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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Street in Bankhead, Alberta. [ca. 1890s]The birth and eventual demise of Bankhead somewhat parallels the history of its nearest neighbour, Anthracite. Separated by only two kilometres, the towns shared elements that made them attractive to mining companies. They had accessible coal deposits and were in close proximity to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line.

The CPR founded Bankhead in 1903 through its subsidiary company, the Pacific Coal Company. Originally, the sole purpose of the Bankhead mine was to supply coal for its locomotives. With a train schedule’s efficiency, the town soon flourished to a population of around 900 people, with room to grow to 1,500. At it height, the town supported 100 homes, a business section, two schools and four churches. Particularly popular were several saloons that opened when the prohibition ban was briefly lifted prior to Alberta’s Prohibition Act of 1915.

Working conditions in the mine were similar to those in other areas in Alberta. The men faced long demanding days and their job security was dependent on fluctuating coal prices. Prior to winning the right to an eight-hour day in 1919, miners worked up to 12 hours a day. In the winter, men awoke prior to the morning sun and worked 12-hour days, returning home after dark. Many did not see the sun for six days at a time, and to the miner’s mind, their pay did not reflect their efforts.

View of Bankhead, Alberta. [ca. 1890s]In the 18-year history of Bankhead, the town was beset by disputes and strikes. The labour unrest slowed production, increased operating expenses, and pitted miner against management as well as other miners. In addition to mounting labour difficulties, the coal was becoming more difficult to mine. As miners dug deeper through the Cascade Mountains, they found the seams twisted and warped, compounding the cost of extraction. Electrical equipment could have increased production, but with pockets of methane gas throughout the mine, an errant spark could trigger an explosion.

Of greatest concern was the poor quality of the coal. The area contained semi-anthracite and semi-bituminous coal deposits, 35 percent of which crumbled to dust after sliding down pitching chutes. The substantial amount of coal lost to fines convinced the CPR to install a briquetting plant in 1907. The process involved mixing coal fines with molten pitch, pouring the mixture into molds, pressing it, and lastly, cooling. The deterrent was that the pitch came from Pennsylvania via Sault Ste. Marie, making the process expensive. The briquettes were sufficient for heating homes, but additional coal from other mines was needed for use on the locomotives.

View of Bankhead, Alberta. [ca. 1890s] The last incident in a string of difficulties occurred in 1922, when an eight-month strike finally crippled the town. After months of negotiations between officials and the union failed, the shutdown remained permanent. Today, Bankhead is a ghost town with very little remaining from its past. Of the few markers, the two that stand out are a Union Jack and a commemorative plaque. Both are as reminders of the miners who gave their lives during the First World War.

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