In 1906, the Western Canadian Cement & Coal Company opened what would become the most innovative and modern cement plant in the world. Nestled at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, the Exshaw plant site was chosen for the abundant quantity and quality of limestone, the availability of nearby power sources and its proximity to the CPR’s rail line.
Workers arrived in Exshaw in 1906, hired to build what would become the largest and most advanced industrial plant in the country. Three hundred young men, some with their wives and children, came from all over the world to find work in the rapidly expanding Canadian West. After construction was complete, many of the workers moved on while others stayed, attracted by the potential of permanent work at the plant and a place to call home. The town of Exshaw, meanwhile, benefited from many of the modern advancements of the innovative new plant:
- New buildings were constructed including homes, hotel, church, general store and school
- Several thousand feet of water mains were installed
- Fire hydrants were placed around town
- A telephone system was installed
- Household water and sewer service was available
- Electric street lights and electricity was available for all houses.
Making cement in the early days – 1906
Rock Blasting took place in the mountain above the plant and rocks were hand loaded into small rail cars which travelled downhill to the crusher, the grinders and then into the kilns. Using six 80-foot kilns the plant produced 1,500 – 1,800 barrels of Portland cement per day.
In the early years, the half-a-million barrels of cement produced every year had a positive benefit to the local economy and provided much of the necessary material needed to expand the roads, railways and industrial buildings used to develop Western Canada.
The plant was described as a technological wonder of its time, yet in 1908, slow markets, railway strikes and a flawed sales strategy caused the plant to close. Although workers continued to quarry rock from the mountains above Exshaw it was not until new management and the 1909 amalgamation of ten Canadian cement companies—to form the Canada Cement Company—that the Exshaw plant began to operate again.
Upgrades over time
Many modernizations took place to keep the plant at the leading edge of technology and productivity:
- The completion of the Seebe dam on 1911 provided inexpensive power to the plant and replaced the coal fired stream generator built in 1906
- In 1912, the six old kilns were replaced with three more efficient 150-foot coal fired kilns
- Post war modernizations in the mid-1920’s led to a switch from blasting to hydraulic mining
- The 1940’s saw the switch from a dry manufacturing process to the wet process
- In early 1950’s the plant introduced a new mountain top quarry and began using electric shovels, 30-tonne trucks and a mobile rotary drill
- Exshaw was the first company plant to convert from coal to natural gas fired kilns in 1951
- In 1970 Canada Cement merged with Lafarge Canada to form Canada Cement Lafarge Ltd. This new company would become the largest supplier of cement in Canada and would be a major contributor to the development of Canada’s two fastest growing cities, Calgary and Edmonton.
- In the early 1970’s a $30 million expansion and upgrade increased the plant capacity to 500,000 tons. Much of the old plant was demolished and the expansion required the demolition of much of Uptown Exshaw including the elementary school, protestant church and 47 homes.
- In 1988 Canada Cement Lafarge Ltd. became Lafarge Canada Inc.