Banff National Park, which happens to be Canada’s first national park, owes its existence to Canadian Pacific Railway workers who discovered hot springs in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains in the early 1880s. From there grew one of today’s most popular Canadian tourist destinations. However, unbeknownst to many, an area about seven kilometres east of the town of Banff was a hotbed of activity about 100 years earlier.
Bankhead, one of the first communities in Alberta that sprang to life because of mining, was founded in 1903 by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) on Cascade Mountain in the Bow River Valley of Banff National Park (then called Rocky Mountains Park). Pacific Coal Company, a subsidiary of CPR, also developed a mine there - Mine No. 80.
Although the town and mine were located only three kilometres east of the CPR mainline, many visitors preferred getting off in Banff and taking the scenic route. Whereas the mine buildings were what greeted visitors to Bankhead via the direct route, the roads that linked the two towns bordered such natural beauty as ponds, beaver dams, and Cascade Falls.
Bankhead was truly a model town. Stylishly designed homes rested on large lots and were equipped with indoor plumbing; there was a municipal water supply and sewage system, as well as electricity. Rent was inexpensive varying between $7.50 and $10 per month, however, in the area nearest to the mine, which was unserviced, rent was lower at $6. Being situated in a national park, the scenery was nothing short of breathtaking. The town was as multi-cultural as they come and there was little or no conflict. People simply got along. The only exception to this picture-perfect town was Chinatown, which, in the beginning, probably had more to do with the language barrier than anything else. The Chinese kept to themselves and the rest of the Bankheaders never, or rarely, ventured to that part of town. Unfortunately, the only serious crime to speak of occurred in Chinatown where a man was killed after a night of gambling.
At its peak, Bankhead was home to about 1,000 residents. The town comprised a hotel, a post office, a branch of the Bank of Montreal, a general store, a pool hall, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, and a saloon. Protection came in the form of the Northwest Mounted Police who were posted in Bankhead. Residents also benefited from having their own library, school, and community hall. A strong sense of community brought neighbours and co-workers together on the baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts, and curling and hockey rinks.
The mine they called “No. 80”
Mine No. 80 was opened in 1904, mainly to fuel CPR’s steam engines. Coal mining was allowed in the national park at that time and the government received $0.10 per tonne of coal from industry in the form of royalties.
The seams in Cascade Mountain were steep, varied in thickness, and had faults. To avoid flooding the mine, it was decided to mine up instead of down. Less than 50 workers were hired to carry out the blasting and by year’s end, an additional 135 men were hired to work underground and 39 to work at the surface. These numbers quickly rose when the mine entered full production during 1905. Each miner worked with an assistant; the more they dug, the more they made. For a miner around 1910, that meant about $3 to $4 per day.
There wasn’t much in terms of safety equipment. Miners wore hobnail boots and a cloth cap - no hard hat, even when breaking off loose pieces of coal from the walls and ceilings with a pick. A tipple built in 1905, in which over 100 men worked, produced such a high decibel level that many of the men lost their hearing. And, without masks, nothing prevented the workers from breathing in coal dust or getting it in their eyes. There were many accidents, and 15 men lost their lives at the mine.
During the mine’s almost 20-year life, miners went on strike six times, once even striking for eight months in order to receive a $0.10 increase, which they got. During World War I, miners received a $1.18 per day bonus from the government. These were prosperous times for coal miners as coal was used to fuel the Navy’s warships. As well, they were exempt from the draft. However, once the war was over, the miners demanded that the company take over paying them the extra $1.18 per day. The company refused and a strike ensued. Two months later, workers were given an ultimatum: if they didn’t get back to work, the mine would shut down. Thinking it was but another scare tactic, they refused to go back. On June 15, 1922, Mine No. 80 was closed, permanently.
A second blow
The shock of the mine’s closure had not yet worn off when a second blow struck. When it became apparent that the mine would not reopen, CPR was ordered to clear out. That meant moving not only mining equipment but houses, buildings—the entire town essentially. Industry would no longer be allowed in national parks. It took two years to move everything; many of the buildings and homes were moved to Banff.
During its peak production year, Mine No. 80 produced about a half million tons of coal.
Little is left of the former town of Bankhead, but its history as a model mining town remains. Bankhead was also once home to Frank and Joe Jerwa, who played for the Boston Bruins in the early 1930s.
Credit: Numerous online sources were used in the writing of this article, including www.ourroots.ca.