East Coulee, in the Alberta Badlands, is split by the slow flowing Red Deer River. Space was limited in this deep valley, so homes and businesses, the highway and in years past, the railway, were all located on the north side, while on the south there were coal mines and a grain elevator. It’s this industrial part of town we’ll be looking at in this then and now, how it was some forty plus years ago and what’s left today.
There’s been some change, as would be expected, some of it dramatic, yet there’s this strange timelessness about the place, as though the clock has stood still. Connecting both eras is the mighty Atlas Coal Mine. It was in operation when the first photo was captured, but now an historic site, the last of its kind in fact, that you and your family can visit. It looks much today it did in the old photo.
The then photo comes via Doris Blair who captured it on film long ago. A big thanks goes out to her for allowing us to use it. It’s from the 1970s, the exact date unknown. If you have an old photo showing a scene much like this one, that begs to be given the BIGDoer,com then and now treatment, send off an email, text, call or message. We’d love to hear from you and are always looking for “fresh meat”.
Let’s discuss the scene…
Most prominent in the old photo is the Alberta Pacific Grain Elevator. This building dates from the 1930s, when the railway spur line was extended here across the river. It replaced an earlier structure on the town side, a forced move due to the railway expanding its yard there. The Alberta Pacific firm had a good sized network of grain elevators across the province. The company, in the late 1960s, amalgamated with parent Federal Grain, the resultant firm’s Alberta operations then being acquired by the Alberta Wheat Pool in the early 1970s.
The elevator was used up until the late 1970s and torn down a couple years later. It appears never to have been repainted and wore AP colours and logos to the very end, even while owned by others.
The building is flanked by two annexes. These were generally later additions and were a way to increase capacity. Most elevators at some point would have one or more of these. The elevator office, that small silver shed looking thing, is jammed between the main structure and an annex. Usually, they sat out front, but space was at a premium here to they tucked it away as seen. The other shed to the right, most likely, was a fertilizer storage building. Elevator firms often had sideline businesses.
There would be a rail siding on the far side of the building for the loading of grain cars. To the best of our knowledge, the elevator was only set up to load boxcars and not the newer (at the time) grain hoppers.
Today, there’s no sign the elevator was ever here.
Seen to the right is the Atlas Mine, dating back to the 1930s. Once one of dozens and dozens of coal mines in the Red Deer River Valley, by the time the then photo was captured, it was the very last. The mine, as did all those in the region, produced domestic heating coal (used in home furnaces and stoves) and were underground operations. The market for this stuff trailed off in the 1960s and dried up completely a decade or so later, with the wholesale change over to natural gas, so in later years the Atlas only operated sporadically. Production ended completely in the late 1970s or early 1980s (lots of contradictory dates).
Near the end, coal was not mined directly from the hillside seen, but rather some distance away up a side valley. It was brought down by a small railway and you can see a string of cars left at the top of the hill, old pic, connected to that part of the operation.
In the off season back then, tours of the mine were offered to visitors.
The tipple, that large building, was where coal was cleaned, sorted by size and usage, and then loaded into rail cars or trucks for final delivery to where ever. Boxcars were used for the former and they’d be filled by a special loading conveyor. At the destination, they’d typically be hand unloaded. What a hard messy job! Most heating coal, at the end, went to rural destinations, places where gas had not yet made inroads.
The tipple, as you can see, is little changed. The angled structure heading into the hillside was the original main entry and later where the conveyor brought in coal from the car dump on the hillside above (machinery is still up there and on our radar).
The Atlas was designated an historic site in the late 1980s. It was opened to the public some years later, and is fine representation of what coal mining in the valley was about. It’s very much as built and maintains a lot of historic integrity. In terms of production the mine was not the largest in the region, but certainly was in the top few or so. See this post to know more about the place: Historic Atlas Mine.
Scattered about the grounds today, including where the grain elevator once stood, are various pieces of underground coal mining equipment. Some are from this mine, some from others that once operated in the valley. One day we’ll inventory everything and do a write up on them. There’s enough to keep us busy here for weeks!
There were once other coal mines near by. Seen above the Atlas Tipple, bottom picture, is a tramway tower connected to the Murray Mine. This operation lasted from the late 1930s to the late 1950s. The tower supported a cable and bucket system that would bring up waste material for dumping in the coulee below it. See this post to know more: Abandoned Murray Mine.
To the left of the elevator and off scene was the site of the Western Monarch Mine which operated from the 1940s-1960s. They trucked in coal to the loading spur here from their mine a bit east down the valley. Not sure if there was anything left of it by the time the then photo was captured. The Monarch was about equal in output to the Atlas. We’re thinking of doing a write up on it someone. It appears some odd bits and pieces remain behind.
Take Atlas, add the Murray and Monarch, toss in the grain elevator, the train tracks needed to service then all, and this section of riverbank was a crowded place. There were even some dwellings nearby – where they found room for them is beyond me. Today, with the only the Atlas remaining, it’s far less congested. Imagine the noise and dust in the old days?
Not seen, but just right off frame, is a wood bridge, which was used by the railway to access the mines mentioned, the grain elevator and also carried road traffic. You can read about it here: East Coulee’s historic wood bridge. In the 1940s, at the peak, trains would service the mines here several times per day and the elevator typically a few times per week. By the 1970s service was as-needed. The bridge is long unused.
Our now shot was composed and lined up in camera, as we always do it. We were able to duplicate the angle pretty good – we’ve been doing this for a while – but could not match it perfectly. We never can. The height of the land where both photos were shot has changed from then to now. In 2017, it’s a graded parking lot. Then it appears a small grassy knoll a bit higher in elevation.
A few of our favourite then and nows…
Calgary then and now – Civil Defence.
Crowsnest Pass then and now – Greenhill Hotel.
Calgary then and now – those 70s condos.
Calgary then and now – #7 South Calgary run.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: The 1970s and March, 2017.
Location: East Coulee, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Book: Hills of home – Drumheller Valley, Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site, Alberta Energy Regulator, Doris Blair.
The Atlas is museum is open to the public in the summer.