Drumheller: From Coal to Cool

There’s more than dinosaur fossils in ‘em hills.

Early discoveries foreshadowed Drumheller’s evolution as a community. In 1884, geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell discovered huge coal outcrops and a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull in the Red Deer River Valley.

In 1884, geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell discovered huge coal outcrops and a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull in the Red Deer River Valley.

Drumheller’s history is strongly linked to its wealth of natural resources. More than 130 coalmines operated in the valley between 1911 and 1979. Though Drumheller has since become world-renowned for dinosaur fossils, it was the abundant coal deposits within the surrounding badlands that gave life to the community.

The town received its name when entrepreneur Samuel Drumheller (behind the whee cira 1910l) won a coin toss against homesteader Tom Greentree over whose name the site would bear. (Glenbow Archives NA-2389-20).

Samuel Drumheller (behind the wheel circa 1913-15) won a coin toss in 1910 against homesteader Tom Greentree over whose name the site would bear. (Glenbow Archives NA-2389-20).

Peter Fidler encountered pronounced coal seams by the Red Deer River at Kneehills Creek while surveying the area for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1793. After Samuel Drumheller bought local land in 1910 and sold it to Canadian National Railway for further development as a townsite, Drumheller’s coal rush began. The community’s first mine, Newcastle, opened in 1911. Several mines were subsequently founded before Drumheller’s incorporation as a village in 1913, as a town in 1916 and as a city in 1930.

By 1920, Drumheller’s main street was bustling with businesses, horse drawn wagons, cars and pedestrian traffic—a result of a flourishing coal industry and a rail line. (Provincial Archives of Alberta A15275).

By 1920, Drumheller’s main street was a bustling centre of a growing community. (Provincial Archives of Alberta A15275).

At its peak, this “Wonder Town of the West” was a booming coalmining mecca with over 30,000 residents and once among the fastest growing municipalities in Canada. Some of the valley’s mines lasted for decades. When the region’s last closed in 1979 amid oil and natural gas expansion, it marked the end of the valley’s coalmining era. In the vacuum created by a fallen coal industry, plans to construct a world class museum were put into motion. The Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened in 1985.

Atlas Mine after restoration. The last wooden tipple standing in Canada, it now endures as a National Historic Site and one of the region’s star attractions.

Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site: the last wooden tipple standing in Canada.

Today, Drumheller celebrates its unique heritage as a modern hub of the Red Deer River badlands. This is the place where many of the world’s most extraordinary dinosaur specimens are excavated and showcased, and where some of Western Canada’s greatest coal production occurred. Drumheller Valley is one of Alberta’s best known tourism destinations. Here, you can explore both ancient and modern landscapes.

Written by:  Jeff Sterr, Historical Places Research Assistant.

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