Tent Mountain was not only the last coal mine operating in the Crowsnest Pass, it was also one of the largest. Situated near the Alberta/BC border, portions of it were in either province. Production ended in the early 1980s and this closed the book on mining in The Pass. After some eighty years of sometimes very frenzied activity, the very last of the dozens of mines that once operated here went silent.
Some records on the mine are bit sketchy and contradictory. It seems that mining started in the late 1940s and continued, sometimes intermittently, until 1983 or so (some reports say a bit earlier or a bit later). In any case, most of the scars we see date from the last years of production and in that time they kept busy supplying the Japanese steel industry. It’s not sure what factors lead to its closing – perhaps the contract ended or maybe the mine became uneconomical to operate.
After extraction, the coal was trucked down to the Coleman Collieries processing plant in Coleman Alberta. This plant still remains but there has been talk of demolishing it. The mine road down is not terribly steep, unless you are driving a loaded coal truck. In that case, it’s a nightmare. Speed limits are posted at 16kmh and there are strategically placed runway lanes along the road. I wonder if they were ever used?
In all reports I’ve seen, the mine was said to be owned by Coleman Collieries, however some signs at the site say Chinook Coals. Perhaps this company bought or inherited the mine after it closed. Research is ongoing.
I am sure there is still some coal up there – many thick seams can still be seen in the pits.
What’s amazing is how much material was moved. On arrival at the first pit, with it’s terraces and lake, it’s clear this was no small operation. However once you head up and over to the other side do you get to appreciate the sheer magnitude of the workings. There are a large number of very steep and deep gouges – no canyons – running parallel to each other. The mountain was torn a new one. Several new ones!
I have yet to see pictures of Tent Mountain before the mining, but it sure would be interesting to compare it to today.
Operating one mine across two provinces certainly made this a unique proposition. It’s likely regulations were different on each side and I am sure this presented some interesting challenges.
The trail head for this adventure is situated up the Chinook Coal road, which heads south off the highway just east of the BC border. There is a large limestone quarry at the turnoff, making the road easy to spot. Drive it for a few kilometres – supposedly it’s the the roadbed of a planned railway into the valley – and park at the gate.
From there follow the mine road as it works its way up. It’s easy and not terribly steep (again, unless you are driving a coal truck) and perhaps it even a bit monotonous. Be mindful of bears on this section, we’ve seen lots of evidence of them. Also watch for ATVs. Along the way as you gain elevation, you catch occasional glimpses of the workings you’re heading up to.
After a couple switchbacks you come to a big gate – it lets you in but keeps the ATVs out. And from there, follow the obvious road as it skirts the coal dump. Shorty after you come to the first pit with its terraces and deep pit lake (how deep?). Most people think this is the entire mine, but in actually it’s only part of it. A zig-zag road takes you up and over to the other side of the mountain. Here the workings are even more extensive. Based upon what we’ve seen few people seem to venture this far.
After checking out these north workings we make our way to that road mentioned earlier, that heads up and over a saddle. As we gain elevation we get a good look of the pits and dump we just visited. Normally we’d also have a good view of the mountains that surround us – Sentry Mountain, Crowsnest Mountain and others. Today, with all the haze, all we could see from this angle was Mt Tecumseh / Phillipps Peak a mountain with two summits with two names.
Our destination this trip is the radio tower that sits on high spot of land between two pits. It’s not the loftiest point on Tent Mountain, but it’s close and makes a suitable goal. Between all the parallel gouges there are several ridges that did not get mined and each of these could be summited if you so wish.
Anyone who frequents the Crowsnest Pass knows how windy it can get and the day of our visit was no exception. With each gust, the radio tower at the summit sang (I am not kidding) and if I can figure out how to eliminate the wind noise in the recording I took, I’ll post it here.
From the top one should be able to see the working Coal Mountain Mine situated across the valley near the ghost town of Corbin BC. However it was so hazy, it was hard to see that far.
On our visit, we just scratched the surface of the operation, and you could easily spend many days exploring the pits and workings. There does not appear to be any building remains at the site, but I am sure there must have been some, now gone.
After an enjoyable lunch, we trace our steps back down to the car. I’m not done with the Tent Mountain Mine and would love to return. Biking the old coal road up would be a good way to save some time and have some fun (zoooom on the way down). It would also be less monotonous – the road section is rather dull.
To see Tent Mountain from a nearby radio tower, go here…
Crowsnest radio tower.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: September 2012.
Location: Crowsnest Pass Alberta.
Distance: 20km return.
Height gain from start: 710m (this conflicts with other reports I have seen – is GPS even accurate?).
Height gain cumulative: 710m.
Notes: ATVs use the first few kilometres of the trail. A gate keeps them out of the mine property itself. This area has a large bear population.
Reference: Hiking the Historic Crowsnest Pass, by Jane Ross and William Tracy.