eight carloads of coal was required to meet the heating needs of Prince Albert. Yet, over the past three days, only eight carloads had arrived, leaving a deficit of sixteen carloads. Some might arrive on Saturday, but it was unknown just how much.

An appeal had been sent out to the surrounding area for any available wood that could be spared. However, due to the heavy snow pack on the roads it was uncertain how effective the appeal would be. Even if available supplies of wood could be moved into the city, it was anticipated that the relief would be short-lived.

By Saturday, when the temperature hit minus 54.8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 48.22 degrees Celsius), a survey suggested that nearly one half of the city’s population would run out of home heating fuel within the week. It was further suggested that this number might be higher, as the survey was conducted by telephone and it was felt that those without telephones might be more unlikely to have had the means to ensure an ample supply of wood.

Five carloads of coal had arrived in the city overnight, and the mayor’s appeal for wood had resulted in one response offering twenty cords. The local brewery had offered to lend 100 cords of wood from their pile. A response was received from the Prime Minister’s office stating the federal Department of Labour was “dealing with the situation” of the coal miners’ strike.

One fuel dealer who had received three car loads of coal had to supply the post office with one of those car loads, but the remainder would be distributed to those most in need. Truckers and teamsters were working over the weekend, including on Sunday, to see that those who needed it received it.

Two teams delivered fuel on Sunday morning, making thirty deliveries to those virtually out of coal, while another fifteen individuals brought in sacks in which they received sufficient fuel to last “for a few days”.

In the meantime, the district offices for the coal miners’ union advised that their members were prepared to return to work, and the Department of Labour indicated that it was fully cognizant of the necessity for full coal production to resume.

That Saturday evening, the Fuel Committee of Prince Albert’s City Council indicated that it had made a very careful check during the preceding days, and had found that the citizens of Prince Albert were facing a dangerous fuel shortage. A number of factors contributing to this shortage were enumerated:

  • The abnormally low temperatures;
  • The unusually high snow fall, which interfered with the production and transportation of cordwood;
  • The shortage of labour, brought on primarily by more attractive wages being offered for cutting pulpwood in eastern Canada. This had led to a higher than usual number of men from the area working away from home. (It was noted that the Wartime Price and Trade Board had approved a recommendation for a higher ceiling price for a cord of fuel wood for Kenora, Ontario than that requested for the Prince Albert area);
  • The difficulties facing truckers for the replacement of tires and general repairs for their vehicles;
  • The increased demand for coal due to the creation of many new buildings, notably for the Air and Basic Training Centres, as well as other expanding industries which had increased the demands for fuel;
  • The restricted deliveries of coal from mines due to labour disruptions and shortages;
  • The previous restriction to a 35 kilometre operating radius (approximately 56 miles) for trucks;
  • The previous uncertainty of prices (applying to cordwood only).

The Committee recognised that there was no shortage of potential fuel available in northern areas, but that it was a question of how to make that wood available to users which was causing grave concern.

By Monday, January 26th local coal bins were empty, but four more coal cars were spotted on the way to the city, with some ordinary coal for use in homes and the remainder “stoker coal” which would be delivered to the sanatorium, tiding it over for a few days. Meanwhile the provincial highways staff had snow ploughs out clearing roads to accommodate the delivery of cordwood.

This did not preclude some citizens from closing their homes and moving in with relatives until some relief could be obtained from the fuel shortage crisis. In one home, when the plumbing firm arrived to drain the water pipes, there was a half inch of frost covering the walls from the ceiling to the basement. In another home, the jars containing fruit and jelly preserves had frozen and burst, while in yet another house the water pipes from the basement to the top floor had frozen and burst, and the water in the cistern froze and broke the tank.

On investigating a report that there was a wood supply near Smeaton, it was found that the supply was about ten miles out of the community on roads which were impassible.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Wartime Trade and Prices Board announced that fuel rationing was impractical, and a wood sawyer from Prince Albert advised Council that even if wood could be made available there would not be enough sawyers to do the necessary cutting. The number of sawyers in Prince Albert had fallen from eleven at the start of the season to a “only three or four” in January. The approved price for cutting was insufficient to allow the companies to retain the necessary staff.

Fortunately, Tuesday, January 27th, saw the beginning of a change in enough of the factors which had led to the fuel shortage. The weather changed, with milder temperatures arriving. The highways crews were expecting heavier equipment which would help clear the roads near Christopher Lake, providing access to a block of 4,000 to 6,000 cords of standing fire-killed poplar. This would allow fifty cords a day to come into Prince Albert. And the strike at the Alberta coal mine had ended, which meant that more sufficient supplies of coal could be expected by the local coal merchants.

The citizens of Prince Albert had struggled through, surviving the home heating fuel crisis of 1943.

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