Monday, 20 May 2013

Coalmont: a BC town that refuses to die **


“The last time you were here, was that before I died? Or after?” asks Bob Sterne as he checks a guest into his three-room Mozy-on-Inn hotel. The registration desk is in the tidy kitchen of his 112-year-old cabin that he named “Fred” — it seems many of the buildings here have some sort of nickname.

Fred stands for Freaking Ridiculous Economic Disaster. When Sterne and wife Diane bought the place it was filthy, covered in graffiti and had a bullet hole in its front window. The back wall was black with soot because somebody had tried to burn it down. Much love and care and a whole lot of sweat transformed the near-derelict structure into the Sterne’s home, and the hotel’s office.

“The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes slightly longer,” says Sterne. His wife says it is his favourite saying.

Bob Sterne, who is in his sixties, looks like a lumberjack — strong and hard to knock off his feet. He exudes a reserved warmth.

“Shut the door. Don’t mind Molly,” he says as his brown lab laps at guests’ feet.

The sturdy Sterne was knocked off his feet on December 30, 2011 as he cleared a new dump of wet snow off his driveway. Suddenly he went down.
Neighbour Maurice Chartrand and his two sons heard a thud and came running. Sterne had no vital signs.

Diane Sterne, called 911 and together she and the men managed to get Sterne’s heart beating again. It took the ambulance 45 minutes to get to them.

Another neighbour heard the call for an ambulance on his scanner — most people in Coalmont have one ear to their scanner at all times — and came out to give Diane Sterne a ride to the hospital behind the ambulance.

Halfway to Princeton, the ambulance stopped and the doors flew open. “I expected to see them shocking him again, but nope, Bob had come-to and was beating up the attendants,” recalls Sterne. They had to tie him down to make the rest of the trip. Once at the hospital, doctors were blown away that he survived — and luckily without brain damage.

Main Street of Coalmont in winter.

The Sternes’ laid-back attitude about Bob’s near death experience and refusal to die are symbolic of the phoenix like town they have lived in for over 12 years. Coalmont B.C. is tucked away in the Tulameen Rivervalley, four hours east of Vancouver and a half hour from Princeton.

One of the first buildings at the entrance to Coalmont.

The town is a character as strong as the eccentric men and women who inhabit it and like them, the town has baggage, is a little worse-for-wear and has been written off more than a few times. But the town, like Bob Sterne, refuses to die.

Gold prospectors originally settled the area — in fact there is still a population of people who pan for gold in Granite Creek. The easy access, get-rich-quick gold, however, dried up at the turn of the century and many left. A few prospectors stayed, hoping to catch the next opportunity for fortune.

In 1901 the first official record of coal was made in the area. By 1908 the Columbia Coal and Coke Company was making a serious go of mining the black gold. They needed offices and residences and so bought the land that would become the town of Coalmont.

One of the original buildings still standing in Coalmont.

The town grew quickly to accommodate the mining workforce. By 1911 a hotel, restaurants, stores and homes had sprung up. Business owners predicted the town would grow to 10,000 to support the mining of what was said to be a mountain of coal.

Men in large numbers flooded the town in search of fortune and a fresh start and that is what made Coalmont a town of bachelors, as it mostly still is today.

Entrance sign.

There are two signs at the entrance to Coalmont, originally erected by famous local Walt Smart — who was born to Coalmont pioneers. One sign gives the vital statistics of the town’s climate and terrain. The other, below a skeleton and cross symbol, in black lettering on white plywood, reads:

Entrance sign.

“Warning: To all doorstepsalesmen [sic] — especially those selling magazines, encyclopedias and fireballs, your safe passage is not guaranteed in this village. Women beware! There is a predominance of bachelors living here.”

This rebellion, rough edge and survival instinct remains palpable in Coalmont. The 100 people who live there are different. They get by however they have to. They don’t much like being told what to do and they rely on each other.

“The folk who live here don’t bend to modern day fashions and fancy gizmos. If something breaks, they try to fix it and if a neighbour needs a hand, they are always there with two,” says Diane Sterne in her book about the history of the area, White Gold, Black Diamonds.

Ole Juul's house and the General Store.

Right past the entrance signs is the first building in the town, the square wooden General Store, which has stood in its spot for more than100 years. It was the family home of sign maker Walt Smart and is now home to the unofficial mayor of Coalmont, Ole Juul.

Juul is another Coalmont character in a rather rich cast. Juul, who describes himself as a hippie, opens the door to his historic home with welcoming smile enthusiastic hello. At 65 he looks younger than his age. His grey hair is pulled back into a youthful ponytail and he wears a baggy wool sweater hanging down over his khakis.

While the folks in Coalmont look to Juul as the town’s sage, the place is governed officially by the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen, which is divided into eight areas A to H. Coalmont is area H and is the largest of the districts.

The locals resent the taxes they have to pay and feel their regional district masters do not respect them. “Princeton seems to think of us as ‘rural Princeton’ and that is very wrong,” says Juul. “These areas, came along completely independently of Princeton, and have their own history. This is one of the things which I want to keep in the forefront in our area.”

Side of Ole Juul's house.
Juul’s historic house at the entrance to the town was built by eccentric bachelor Isaac McTavish who saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the booming new town. One of the most famous stories about McTavish is that he had a pet black bear tied up outside the store that people used to come by to visit.

The bear got out one Sunday and went through the town eating out all the iceboxes and even broke open bottles and drank the beer at the government beer cache. He ended his journey by eating out of the basement food stash at the Coalmont Hotel. Apparently when McTavish went to retrieve his bear, the animal good-naturedly took to his collar and chain and was led home.

The building was sold several times after McTavish and operated as a store until 1972. It was not well maintained and fell into disrepair. Juul tells of its extension, a second bedroom, pulling down the second floor of the main house. Walt Smart, gave it a “Coalmont style fix” and attached a chain around the extension and winched it back up, thus relieving the pressure on the main house.

Inside today, the historic house smells of roasting coffee. Jazz plays softly in the background. Juul laughs easily among his treasures. Stacks of electronics, books, music notes, records and antique suitcases fill the mainfloor to above the original windows.

Ole Juul's basement of treasures.
Up the original wooden stairs a new world awaits. Surprisingly feminine in comparison to the downstairs, each room in the maze is neatly laid out. Colourful glass jars and dainty tea cups adorn the windows.

The kitchen has a worn antique oak island with the morning’s bread and cheese laid out. An antique stove sits in the corner. Juul’s says he heats his house with between five and six cords of wood a year, depending on how cold it gets. He heats up a coffee pot on a camping element hooked up to a 20-pound propane tank on the floor.

Juul has done all the repairs on the house himself. A jack-knife carpenter, Juul’s asserts, “I do stuff my own way.”

Ole Juul in his kitchen.

The deep brown, original, wooden floors creek with each step. The living room has a sofa, and a few antique leather chairs. “I like old stuff,” he says with a shrug.

An old pewter flute, a remnant of Juul’s past as a jazz musician, hangs beside a shelf of antique dolls, one his grandmother’s from the mid 1800s. Juul proudly calls himself a ‘Coalmontian’ and has thought a lot about the type of people who come here to live. He says most prefer a solitary life and that is what the place offers.

“There are indeed some real gems of human beings in the area. And also, with most people, it is nice to just be, if they are capable of that and many [here] are,” says Juul.

One of the yards in Coalmont.
The town itself has the sense of a place that’s been all but abandoned. It’s as if all the responsible parents have run away and the teenaged boys are in charge. Derelict cars with grass growing out of them are scattered around front and back yards.

One of the lawn decorations in Coalmont.

Dogs run free day and night. Smoke rises from stovepipe chimneys. Dirt bikes and barbecues in various states of disrepair are left mid-project to rust. People here don’t like to be hurried, and they don’t like to be told what to do or when to do it. We’ve survived here this long, they say, we can darn well make it through another century or two.

An abandoned, half built house in Coalmont.

After the original boom of the opening of the mine, the extraction and movement of the coal out of the treacherous landscape proved much harder than expected, and by 1913 Columbia Coal and Coke had gone under. Many families simply walked away from their property. By the middle of First World War it seemed Coalmont would soon be a ghost town.

When the war ended, the renamed original coal company was able to leave behind the old horse and buggy method of transporting coal to embrace the new technology of trams. By 1921, workers were again coming to the town for coal. The first electric lights went on in the homes and businesses.

Though Coalmont never reached the population first expected, in 1922 four hundred people called the town home. It again looked like the place would thrive, but for every up in Coalmont, there always seems to be a down.

Tulameen River which runs south of Coalmont.

“Black Wednesday” hit on August 13, 1930. An explosion in one of the mineshafts killed 45 minors. After what was one of the province’s worst disasters, production dwindled and on April 8, 1940 the last mine closed. The next day the lights went out in Coalmont. Without electricity, most of the townspeople left. Those who didn’t were either crazy or stubborn, but all were resourceful. For the next twenty-five years there was no electricity in Coalmont.

Some of the families who stayed through the dark years are still there today and talk nonchalantly about reading by coal oil lamps and later having generators in their basements. For those who stuck it out there is not much to say about this era. They did what they had to do. They always had, they still do.

The one stop sign in Coalmont.

Today the town proudly boasts one stop sign, and one phone booth, which, when it was disconnected by Telus due to lack of use in 2012, the townspeople, lead by Juul, fought successfully to have reconnected and upgraded.

The phone booth.

There is a small chalkboard used for casual communication among residents, which is hung by the town mailboxes. The chalkboard reads,“Coalmont’s Facebook.”
Coalmont's Facebook.

There is a library — a repurposed bar fridge on a post on the corner of the main street full of books and a list of sign-out rules — put there by the Sternes.

Coalmont library.

“The people here don’t have much money and don’t think twice about making a trip to the Princeton dump, locally referred to as the East Princeton Mall, if they need something,” says Diane Sterne. They will go through the stuff in the reclaimed section and take it home to be repurposed. That is where the bar fridge for the Coalmont Little Free Library came from. “It was in the dump and we cleaned it up and voila – a library,” says Sterne.

Coalmont Hotel.

Strong hints of the boomtown Coalmont once was still remain. In winter, the mammoth Coalmont Hotel assaults the eyes with its flamingo pink paint against the tides of white snow. In the summer you expect to hear the theme song to Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as you approach up the dusty road and onto the wooden stairs of the grand hotel porch.

The back of the Coalmont Hotel.
At one time the hotel was the jewel of the town. It boasted 35 rooms with luxurious baths, two cooks, a maid and a night watchman. In the 1940s there was a barbershop in the front room and a dance school in the dining room. But that was a long time ago. People still meet at the hotel to drink and catch up, but there are only two functioning rooms to rent and the pub operates sporadically.

Inside the pub today. Photo from Facebook.


It is possible Coalmont residents may be about to see some money flowing through their town once again. Coalmont Energy Corp. is set to begin mining just outside of Coalmont in the Basin mine. Mine manager John F. Allen says the operation will run continuously with 60 full time employees and is licensed to haul 350,000 tonnes of coal per year.

A few Coalmont locals have already gotten jobs, but Juul, whose own girlfriend works at the mine, says that people aren’t holding out much hope of it having a huge long-term impact on their economy. He says Coalmont people are used to things starting well and then turning for the worst. “Come to think of it, one of the reasons I liked Coalmont before I came here, is that it was ‘voted least likely to succeed,’” says Juul.

If there is anything that can be taken from the story of this town and its people is that sometimes success is defying the odds— and that they know how to do.

**I owe much of my love and interest in Coalmont to Diane Sterne and her husband Bob. One day in 2009 my husband Mykel opened Google maps and clicked a random spot- the town of Coalmont. He quickly searched for a hotel and came up with the quaint inn owned by the Sternes- Mozey-on-Inn. We had such a wonderful time on that first trip that we continue to go back every few months. The history in this article is based much on Diane's book "White Gold and Black Diamonds"


  1. Excellent article, Jennifer.... look forward to seeing you again soon....

    Bob Sterne

    1. Thanks so much. I am glad you like it. We will definitely be back soon.