THINGS TO DO:
Museums & Historic Sites
Any exploration of Alberta’s roots ought to include the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site, just 15 minutes from downtown Drumheller. The 100-year-old site in the Canadian Badlands preserves the last of the area’s once prolific coal mining operations.
Before Alberta was “big oil,” it was “big coal.” 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. Nothing like a road trip into the past to fire up the imagination.
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 metres high, he crouched; if 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. After we left the site, we visited the nearby East Coulee School Museum which gave us a glimpse into the lives of the miners’ families.
Touring the Crowsnest Pass
The next day, we headed to the southwest corner of the province to take the Heritage Tour through the 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. The mining communities that thrived here are close together and connected by a walking trail.
Bellevue Underground Mine
Walking into the Bellevue Mine, what struck us first was the temperature – mountain coal mines are cold! We donned helmets, headlamps and warm ponchos as our guide took us 304 m (1,000 ft) into the depths of the mine. We looked into the small nooks and crannies the miners crawled in to do their work and got to see displays of the hand tools and small lamps they actually used.
While it looks like an ancient ruin, Leitch Collieries was only built in 1907. Back then it 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. The facility and its row of 101 coke ovens were 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.