Haunted Heritage Part 2: Abandoned Ghost Towns of Alberta

In keeping with the haunted heritage theme started last year, I thought it would be fun to look at some other spooky places in Alberta. Some of the most haunting places in our province are deserted ghost towns. Along any lonely stretch of highway, travellers are bound to come across the decaying remains of one of Alberta’s abandoned towns. Desertion of these small settlements occurred when local natural resources were depleted and transportation routes shifted elsewhere. With no reason for being, these towns became nothing more than crumbling relics of a bygone era. 

Although the specific factors for abandonment vary, these places often became ghost towns when the economic activity that supported the town failed and its population migrated elsewhere. Many deserted ghost towns are old mining settlements founded during a time when much of western Canada relied on coal as a fuel source. These small communities sprang up quickly to accommodate mine workers and their families who decided to settle near the mines. As the railroads began replacing steam-powered locomotives with more modern diesel-powered ones, many mining companies were forced to pull up stakes and shut down. The declining coal industry profits, the discovery of Alberta’s rich oil supply, and Canadian’s increasing reliance on other forms of energy signaled the end of many mines in the 1940s. As the mines shut down, residents of mining towns once booming with activity emptied out. Offices, shops, schools and hospitals were literally cleared out and abandoned, leaving only the empty buildings behind, as entire families moved away. Train service in these towns was often suspended altogether, as locomotives were no longer needed to transport materials or passengers.

Here are a few of the most popular abandoned coal towns. What’s your favorite Alberta ghost town? Share your experiences with us.

Anthracite

Anthracite was a small coal mining community, located just northeast of the town of Banff on the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway, inhabited from 1886 until 1904. The town was one of many settlements built as a result of the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway. At its height, Anthracite was home to a population of approximately 300, consisting of mostly American workers from the eastern United States. The town had a general store, a hotel, a pool hall, a restaurant and a barbershop. According to local lore, the town also became a hotspot for brothels and the illegal consumption of alcohol. It was abandoned shortly after a series of devastating floods from heavy groundwater inflow into the underground mine damaged mine infrastructure and the mines; this resulted in the government permanent closing the mine. It was rumored that a child had drowned in the 1880s in the nearby Cascade River and was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the town. Parks Canada conducted an investigation in 1997 and concluded that there was a probable unmarked burial in Anthracite. The government placed a commemorative historical plaque, located near the burial site, where the town once stood. This is the sole reminder of its existence.

Cascade Mountain from Anthracite, AB, 1902. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3302731

Cascade Mountain from Anthracite, AB, 1902. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3302731

Coal Mine, Anthracite, AB, 1898. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373389

Coal Mine, Anthracite, AB, 1898. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373389

Mouth of Pit, Anthracite Coal Mine, Banff AB, 1902. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373370

Mouth of Pit, Anthracite Coal Mine, Banff AB, 1902. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373370

Bankhead

Bankhead was another small, early 20th century town located along Lake Minnewanka road, in Banff National Park, near the town of Banff. The company settlement sprang up in 1904, shortly after the closure of the nearby Anthracite mine. The Bankhead mine became one of the biggest suppliers of coal for the locomotives of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Unfortunately, complaints about the quality of the coal produced and constant disruptions from labour strikes are said to have led to the mine closure. At its height, the town included homes for about 100 residents, school facilities, a hotel, a pool house, a restaurant, a church, several stores and saloons. After the closure of the mine in the 1920’s, many of the buildings were relocated to the nearby communities of Banff and Canmore. The remains of the town’s buildings are still visible at the original site today. An interpretive trail leads visitors through Lower Bankhead with signs identifying the prominent buildings and many of the remaining foundations.

Bankhead (Coal) Mine, Bankhead, AB, 1909. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373435

Bankhead (Coal) Mine, Bankhead, AB, 1909. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373435

Bankhead Mine, Bankhead, AB, 1909. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373432

Bankhead Mine, Bankhead, AB, 1909. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373432

Bankhead Coal Mine, AB, 1906. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3302530

Bankhead Coal Mine, AB, 1906. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3302530

Nordegg

Nordegg is a small community in Clearwater County, located in the North Saskatchewan River valley along the foothills, south of Highway 11 and east of Highway 734 along the David Thompson Highway corridor. The Big Horn-Brazeau region was originally surveyed in 1906 by D.B. Dowling of the Geological Survey of Canada. Representing German interests, Martin Nordegg staked out several thousand acres here in 1907, with Brazeau Collieries Limited getting underway in 1909. A small mining camp was set up in 1911, and a few years later the Nordegg town site was established in 1914 on the camp footprint. With the production of coal ramping up and the introduction of a rail line, the little town flourished as the Nordegg mine became one of the top-producing coal mines in Alberta until the mid-1950s. Declining demand for coal led to closure of the mine in 1955. The town site grew to provide services for miners and their families. It included over 250 miner’s cottages, a hotel, several churches, a large company store and a hospital. At its height, Nordegg’s population grew to 2,500 people but, with the advent of the mine closure, the majority of the town’s residents moved away. In the early 1960s, parts of the remote town site was converted into the location of a minimum security penitentiary that housed prisoners at the old mine’s boarding house. In 1993, the original Nordegg/Brazeau Collieries mine site was declared a Provincial Historic Resource and consists of several industrial structures, support buildings and machinery associated with the coal mining operations between 1911 and 1955. Many historic buildings are still standing in the old town site, abandoned ghostly relics of the past. There are still a few hundred people remaining in the area today and the site remains open to the public. More information about the coal town of Nordegg can be found on Alberta’s Energy Resources Heritage website.

Nordegg, AB, 1914. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A13459

Nordegg, AB, 1914. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A13459

Tunnel entry, Brazeau Collieries, Nordegg, AB, 1916. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373297

Tunnel entry, Brazeau Collieries, Nordegg, AB, 1916. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3373297

Nordegg, Brazeau Collieries Minesite, mine portal 2001. Source: Alberta Culture and Tourism – Historic Resources Management Branch

Nordegg, Brazeau Collieries Minesite, mine portal 2001. Source: Alberta Culture and Tourism – Historic Resources Management Branch

More information on Alberta’s coal towns can be found throughout the Coal section of Alberta’s Energy Resources Heritage website.

Written By: Pauline Bodevin (Regulatory Approvals Coordinator, Historic Resources Management Branch)

References

List of Ghost towns in Alberta, Wikipedia Website

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ghost_towns_in_Alberta

Ghost towns present Alberta, Canada Website

http://www.ghosttowns.com/canada/alberta/alberta.html

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