This is part two of our adventure where we bike in to explore the ghost town of Lille Alberta in the Crowsnest Pass. For part one, we discuss the trail and one of the mines seen along the way in. For this report, we cover some, but not all of the town.
Arriving at Lille, I ditch the bike and explore the area on foot. In spite of what appears to be an empty field, it turns out there is a lot here to see. There are scattered cellars and traces of foundations, building debris, bricks and the like, old fire hydrants, and of course the famous coke ovens.
You enter at the south edge of town and immediately you see the cellar pits of a number of buildings. From the map (at the site) it at appears we’re on Grassy Mountain avenue, and so this makes it the business district. Here there was a store, laundry, barbershop and other enterprises. Further north on the same street and along other streets close by was the residential area.
To the left is the remains of the hotel. This was by far the largest non-industrial building in town and looked to be a grand place. While most building locations are only marked with depressions here there is an actual foundation.
The town layout is very orderly and further north there was a school, doctor’s office and houses of the company officials and such.
If you look hard at the meadow the lay of the streets can be fairly accurately guessed at. Some fire hydrants help you along here – there are two of them (one was marked “Ludlow trademark”). Some bricks with the name Gartcraig were scattered about this part of town. These were made in Scotland, which seems like a long way to source building materials.
Below the hotel is the industrial area and it’s here the coal was processed. A large slack pile looms over the site and not far away are the coke ovens. They are protected by a fence but those on foot can go inside. Constructed in the early part of the twentieth century, this makes them the first coke ovens in the region and he oldest ones left. Made in Belgium, the whole thing was taken apart and then carefully reassembled here. Each brick had unique markings making this a fairly easy process. It was a big jigsaw puzzle if you will.
The ovens are certainly something beautiful to look at with their graceful arches. These differ from any others I have seen, and I assume this is due to their age. I have seen the traditional beehive style, or the more modern flat style. The ovens in Lille are described as being the Bernard type, but I can not find much information beyond that. No matter what, they are something to look at.
To arrive at coke, coal is superheated in a non-oxygenated environment, allowing most all of the gasses to be driven off. The resultant product is a dense high-carbon based fuel that burns at a much higher temperatures than coal, and is useful in industries like steel making.
It’s not certain how much coke was made in relation to the total coal output of the operation.
Lille was born in the early part of the twentieth century and lasted around a decade. At its peak, it had a population of some four hundred. When the mines became uneconomical, the town and the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway which served the operation, were abandoned. Some buildings were moved out to other areas, while the remainder were just left behind. The name Lille was taken from the French town of the same name and was so chosen since many of the early financiers of this West Canadian Collieries operation were from that region.
If you look north from town you can see Grassy Mountain. The pit mine scars you see date from the 1940s and 50, and are related to the Lille operation somewhat indirectly. The hill was worked by the same West Canadian Collieries Company that once operated the Lille Mines, but many decades separate the two.
Lille is a designated historical site, but it’s seems that a few inconsiderate ATVers could care less about that (only a small percentage of riders are bad, I know that). The coal slack pile is chewed up as is the area around the ovens. Sad that they can’t show a little respect for this special place.
While wandering along the rail bed a few hundred metres from town, I stumbled across a real find. Off to the side and sitting upside down was an ancient flat car (or it could be a coal gondola minus its sides). It’s obviously very old and I can only assume it derailed here and was just left. It was missing the wheels and bogies, but otherwise fairly complete. No report I can find online mentions this car, so even in spite of its close proximity to town, it must not be well known. It’s not exactly hidden but you still have to look for it.
Of interest on that car are the truss rods seen on the underside of it (or topside since the car is upside down) – they essentially pulled against each end of the car, which helped support the load and keep the car from sagging under the weight. The body of the car is constructed mostly of wood (oak?), save for the truss rods, meaning it’s from the late 1890s or early 1900s at the latest. It may have already been quite old when left here. As you recall the railway was closed about 1912-1913 so it’s been sitting here for a century at least.
There are plans to revisit Lille, since on this trip I ran out of time. There are still further mine sites to explore, more of the town to see, and the cemetery to find. Plus I’d like to research that rail car more. The trip back, simply a reverse of the one in, was uneventful and fast.
The first part of this report can be seen below…
A little of Lille and Mine Number 1.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: September 2012.
Location: Crownest Pass Alberta.