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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Drumheller, Alberta. [ca. teens]Contemporary Drumheller exists because of the resources of the land—both above and below ground. While the Aboriginal presence in the area is over 11,000 years long, the first white man to visit is thought to have been Anthony Henday. In 1754, he was sent to the area by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and was led by a party of Cree. Henday was met by a Chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy at a site West of Pine Lake. He was received as an honoured guest and the Aboriginal camp was said to consist of about 200 teepees. Peter Fidler, also in the service of the HBC, is said to have discovered coal on the banks of the Red Deer River near Drumheller on February 12th, 1793. Captain John Palliser also explored this area in the period 1857-60.

Drumheller, Alberta. 1912Initially, farming and ranching were the favoured economic activities. In the 1890s, ranchers came to the Drumheller Valley. James Russell established the Lyon Cross Ranch in the 1890s. He had emigrated from Scotland and was a trained engineer. He came to Calgary in 1888 to set up the first waterworks in the city but was determined to ranch and brought 96 shorthorn cattle from Eastern Canada.

But it was with the coming of the railways that Drumheller became a significant economic centre. The community was named after Colonel Samuel Drumheller, an American businessman. He bought the land for the town site from a local homesteader called Greentree. In 1911 and 1912, Jesse Gouge took out a lease south of the River in the Newcastle District and, later, on land south of the railway station through his Drumheller Land Company. With his partner G. N. Coyle, he opened the first coal mines in that period and the first shipments of coal were made by the Newcastle Coal Co. The second mine was opened by Colonel S. L. McMullen in 1912 on the north side of the River—this was Midland No. 1. These mines were joined by eight others in the same year, among them mines opened by Sam Drumheller. There was a flurry of railway building with many spur lines to mine sites. From 1912 until 1960, 124 mines operated in the area. The town of Drumheller was known as the fastest growing town in North America.

First store in Drumheller, Alberta. 1909Businesses grew up to service the mines and farms of the area and the community prospered until the economy based on coal gave way to the oil-based economy with the coming in of the Leduc No. 1 oil well in 1947. In the 1980s, Alberta Culture saw the potential of heritage tourism and drew on another of the area's rich resources—dinosaur fossils—to create the Tyrrell Museum of Palaentology in 1985 (later the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaentology).

The first record of dinosaur fossils was made by Dr. James Hector, a physician and geologist with the Palliser Expediton in 1859. He also noted the presence of coal, ironstone, petrified wood and marine shells along the Red Deer River Valley. Joseph P. Tyrrell, in 1884, while inspecting coal seams in the area found dinosaur bones at Knee Hill Creek upstream from Drumheller. The skull and bones he collected were sent to Philadelphia and the dinosaur was named Albertosaurus Sarcophagus in 1905. T. C. Weston of the Geological Survey of Canada, in 1888, rafted down the Red Deer River and also collected bones. Eventually, trainloads of fossil remains would be shipped to Eastern Canada and the US.

Excavation for White House Hotel, Drumheller, Alberta. [ca. 1910-1911]In geological terms, the area is a part of the Cretaceous Era, which began about 135 million years ago and ended some 63 million years ago. This is also known as the Age of the Reptiles. The area is physically striking with deeply eroded gullies described as the "bandlands." Over millennia, layers of mud, silt, clay and sand built up as a result of water erosion and these hardened into rock. Glaciation scoured the rocks and further weathering by wind, rain and frost have given the area its remarkable appearance. The Valley wall comprises the Edmonton formation. Thus, the physical beauty coupled with the rich dinosaur fossils, which can be viewed onsite at the Tyrrell Museum Field Station and in the Museum, have made the area an international tourism destination.

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