|Pictures click to enlarge|
Courtesy Atlas Coal Mine Historical Society
Courtesy United Farmers Historical Society
Courtesy Wayne Community Association
Courtesy Town of Drumheller
Courtesy Don Brinkman
Courtesy Lydia Husak
Courtesy Douglas Powell
Courtesy Provincial Archives of Alberta
Coal Mining in the Drumheller Valley
Coal was not hard to discover in the area that is now Drumheller, Alberta, Canada. Seams of coal show up as black stripes in the badlands of the Red Deer River Valley.
The Blackfoot and Cree knew about the black rock that burned, but they didn't like to use it. Later, three white explorers reported coal in the area: Peter Fidler in 1792, Dr. James Hector of the Palliser Expedition in 1857, and Joseph Tyrrell in 1884.
In the years that followed, a handful of ranchers and homesteaders dug coal out of river banks and coulees to heat their homes. However, the first commercial coal mine did not open until Sam Drumheller started the coal rush in the area that now bears his name.
The rush started when Sam bought land off a local rancher named Thomas Greentree. Sam turned around and sold this land to Canadian National Railway, to develop a townsite. Sam also registered a coal mine. Before his mine opened, however, Jesse Gouge and Garnet Coyle beat him to it, and opened the Newcastle Mine. CN laid tracks into town, and the first load of coal was shipped out of Drumheller in 1911.
Once the railway was built, people poured in. Hundreds, then thousands, of people came to dig coal. The greatest numbers came from Eastern Europe, Britain, and Nova Scotia. More mines opened. By the end of 1912, there were 9 working coal mines, each with its own camp of workers: Newcastle, Drumheller, Midland, Rosedale, and Wayne. In the years that followed, more mines and camps sprang up: Nacmine, Cambria, Willow Creek, Lehigh, and East Coulee.
Coal mining was hard, dirty, dangerous work. Mining in the Drumheller Valley, however, was less hard, dirty, and dangerous than it was in many other coal mining regions in Canada. This was due to both lucky geology and lucky timing.
The geology of the Drumheller coal field results in flat lying seams, which are much safer to mine than the steeply pitching seams of the mountain mines. In addition, the coal produced in Drumheller is sub-bituminous. This grade of coal is "immature" which means it hasn't had time to build up a strong concentration of gas. Methane gas is the biggest killer in coal mines around the world.
The timing of the Drumheller mine industry was lucky, too. By the time the Newcastle opened in 1911, the right to better working conditions had been fought for and won by miners' unions in North America. As a result, miners were provided with wash houses, better underground ventilation, and higher safety standards. When the Newcastle opened, there were laws in place to prohibit child labour, so boys under 14 were no longer allowed underground. The worst of the worst coal mining days were over, at least in North America.
Nevertheless, early mine camps around Drumheller were called "hell's hole" because miners lived in tents, or shacks, with little sanitation and little comfort. It was a man's world, with drinking, gambling, and watching fistfights common forms of recreation. As shacks gave way to little houses, and women joined the men and started families, life improved. Hockey, baseball, music, theatre, and visiting friends enriched peoples' lives. Going downtown Saturday night was a huge event, with every language in Europe spoken by the crowds spilling off the sidewalks. No longer "hell's hole," Drumheller became "the wonder town of the west!" and "the fastest growing town in Canada, if not in North America!"
Sub bituminous coal is ideal for heating homes and cooking food. People all over western Canada heated their homes, schools, and offices with Drumheller coal. Long, cold winters were good for Drumheller, because everyone needed lots of coal. In these years, miners had of money in their pockets. Short, mild winters were difficult. A miner might only work one day a week, and get laid off in early spring. He got through the summer by growing a big garden, catching fish, and working for farmers.
Between 1911 and 1979, 139 mines were registered in the Drumheller valley. Some mines didn't last long, but 34 were productive for many years. Between 1912 and 1966, Drumheller produced 56,864,808 tons of coal, making it one of the major coal producing regions in Canada.
The beginning of the end for Drumheller's mining industry was the Leduc Oil Strike of 1948. After this, natural gas became the fuel of choice for home heating in western Canada. To the mine operators, it seemed that people switched from messy coal stoves to clean gas furnaces as fast as they could. As the demand for coal dropped, mines closed. As mines closed, people moved away and communities suffered. Some communities, like Willow Creek, completely vanished. Others, like East Coulee, went from a boomtown of 3800 to a ghost town of 180. When the Atlas #4 Mine shipped its last load of coal in 1979, the coal years of Drumheller were over.
The Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site preserves the last of the Drumheller mines. The Atlas recalls the time when Coal was King, and "mining the black" brought thousands of people to this lonely valley. The nearby East Coulee School Museum interprets the life of children and families in a bustling mine town.
The Miners' Memorial commemorates the men who lost their lives digging the black in the Drumheller coalfield. Located on Centre Street in downtown Drumheller, the memorial comprises a sculpture by James Smith and a mural by Marcel Deschenes. Along with interpretive panels in a park setting, the memorial is a fascinating reminder of the blood tax paid in Drumheller's history.
Download a map to a historic driving tour to the sites of 18 historic mines in the Drumheller Valley. (PDF 1.7 MB)