The Red Deer River valley is like a magnet to me. It’s an oddly beautiful place and I love the interesting landscapes, but it’s also home to a good number of historical sites that can be explored. On this trip I take a look at the East Coulee area which is home to a number of old coal mines and an interesting combination road/rail bridge.
The images here were taken in 1992 and were scanned from 35mm prints. Compare the views here with ones we took in 2012 (link below).
The first thing we see on entering the area is the historic Atlas Mine, its imposing tipple looming high over us. The very last operating coal mine in the Red Deer River Valley, they loaded rail cars here into the late 1970s (others have told me the early 1980s). After shutting down the complex stood abandoned for a number of years prior to it becoming a protected historical site a bit later in the 1980s. Thank goodness as I am sure it wouldn’t have been long before the place succumbed to the elements or was vandalized.
In the ensuing years the site has been cleaned up and fixed and made accessible to visitors. However, during the time I was there not much visual work had been done, so it looked very much as left when the mine shut down. There was lots of equipment scattered about (but behind high fences) and everything had that look – you know, like they just stopped work and up and left one day. The buildings seen here date from the 1930s and are the last of their kind in Canada.
To the west of the Atlas is the much photographed East Coulee road/rail bridge. The structure was built to allow trains to access the mines (and grain elevator) that were located on the south side of the Red Deer River. It was also used by autos and I assume workers heading into the mines. At the time of my visit the last train would have traversed the bridge some dozen years earlier. It’s not clear if it was closed to car traffic immediately after that.
On our visit in 2012 the bridge deck was rather overgrown and the planks rotted looking, but in 1992 it was clear and everything looked solid. The bridge itself was built around the time the mines here opened, so around 1936, although others have told me 1948. I think those people might be wrong – I believed it was damage by ice that year and rebuilt.
The abandoned Murray Mine is located nearby. Opened in 1936, it closed in 1959, making it one of the last to operate in the valley – perhaps two or three others struggled through the 1960s and one remained in the 1970s (the Atlas next door). Not much remains here but if you look hard you can find the opening (sealed), some scattered machinery, along with the tramway towers that took spoil and waste away from the mine. They headed to a side valley where there it appears they dumped the slack and rock and other junk. There are no remains of the tipple and processing plant, although this author has seen pictures showing where each was located.
There was a small train yard between the bridge and mine, although it was so overgrown making it hard to spot. Only the occasional switch stand poking out from the thick underbrush confirmed what was here.
The grain elevator mentioned, by the way, was located just east of and north of the Atlas Mine. The two were very close together and it’s an odd mix seeing coal and grain is such close proximity to each other. This elevator shut down and was demolished about the time the Atlas closed. Also nearby was one additional mine, the Western Monarch, which was located just east by the highway that leads south of East Coulee. I did not know it existed at the time of this visit and I only found out about it recently (2012). I am always learning.
An odd thing about coal mines in East Coulee (and the whole area) is that their output was almost exclusively for heating coal and very little if any was used for industrial purposes. Because of this the mines were never that huge and had sometimes they very long service lives. Many only operated seasonally.
Because of the market, much of this coal was shipped in boxcars instead of hoppers which may seem odd (although I have seen one picture showing a hopper at the Atlas). The nature of the product dictated that it needed to be shipped covered and if exposed to the elements it would break down quickly. It’s possible the Atlas was the very last that used boxcars for coal loading. Interestingly, grain was often shipped in boxcars as well, well into the 1990s in fact.
The Drumheller area/Red Deer River valley was once home to countless coal mines. Hundreds I am told. some small one man operations, some large like the Atlas. Coal from the valley was shipped all over Western Canada and perhaps even beyond.
To see the East Coulee bridge in 2012…
East Coulee road/rail bridge.
To see the Atlas Mine in 2012…
Historic Atlas Mine.
To see the Murray Mine in 2012…
Abandoned Murray Mine.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: September 1992.
Location: East Coulee Alberta.