Any exploration of Alberta’s roots ought to include the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site, just 15 minutes from downtown Drumheller. The more than 100-year-old site in the Canadian Badlands preserves the last of the area’s once prolific coal mining operations.
A century ago, industrialists and labourers by the thousands rushed west to find their fortunes in Alberta’s rich coal deposits. Wanting to know more, our family decided to dig deeper.
The Life of a Coal Miner
At the Atlas Coal Mine, we were mesmerized by tales of “the man in the small dark place.” Coal mining was not for the faint of heart. Threats of explosions, cave-ins, and deadly gases meant that small acts of courage were required just to go to work each day. We hiked halfway up the valley and entered the mine. Peering into the pitch black, we tried to imagine the reality of a miner’s workspace. If the coal seam was 1.5 m (4.9 ft) high, he crouched. If it was less than that, he had to work on his belly.
Climbing to the top of the last wooden tipple in Canada, my teenaged sons were astonished to learn the coal was sorted and cleaned by boys as young as 15. It was easy to imagine the wind gusting through the walls, filling the air with swirls of black dust as the workers scrambled to pick out rocks from the endless stream of coal. We loved the above ground tour, with all of us loaded into coal cars pulled by an antique battery-operated locomotive.
Touring Crowsnest Pass
The next week, we drove to the southwest corner of the province, about an hour west of Fort MacLeod, to take the Heritage Tour through Crowsnest Pass. There’s so much to see and so many ways to take it all in. You can hike or cycle along 25 different trails, linking history to nature in beautiful alpine settings.
We began at the Frank Slide Interpretative Centre, where we learned all about Canada’s deadliest rockslide. After touring the interactive displays and walking the short trail that winds through the slide rocks, we watched the half hour docudrama On the Edge of Destruction, which recreates the natural disaster that devastated the small coal mining town of Frank in 1903.
Bellevue Underground Mine
Next we visited the Bellevue Mine. What struck us first was the temperature – mountain coal mines are cold! After donning helmets, headlamps and warm ponchos, we followed our guide 304 m (997 ft) into the depths of the mine. We looked into the small nooks and crannies that the miners crawled in to do their work and got to see displays of the hand tools and small lamps they actually used.
Just down the road from Bellevue is the Leitch Collieries Provincial Historical Site. Built in 1907, the colliery was an ambitious business venture that used cutting-edge technology for processing coal. The owner’s lavish family home and the colliery buildings were constructed from sandstone found in a local quarry, but the facility was only used for eight years due to bad timing and economic events. According to our guide, the mansion burnt to the ground under suspicious circumstances. All that remains of it today is a two-story sandstone shell and what’s left of the central fireplace.