This adventure combines two favourite activities, hiking and exploring abandoned places. A short and pleasant trail meanders between the Crowsnest River and the CPR rail line taking us through woods and meadows, to the base of the historic Hillcrest-Mohawk (sometimes spelled Mowhawk) surface plant. While only a few kilometres round trip, a stroll for us, it’s still a nice walk, perfect for after dinner or a lazy afternoon.
The trail actually starts in Hillcrest, at the small neighbourhood that sits on the north side of the Crowsnest River. Turn left just after the train tracks and head down – there is an obvious parking spot at the end of the road, complete with biffies. The trail is a continuation of the road you came in on (actually a dirt track now) and simply follow it past the gate. The way is always obvious.
Follow the river staying close to it at times and along here are some interesting mining remains. Old coal cars can be seen in the river which at the time of our visit was flowing very fast.
The meadows you are passing through was at one time a squatters neighbourhood and old pictures show various ramshackle homes sitting here. Now it’s empty with little to hint at what used be here.
At one point the road has been washed away by the river and a detour trail passes through the trees to the left. Not longer after the trail turns towards the tracks (be train aware!) and soon the plant comes into view.
What we see are the remains of the Hillcrest-Mohawk Collieries prep plant. It’s here the coal would be cleaned, sorted by size and loaded into waiting rail cars. There used to be many other buildings here.
Before we start our tour, it has to be stressed, this place is DANGEROUS. There are sharp metal bits all about, loose footing, step banks, machinery and all manner of nasty things that could ruin your day. With that said, I recommend you DON’T visit the site as I did. We are experienced professional industrial explorers and know how to handle the dangers and understand he risks. Connie in fact was worried about the site enough that she stayed behind on the trail. I recommend you do the same and view it from below only (BTW, the end of the trail is the plant).
The hillside up is covered in coal slack (fine bits, junk material) and the footing challenging. The CPR has embedded some ties in the bank here to help stabilize it. Part way up a gated and mostly collapsed drain is seen with a sulphur spring emerging from it.
Working my way in the east side of the plant, I find some minor rock bands, and using my scrambling skills use these to gain the bank, preferring them to the loose material nearer the plant. Topping out I get a good view of the whole site. The highway is not terribly far away and if you drive through the pass, you know doubt have seen the the ruins from that angle. You can’t miss them.
Making my way gingerly about, avoiding all manner of nasty obstacles, I peer inside the main building. There are various chutes, pipes, conveyors and such inside, the machinery needed to clean and sort the coal. Their mass is such that they had to be housed in a solid building, hence why this one is made of concrete.
Coal from the mine (not far away at the base of the hill to the north) would be brought in where it would enter the prep plant. Here waste rock and fine coal would be separated and discarded. From there it would be graded and then sorted based on its size. Finally it would be transported to the tipple down near the railways line, where it would be loaded into waiting rail cars.
The whole plant would have been a noisy dirty place, easy to imagine when one looks at the site. In spite of being a gritty industrial ruin, the views from it are down right amazing and from the plant there are great views of Turtle Mountain to the west. The huge Frank Slide scar on its flanks is instantly recognizable and date from 1903 when the face of the mountain collapsed in spectacular fashion almost wiping our the town of Frank near its base.
Continuing my adventure, I catch occasional glimpses of Connie below. At one point I see some eyes peering out at me from between some machinery. A rat? I don’t think they exist in Alberta, but it looked big and rodent like.
I have seen old photos showing the operation in its heyday and addition to the building we see here, there was a wooden tipple, various out buildings, a water tower and other unidentifiable structures. What I believe to be the power plant still remains too, also made of concrete and in old pictures it has a large smoke stack.
In places where the concrete has broken away, one can see old mine rails used as re-enforcing steel. This shows how frugal coal mining companies can be and nothing seemingly went to waste at these operations.
Heading back down, I have a good view of the tipple area just across the tracks and the foundations of the support legs are easily seen. There were a number of tracks here were the coal was loaded. Domestic coal for heating and cooking was loaded into boxcars where as most industrial coal was shipped in open top hoppers. Pictures show both types of cars spotted at the tipple.
Reaching Connie, a storm moves in and we take refuge under some trees and wait it out.
The ruins we see date from the 1930s, although an earlier plant sat here as far back as 1907. At that time it was operated by Maple Leaf Coal. When that company went bankrupt, control was assumed by Bellevue Collieries and later Mohawk Collieries. Further along, that company then merged with Hillcrest Collieries in the late 1930s becoming the operation we’ve been speaking about.
The mine and plant operated until 1952 when it was shut down by its then new owner, Coleman Collieries (whew, the lineage of a coal company is always complex). Shortly after a fire struck and most of buildings left standing were destroyed, outside of those made of concrete, the ones we see here.
In the 1940s, Hillcrest-Mohawk operated the open pit Tent Mountain mine straddling the Alberta/BC border. It’s not clear if these structures seen in this report we used to clean and sort the coal from that operation, although it’s certainly possible. Hillcrest-Mohawk also operated the Corbin BC mine for a time as I understand it (the 1940s as well).
The CPR rail line here is its southern mainline, its Crowsnest Subdivision which travels west from Lethbridge. It’s a moderately busy line.
It’s not clear if anyone has any plans for these structures. They are not really visitor friendly and so I assume they’ll remain in this ruined state for the foreseeable future. We hope to visit other sites associated with this operation, including the mine entry itself located at the base of a nearby hill. That’s for another day.
If you wish more information about this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: June, 2013.
Location: Bellevue, AB.
Distance: 3km return.
Notes: The plant is an incredibly dangerous place.