Admittedly, this was one trip I did not prepare for as well as I could. Partially at least anyway and while the subjects shown in this report are Bow City’s later coal camp along with the train loading area of Kitsim, I did not do my research properly when it came to the former. My goal was to record all of Bow City’s coal mining history, but in the end I only documented the more recent operation, across the river in Eyremore. I had, as it tuned out, missed a number of important details and overlooked a lot. Bad perhaps, but understandable given how little information can be found on this place. Now I have reason to return too.
Bow City Alberta, once touted as the Pittsburgh of the North (or Canada) is located on the open prairie by the Bow River southwest of Brooks. Promoted far and wide as the “City of Natural Resources”, it never really amounted to much. The whole time however, coal mining was taking place here, and it was this thing that kept it on the map.
In the early days, coal was mined along the banks of the Bow River on the south side. Adits were driven into river-exposed seams and for the first few decades these underground workings provided all the output needed. Later, shallow coal beds were mined directly opposite the original town site across the Bow River, using open pit methods.
Strip mining was started there on a limited scale in the 1930s but it was not until World War Two before this method was employed full time. With the opening of the new pits, the old underground workings were closed.
Overburden was removed by a Marion drag line (a model 111m), exposing the coal seams underneath. The material was loaded directly into highway trucks and then transported to the tipple along the CPR Cassils Subdivision branch line at Kitsim some ten kilometres away. There we always plans in place to bring the rails closer, but in the end it never happened.
On to Kitsum and for this report we’ll concentrate only on the modern tipple there. Coal had always been loaded on to rail cars here, since mining started, initially employing a simple ramp system with lots of hand shovelling involved. With demand brought on by World War Two, a more elaborate tipple was erected. This allowed more efficient sorting of coal sizes (egg, nut, pea, etc), a job that was formerly done at the the tipple at underground workings, along with faster loading of rail cars.
While the main structure dated from around 1943, according to data found, this author found a block dated 1948, hinting that additions may have been added over time.
Typical of the era, the concrete crews here used what ever gravels they could source close by as filler material for the cement mixture, with broken off chunks showing that. They used rounded river gravels, which is not the choicest materiel, but it’ll work I guess. They also used, as what seemed to be the practice of the time, old rails and bit of metal a make-shift reinforcing rebar. Again, not pretty but it works.
At its peak, in the late 1940s, over a dozen trucks were in employed by the mine, often running full bore 24hrs a day, moving coal from the pits to the tipple. On some days over 3000 tons were shipped out – that translates into roughly 60 cars, with each holding about 50 tons. It’s nor clear where the coal went, and we only know it was used as domestic fuel (cooking and heating). I am sure it was sold far and wide, where ever demand dictated.
The name the mining company was Kleenbirn Collieries, a division of Birnwel Coal. Love those spellings! The company sign on the dragline lists the mine as being in Eyremore which is technically correct. Bow City was on the opposite, south bank.
A tipple fire in 1950 was disastrous and while the structure was eventually rebuilt, business was lost during that down time. This, plus the fact that coal was falling out of favour as a domestic fuel, meant that each year less and less of it was mined. By 1958 the tipple was abandoned and dismantled, I guess the markets having dried up by then.
Today only some coal slack, metal bits and concrete blocks hint at what was here. It’d be easy to miss them in fact and even the rail line is hard to follow, nature taking over the whole site. One is instantly taken in by the loneliness of the place – it’s in the proverbial middle of nowhere and there are no signs of civilization in most directions – I love that feeling actually. In spite how little there is to discover I still enjoyed exploring the field for evidence of the tipple and I could easily imagine a line of boxcars being loaded right in front of me.
This section of rail line, by the way, can be seen in the 1970s CBC series, The National Dream. This area was chosen not only for it’s remoteness, but because by that time traffic was light on the line, making filming easier.
By the 1970s, the coal traffic was long gone and the only commodity moving along the line was grain, at two points, Rainier and Scandia. That was not enough to sustain it and it closed in the late 1970s (I was told variously 1977 or 1979). By that time, there may have been only a couple trains per month, depending on demand. Afterwards the rails were pulled up and many sections of the line obliterated by farming. Today, it’s hard to trace in spots.
Back to Bow City (again, Eyremore actually), we examine what we think is a foundation related to the mine. In an aerial picture dated 1950, some angled buildings are seen at the junction of the highway and the road to the coal mine. Our foundation matches the size and angle of one of them and inside, bits of junk can be seen hinting at mining activity. Included in that are some small mine rails, which I assume were salvaged from the old underground workings for what ever reason. Close by is an old building, complete but rather dilapidated, but I don’t think it’s associated with the mining operation.
To the east of the highway was the 1940s/50s era coal camp and this was one part I overlooked exploring. Instead we headed to the pits, but overall there was not much to see. They are shallow and many filled with water. Only some random slack even hints that this was a coal mine. I’d like to walk the area – next time. The seams here sure were shallow, making mining easy (and cheap).
With the closing of the tipple, I understand mining still took place on a limited scale, for local use. This ended sometime in the 1960s. It’s not clear what happened to the dragline and other equipment when the mine closed, but it can be assumed they were sold off and moved out of the area.
To see a more recent report on the Bow City, go here…
Bow City townsite – with Forgottenalberta.com
If you wish more information on these places, by all means contact us!
Date: April 2013.
Location: Bow City and Kitsim, AB.