(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.)
TWO. ONE.” CLICK. We all turn off our headlamps. And it’s dark in here. Really dark. I reach for my daughter’s hand. Above our heads is 12 metres of earth; ahead of us, the mouth of the mine. We’re walking up the angled ramp of the underground gantry in the Atlas coal mine. Alongside us is the wide rubberized canvas belt that once carried the chunks of coal shovelled out of the mine, in East Coulee, Alta., to homes across Canada.
As we click our lights back on, our guide, Chelsea Saltys, an area local and engineering student, tells the story of a young miner named Eric Houghton, who slipped one rainy day on the wet links between the coal cars. He fell underneath the moving train and was severely hurt: broken hip and leg, punctured lung, crushed ribs. After a shot of morphine and a cigarette, he made it to the hospital, then spent months in traction. When he got out of the hospital, he got a job at the Banff Springs Hotel as a night watchman. Physiotherapy was climbing the stairs at the grand resort. But the black gold called him back and he returned for his old job. “It goes to show you what these men were made of,” says Saltys.
THERE’S A KIND OF DESOLATE BEAUTY that comes with abandoned towns. Driving along the hoodoo-lined highway to the Atlas coal mine, the eight-storey wooden tipple, once used to load coal into railway cars, stands out as a landmark. It’s the last wooden tipple in Canada and a national historic site.
(You might have seen it on last summer’s Amazing Race Canada, where contestants competed to load a two-tonne coal car.) On the site, rusting trucks from the 1940s are permanently parked. A narrow gauge track runs in front, evidence of the railway’s role here. Still standing are the miners’ wash house, lamp house and mine office — the last owner’s business cards and Christmas list also remain, tucked in the desk drawer, left behind when the mine closed. But Atlas hasn’t been forgotten.
When it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s, the community rallied. A heritage society was formed to preserve this chapter in history when coal was king and the Drumheller Valley was the coal mining capital of Canada — or to put it in modern terms, when it was the Fort McMurray of its era.
Nowadays, the area is better known for its paleontological history. A young Joseph Tyrrell, exploring for the Geological Survey of Canada, made two major discoveries here in the summer of 1884. He found a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull (later named the Albertosaurus) and what would become the largest deposit of domestic-grade coal in North America. The first coal mine in the valley opened in 1911 in Newcastle, about 20 kilometres from Atlas. In total, 139 mines worked the black seams, with miners’ labour firing up kitchens, heating homes and powering trains from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Vancouver. The last load of coal left the Atlas #4 mine in 1979.
The community spirit that saved the mine site is evident on the July day we visit. Although we’d come to the badlands a couple hours east of Calgary for the dinosaurs, our half-day at the mine proves engaging for the whole family. It’s an experience built not on touch-screen computers, but on guides who share what life was like both in the tunnels and outside in the camps through compelling stories. And where else can you drive mini yellow dump trucks through a coal sandbox?
After wandering the site on our own, we join Jay Russell, the mine’s program director, for a tour of the tipple. Coal miners, he says, would emerge from shifts so caked in black dust that only the whites of their eyes shone bright. So to set the mood, he smudges our faces with black paint. Then we follow him up the stairs into the lower part of the wooden structure. A cold summer wind whistles through the open windows and cracks in the walls. With Russell’s help, we recreate the sound the moving belt would have made as 800 tonnes of coal rattled down it every day. Together we stomp, clap and bang as he shakes the belt. It’s a racket, but the real noise was so loud it could be heard not only in East Coulee, which we can see from here, but the next town over too. On his first summer working here, Russell met a miner who worked in the tipple. The miner told him that after an eight-hour shift he couldn’t hear a word his mother said until well after supper. And then it was back to work the next day.
Growing up in the valley in the first half of the last century, your career options were pretty obvious. “You’d be a coal miner,” says Russell, who combines an actor’s touch with a historian’s passion. “Or a coal miner’s daughter or wife.”
A tiny house on site — about 2½ metres by 2½ metres — relocated from nearby Rosedale, reveals the realities of a miner’s life: single bed, a chair and table, kettle and enamel pots on the coal-fired stove. Fixed to the peeling adobe walls are photos of the original owner, Joe Sabo Senior — or Jo’zsef, who looks back at us with his grand moustache and pale eyes. It took him five years of working in the coal mines to save enough money to bring his family here from Hungary. The house also reveals the miners’ ingenuities as they built homes with whatever they could: the back wall is made from split fence posts, the roof from railway grain doors. Standing in here, it seems so small. And yet it was a step up from the “company house” for bachelors, a canvas tent shared by six men.
As the coal industry boomed, mines and tipples opened up across the region, drawing thousands of workers from Canada, Britain and Eastern Europe. As mining camps such as Aetna, Willow Creek and Wayne transitioned from “hell’s holes” to towns, dozens of languages were spoken on the streets and community spirit, in guises such as Welsh men’s choirs, sprouted up. There were enough coins in the miners’ pockets to keep taverns (and brothels) busy. Drumheller even earned the title “The wonder town of the West.” It was also the era of union strife, with company “strong men” sometimes tarring and feathering activists. Today, many communities are no longer on the map or have been incorporated into the city of Drumheller.
IN SOME WAYS, the miners had it easier at Atlas, Saltys tells us on the tunnel tour. The seam they worked, a drift mine, was almost standing-room deep at 1½ metres. In the Radiolite mine, men had to work on their belly hacking at the coal with a truncated pick; in Drumheller, some mines were so close to the surface housewives fetching something from their cellars could sometimes hear the miners talking. Many of the men were contract miners, which means they were paid only for how much coal they hauled out. They paid for their tools, union fees and doctor fees too, says Saltys, who shows us the snap and bang workings of the open-flame carbide headlamp. The miners also sometimes paid with their lives. In the Drumheller Valley, at least 207 men died in rock falls, machinery accidents and explosions.
On the tunnel tour, after my daughter and I switch back on our LED lights, we continue up the gantry to the upper junction house, then head outside to the last mine entrance. Under a timbered shaft, Saltys shows us a map of this underground city, where the main haulage tunnel, lit by electric lights, ran 4.5 kilometres. “You actually needed an address to work here. One day you might work on 12 West or 8 East,” she says.
Outside again, she points out the hillside across the river where you can see black stripes. The coal to heat our homes or power trains didn’t run out, but our appetite for it did.