Fernie & Elk Valley Culture Guide Fernie & Elk Valley Cultural Guide - Winter 18-19 - Page 12

Railway tunnel construction on the BC Southern loop at Michel (c1896). Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History FERNIE’S FOUNDING FATHERS Michael Phillips & William Fernie In 1851, 14-year-old William Fernie set sail from England for a new life in Australia. There he began the career that would eventually lead him to Southeastern British Columbia and the untouched coal fields that would be his legacy. Lured to Australia by tales of the Victorian gold rush, he quickly found work in the booming mining town of Bendigo but just 4 years later he set sail again and for several years worked as a quartermaster on the United States Mail Steamer to South America. He arrived in British Columbia in 1860 and worked in mining in the Cariboo region, eventually being appointed Gold Commissioner in 1873. Serendipitously, 1873 was the year that Michael Phillips made his first significant foray into the Elk Valley, and the first recorded trip along Michel Creek through what is now known as the Crow’s Nest Pass. Phillips returned the following year with Jim Morrissey and others on a well- provisioned prospecting expedition. The party crossed the Elk River and discovered coal in abundance; however, the treasure they sought was gold and 12 coal was of little interest at the time. “Woods and I went over the divide on foot to the Michel Creek waters, but could find nothing but coal and coal everywhere. We spent many weeks up Elk River, but failing to get out of the coal formation we turned back and went towards the head waters of the Flathead River.” Michael Phillips, also originally from England, came to the region by a more direct route than William Fernie, arriving at the Tobacco Plains outpost of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1860’s. Although the company pulled out of the region shortly after his arrival, Phillips saw the potential of the area and stayed, thoroughly learning the Ktunaxa language so he could communicate with the local population. He married the daughter of the Tobacco Plains Chief and eventually started a ranch where they raised twelve children. Although Phillips maintained his interest in gold and was a successful trapper, rancher, and builder, he also saw the potential in his coal discovery.