In part two of this report on the Coleman Collieries processing plant, we discuss the loss of the historic loadout complex and what might be in store for the rest of the buildings left standing at the site. They are, supposedly, recognized as historically significant, but it appears that might not be enough to save them. Word is the rest of the buildings, some over a hundred years old, are under threat of being demolished. I hope what I’ve been told turns out to be wrong but I won’t hold my breath on this. After all, they tore down the one building already, so what’s stopping them from doing the same with the rest?
Everything there after all is privately owned, and nothing can be done to save so much as a brick should they decide to bring in the bulldozers. Anything I or anyone else could do or say in respects to that would be at best a suggestion only. The owners have no rules to follow when it comes to items of historical importance that lie within their property, that much has been confirmed. They, whoever they are, hold all the cards and I am sure have zero interest in keeping a bunch of old buildings around. To a developer, they are a hazard, and get in the way of progress which pays the bills – or so it looks to this outsider. It sounds like it’s all about the money and it cares not for history.
I’ve been told an RV park is planned for the site. Wouldn’t it make more sense to make this a historical centre for people to visit? Like the Bellevue mine complex not far away. Surely, there are other chunks of land that could accommodate the campers? With that one building gone now, this a moot point anyway – we may already be past the point of no return.
Back to the buildings at the site…we don’t know the age of them all. One has a date of 1913, but the others are not marked. Given their appearance however, it would be safe to say they all close to a century old. Some look to be in fine shape, while others are partially collapsed.
Not seen on this visit, and what was clearly the centrepiece of the whole complex, was the loadout. I’ve included a picture showing it in better days (fall 2012). The big blue building where the coal was cleaned, sorted by size, and loaded onto trains, was unceremoniously demolished in the summer of 2013. I’ve been told they were worried about asbestos in the complex and that may even be true. I can’t help but think that was only an excuse of sorts and who ever owns the site simply wanted it all gone so they can proceed with what ever development they have in mind.
The building that was torn down was the newest at the site and was constructed I am told in the late 1960s (I have seen a picture from 1969 showing it). It was significant as it was the very last coal complex in the Pass – the last operating coal processing plant, being feed by the last operating coal mines – when they were done, it ended. Where the was once dozens of coal companies in the area, there are now none. Before it all ended however, we had the Coleman Collieries plant, the subject of this report.
We visited the site on a gloomy day – appropriate since we felt a little sombre anyway knowing that what we see here may be gone soon (and I pray it won’t). Earlier we had looked at the coal storage area on the ridge to the south, the remains of the “International” coal mine at their base, and also in the area, we explored what I believe was an old electrical substation.
To get a good overall view of the site I climb a slack pile (slack – fine coal sometimes mixed with rock and debris that is considered junk). From here I could see where the processing plant was – now a log sorting area – along with a group of out buildings. Further away is a row of coke ovens, a locomotive left behind when the plant was abandoned, and the site of the coal car storage yard. I quickly turn away from the former loadout site, It bothers me too much to look at it.
Making our way to the extant buildings, we first look at the machine shop. We know this as someone had placed a sign on it – presumably I hope, they are right in respects to that. On one wall, the date 1913 can be seen. Of all the buildings this one appears to be in the best shape. It is made of concrete which is pretty indestructible. This building, along with some others, have a cupola (a small-ish raised section of the roof) which was typically used for ventilation in the old days.
The next building is also made of concrete but the roof is badly deteriorated. It, like most of the structures we’ll explore this day, was empty. Or at least for most part, a few had old chain hoists in place.
The building across the way houses an office and surprisingly it still contained some furniture and records. I managed to squeeze in through a broken door to look things over. Vandals had yet to really make a mess here and for the most part papers were neatly stacked in boxes and drawers. Some chemicals were found in one cupboard and a chalkboard still had instructions scrawled on it. An ancient Dictaphone machine was found, compete with an intact tape. I would have loved to hear what was on it.
There was too little time to look through all the papers but a quick scan showed most were mundane test results and reports on day to day operations and the like. I did manage to find one that was particularly interesting – a proposal for a coal train loader at the Tent Mountain Mine. Located some 20kms from the Coleman Collieries complex, it was one of two mines that in the last few decades fed the plant. The output from this mine was trucked to Coleman which was both inefficient and expensive
The report recommends that a new high efficiency conveyor fed loadout be built closer to Tent Mountain. It would save money in the long term and would also assure the mine a longer life. It closed in the 1980s but had the proposal been followed it was suggested that it could have operated well into the 1990s. What could have been!
The Vicary was by the way the other major mine that supplied coal to the Coleman Collieries complex in later years. A combination underground and surface mine it operated from the late 1950s to the late 1970s (the Racehorse Mine nearby also supplied coal sporadically in the 60s and 70s). Output from these was also trucked into the plant here. Coal at one time also came from the International Mine, located just south of the plant. That underground operation dates from the early part of the twentieth century and closed in the early 1950s.
Attached to the office was a concrete building but I could not see inside it. Beside was a metal quonset type structure with some large doors – storage or a repair bay for wheeled equipment maybe? These two, and the machine shop were locked up tight.
Next up are a cluster of connected buildings, which are in the roughest shape. We don’t know much about them. They are made of local rock for the most part although it appears brick and concrete repairs were made to them at some point. On the largest building, the west end of the roof has collapsed completely. The walls seem solid however. Found near here was a wood staved pipe. Interesting!
North of the buildings are some coke ovens, one small row made mostly of stones, and another, much longer, made of more traditional brick. These date from the early 1900s and were rebuilt at least once in the ensuing years. They were closed down in the early 1950s. An old no trespassing sign here shows the site owner as Chinook Coals Ltd. This successor company to Coleman Collieries held the property and some of the coal leases in the latter part of the 1980s in hopes they could restart mining. That never happened however, although a few test pits were dug in the hills south of the plant.
Coal was superheated in these ovens which concentrated the carbon making for a hotter burning product, aka coke, used by steel mills and smelters and the like. They row is enclosed by a fence and seems to be “more protected” then the rest of the site.
A processing plant has sat at this location since the early 1900s. At that time, the operation was owned by International Coal and Coke. That company, along with some others (McGillivary Creek Coal and Coke, and Hillcrest-Mohwak Collieries) all merged in the early 1950s forming Coleman Collieries.
Seen near the coke ovens is what we affectionately call the little yellow locomotive, which worked at this site from the early 1950s until it early 1980s, when the plant closed. Left to rot in the engine house, when that building was torn down (due to asbestos), it was shoved down the tracks to its current position. It has been donated to the local museum however up to now no attempts have been made to move it to their site (in fact, only a few blocks away). It’s like they don’t want it. At some point, someone tried draping the engine in tarps, but these have since been shredded to bits by the often gale force winds that blow through the Pass.
Notice how small the engine looks when compared to the coal cars on the track in behind, which by the way are old and likely waiting to be scrapped.
Paralleling the coke ovens is the location of the old rail yard. It was here where empty coal cars waited to be loaded, and where full ones were assembles into trains. Most of the output here headed to the west coast for eventual shipping to Japan.
With all the bits of concrete and steel lying about and other hazards, this is clearly a dangerous place and care should be taken if one is to visit it (assuming it’s even around then). The site is surrounded by a fence and is marked off limits, and any other times we’ve visited it, was locked up tight like a jail. Now however it appears the gates are always left open.
One thing we noticed exploring the site, there was not much in the way of vandalism. There was some smashed windows and some minor tagging and such but that was it, Now that access is easier and if it remains so, perhaps that will change though.
If this report comes out sounding like a eulogy before the fact, I apologize. This feeling, which I can’t shake, has me convinced that the next time I visit the site, it may be gone. I hope I am wrong. Maybe it can be saved, but nothing I found while researching this article convinces me that it will happen. Some people, few in number, are begging for the site to be saved. Those who have the power (various levels of government) seem to be sitting on their hands. This means those who have the money will eventually win. I almost dread returning.
Seen behind the plant is the old town section of downtown Coleman. In the distance the distinctive shape of Crowsnest Mountain can be seen, except for today when it shrouded by clouds. Some think it looks like a volcano, but it isn’t.
To see part one of this report, go here…
Coleman Collieries plant (part 1)…going…going….
To see an earlier article we did on the complex, follow this link…
Coleman Collieries plant and mine.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: December 31st, 2013.
Location: Coleman, AB.