These photos, taken in 1992 and 2004, show some of the remains at the ghost town of Bankhead Alberta. Located inside Banff National Park, mining and other industrial activities were once tolerated here and what you see in this report is evidence of that. Quite a change from today where development in the park is not only frowned upon but highly restricted.
Located a little north east of the Banff townsite and not far from Lake Minnewanka, most parts of Bankhead are easily accessible and a road passes right through the place. Most people just visit the main town site, Lower Bankhead, which is easy to spot with it’s concrete foundations and coal piles that can be seen from the road.
There are other areas of interest however, including the residential area further west, the remains of the old church stairs right by the road (not seen in these pictures) and for the more ambitious, there is the C level, the highest part of the coal mine situated on the flanks of Cascade Mountain. This one requires hiking up a short but steep trail, so it’s the least visited.
It may seem odd that mining took place here, but in the early part of the twentieth century limited amounts of industrial activity were allowed and this provided income for managing the park.
It’s likely that coal was discovered on the flanks of Cascade Mountain long before actual mining took place, however the Bankhead operation we’re reporting on dates from around 1903. Owned by the Pacific Coal Company, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway, initially the out put of the mine was to supply the needs of the railway. Steam locomotives after all were voracious beasts and needed a constant and reliable supply of suitable coal. Later, other markets opened up for the coal and the mine supplied them in addition to the railway.
The town was laid out in an orderly manner with the main operation being located in the valley. A tipple and various support building were erected here and a rail line was brought in from the nearby CPR mainline. Higher up and to the west was Upper Bankhead, the residential section of town. In between was a large church whose steps can still be seen by the road. Upper Bankhead is accessed from a separate parking lot and includes house foundations amongst the trees. The trail to C level also starts from this parking lot.
The mines here were abruptly shut down in 1922 and this was death knell for the town. I’ve heard that the park had a change of heart and was no longer interested in having a mine withing it’s pristine borders. However other factors may have come into play too – the quality of the coal, the mine’s profitability – these could have also contributed to its demise. With the closing of the mine much of the machinery was dismantled and hauled away, the mine entrances sealed and buildings moved out to either Banff or Calgary. Before long all that was left was foundations, coal slack piles and miscellaneous debris (and lots of old barrel bands – read on to find out what they’re about).
In lower Bankhead, the main part of the operation, there is an interpretive path that takes you past various out buildings and describers their function. There is a train display here and while the locomotive seen is actually from a coal mine in Canmore Alberta, it’s still a good representation of what an underground coal train from the Bankhead mine might have looked like. These “Thermos Bottle” locomotives ran on compressed air and could be recharged at various spots within the mine. A compressed air locomotive from the Bankhead operation is located at Heritage Park in Calgary.
Noticeable by their size, many coal slack piles can be seen in the area. This stuff is essentially garbage left over from mining, fine pieces too small to be of use, rocks and slate mixed in with the coal and so on. Bankhead coal was known to crumble easily and this mine had higher ratio of slack to saleable coal than other mines in the province. Later some of this slack was used to make pressed briquettes.
There were three levels to this mine, which is not unusual. Often in a coal region there will be numerous parallel seams that can be exploited and by mining several at once this allowed for more efficient production and higher output. In the case of the Bankhead Mine, there were three levels worked. The A level which was right near the coal processing plant (the tipple). The B level was located further up Cascade Mountain and finally the C level which was higher still. If you look at Bankhead on Google Maps, one can easily see the coal dumps showing where each of the levels were. There was a tramway connection the upper levels with the coal processing buildings at the main town site and its path through the trees can be still traced today.
Not terribly far away is an earlier coal mine that operated in the park, Anthracite. It was located east of here, very near the CPR main line. It operated for many years in the 1880s and 90s before closing around the time the Bankhead Mine started. This mine was plagued with operating problems, including flooding.
Update: December 2012. My report states that some of the output of the mine was used by the CPR. That is indeed true, however on further research it appears not all of it was used in locomotives. Instead some was for use in coal fired heaters found in passenger cars, cabooses (cabeese) and in railway stations. Also, the staves seen are remnants of barrels used in carrying tar needed for the making of briquettes. A binder, this material was shipped in from the US. Thanks to Alex for clearing up this mystery.
Another former Bankhead Mines compressed air locomotive can be see at Calgary’s Heritage Park and to read about it, click below…
Coal mine locomotives.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: September 1992 and November 2004.
Location: Bankhead Alberta.