Last week I was on a tour with travel media exploring the Alberta Badlands prior to the Go Media conference in Edmonton, hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission. We started off with a whirlwind tour of Drumheller and one of our next stops was the Atlas Coal Mine.
Since it closed three decades ago, this National Historic Site has transformed into an interpretive centre so that visitors can learn about mining history in Western Canada. In 1911 the first load of coal was shipped out from the hills and the valley began to boom. 139 coal mines were established and Atlas went through four iterations between 1917 and 1979. Today its tour guides tell the tale of this resource, industry, and grueling way of life for early Albertans.
Pulling up next to the old administrative building, our group joined a few members of the pubic on the Tunnel Tour, which is one of three tours offered. The Tipple Tour ($9) takes you through the last wooden tipple in Western Canada and you can ride the Mine Train Tour ($9) along the badlands as well.
Our group met Jay Russell, Program Director, for our Tunnel Tour and we hopped into “Linda”, a small battery-powered locomotive that took us over to the wash house. Once there, Jay explained the functions of the building, the history of the workers and showed off some of their equipment.
“Every language of Europe was spoken in the Drumheller Valley,” Jay told us. Many of the mine workers being from overseas, Eastern or Western Europe in particular. The history of mining seemed to be as complex as the background of each of the workers themselves. Unbeknownst to them at the time, the men who worked here had a hand in building our nation since coal from Atlas was pivotal in expanding and developing Western Canada back in the day. Unfortunately the men made just pennies per ton they extracted and tragic (often fatal) accidents were not uncommon.
Jay came to Atlas in the summer of 1994 and he was hooked. “There’s something about the stories,” he noted. “It’s compelling.” As he suited us up in hard hats and head lamps (fortunately not the open-flame style the original minors used) you could see his enthusiasm for his work shine through. He wasn’t simply a tour guide going through a rehearsed narrative, he seemed to live for the history and uncovering the past so it can be shared with future generations.
Our group headed up to the tipple and ascended an elevated wooden walkway to an inclined conveyor tunnel about 200 meters long. The wooden post structure of the tunnel was re-done in 2008 to make it more sound and exceeds safety standards. The air was cool and due to moisture that made its way in through the ground above, salt crystals formed below the conveyor belt that followed us up on the left hand side.
We emerged way up on the hillside, looking down on the old townsite. We walked up a dusty pathway to where the original entrance to the mine was located. Inside a 40-foot portal there were old photos from the mine and a map of the vast network of tunnels. The Atlas Coal Mine stretched for almost 5 kilometers underground. Short 200 meter shafts were mapped out like subdivisions on a grid.
At Atlas, they’re currently working on developing the visitor experience and even opening up the old network of tunnels in the future. Being a non-profit it’s a daunting task but thanks to public visits and donations, they’re on their way to expanding their programming.
It was one of the most interesting tours I’ve been a part of thanks to the level of interaction, activity, and the enthusiasm of the staff. I’m not sure what it is about mining museums but they tend to do a very good job (I also enjoy the copper mine tour at Britannia along the Sea to Sky).
You can visit the Atlas Coal Mine from April to October with their “Haunted Halloween” events around the grounds (October 22nd to 30th) being their largest fundraisers. If you’re in Calgary (or coming from Calgary) it’s about a two hour drive North East.
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