March/April 2013

From coal-crowned to ghost town: the life and death of Alberta’s Coal Branch

By Correy Baldwin

 

Miners enjoy a Sunday ball game outside Mountain Park, Alberta, 1930 | Photo by Charles Lee; courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta


Nestled among the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies near present-day Jasper, Alberta’s Coal Branch region must have been the most scenic place in the country to mine for coal. This little-remembered but vitally important region, now an alpine wonderland, was once as lush with coal-mining activity as it is today with mountain panoramas.

John Gregg, a prospector from the United States, was guided to the area by his wife, Mary Cardinal, and staked the first claim in 1909. Cardinal was the daughter of a local Stoney chief, and the Stoneys knew of the coal deposits in the Nikanassin Range, which would become known as the Alberta Coal Branch after several rich claims drew Canada’s railways to the region.

The following spring, Gregg and Cardinal showed the site to a team of Scottish mining engineers, sent by Christopher Leyland, a British industrialist. The Scots were both impressed with Gregg’s coal claim and mesmerized by the area’s natural beauty. They named the claim Mountain Park. By early 1911, Leyland had set up the Mountain Park Coal Company and had purchased Gregg’s share. Soon many prospectors began combing the alpine valleys and picturesque slopes of the region. Gregg himself staked another claim that year, at Luscar.

The coalfields in the southern Rockies near the Crowsnest Pass, were first reached when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) passed through in 1884. But other rail companies like the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) and the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) were just as eager to reach other lucrative areas. Both of these companies went north, entering the Rockies at Jasper and crossing through at the Yellowhead Pass. The rail companies were trying to reach the Pacific coast but they also wanted to get to the coal. The trains ran on coal, meaning the resource was vital to the expanding railway system.

After Gregg opened up the Alberta Coal Branch, GTPR began building a line south into the area. It established a railway hub at Coalspur, where the trail branched. GTPR’s construction of the east branch got off the ground, while the Mountain Park Coal Company began building the west branch – an expensive undertaking that GTPR eventually took over.

But there was other competition. In 1909, CNoR joined forces with German-born entrepreneur Martin Nordegg, whose company, Brazeau Collieries, had eight coal claims spread across the Rockies – from Grande Cache in the north to Kananaskis in the south.

In 1911, Nordegg discovered another coalfield just 100 kilometres southeast of the Coal Branch. CNoR began laying down track from the east, just as GTPR was coming in from the north. In the end, the two areas tapped separate coalfields and both became prosperous. The Alberta Coal Branch was by far the most extensive. Nordegg’s Brazeau Collieries did well, but sadly Martin Nordegg did not: he was declared an enemy alien when the First World War broke out in 1914 and was forced to sell all of his shares in his company.

The Alberta Coal Branch thrived, especially in its early years. From 1922 to 1926, the area produced 3.9 million tonnes of coal, accounting for 22 per cent of Alberta’s coal production. By 1926, the region’s population was over 2,700, and both Cadomin and Luscar had grown larger than the original community of Mountain Park. Cadomin even boasted the only symphony orchestra between Edmonton and Vancouver.

By the end of the First World War, however, trains were using diesel rather than coal, and the domestic market had switched to oil and gas. One by one, the mines of the Alberta Coal Branch closed, leaving a valley full of ghost towns.

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