The Atlas Coal Mine in East Coulee Alberta was the last such operation in the entire Red Deer River valley and is now a protected historic site. What’s remarkable is that much of what’s seen on the property is in original condition. Few improvements or changes were made to the plant over the years and when they closed, they simply up and walked away leaving almost everything intact.
Most of what we see on the site dates from the mid 1930s. One of the largest of the hundred plus mines that once operated in the valley (130-140 of them I am told), it was in production at least into the late 1970s. Some records say 1979 and a few say 1981 and others still 1984, but no matter what the date, it was a real anachronism near the end, a throwback to a much older time.
The output of the mine was home heating and cooking fuel – “domestic coal” as it was called. For the first half of the twentieth century and even into the 1960s, this form of fuel was pretty common and every town or city would have coal dealers to supply that demand.
As many homeowners switched to cleaner and cheaper alternatives like natural gas, coal as a domestic fuel fell out of favour. Because of this the the mines in the valley, all of which catered to this market, started closing one by one. Most of the larger operations shut down in the mid to late 1950s, although some lasted a bit longer.
The coal mined here, at the Atlas and at other mines in the valley, was not well suited for industrial use, although as I understand it some limited sales were made in that field. Relying on one market is bad but even if they wanted to explore other avenues. their small output (relatively speaking) and inefficiently meant they could never supply large scale users like coal fired power stations or industrial plants.
By the mid 1960s the Atlas Mine was alone filling what little domestic coal demand remained. In later years, it operated sporadically, often only in winter.
This type of coal was typically loaded into boxcars, which seems kind of odd – surely a hopper style car would be more efficient? The former worked well enough, even if the whole process was inefficient and labour intensive, and anyway the infrastructure at both the mine end and customer end dictated that these old boxcars be used. The shrinking market meant that change was not possible.
At the base of he tipple is a special boxcar loading conveyer, making short work of the whole process. At the receiving end, a lot hand shovelling was needed to empty the car. If hoppers were loaded at this location, I have not seen any pictures to verify that. Even images from the 1970s show ancient outside braced boxcars in the loading area. Only restricted use cars were used – ones that only hauled coal. I can only imagine near the end of operations that these antiquated cars would hard to come by since there was not much demand for them.
The coal was shipped far and wide, but most stayed in Western Canada. They also did local deliveries using a small fleet of trucks, some of which we can see int the images. Keeping them clean must have been one big challenge. Notice all the homemade road warrior-ish brush guards on the front of these trucks. These may have been operated by the mine itself, or they could be independent contractors.
After the last year of operation, the site was left much as you see it today. It’s possible they kept things in place expecting it to reopen the following year, or maybe they just up and left. What ever the case, everything is in remarkably good and original condition.
The mine over the years had many owners, although all kept the Atlas name, The last company was known as Century Coals and they operated it from 1955 until closing. Like many of the larger coal operations, they actually mined several seams or faces as they were called, at various times, and sometimes these were spread over a very wide area. The last section of the Atlas Mine worked was many kilometres south of the tipple, and the coal was brought in by conveyor.
The Atlas Mine became an historical site in the late 1980s. Output over its life was many millions of tons making it one of the largest in the valley by volume. I believe the tipple is the last of its kind in Canada.
Not only was the Atlas the last coal mine in the region, it was one of the last small scale operations of its type in the province and was likely the last “domestic” coal mine in the entire country. All coal mines in the valley, the Atlas included were underground operations. Considered inefficient today, most if not all coal now mined in Canada, is from giant surface pits.
If you needed coal for your household, you could purchase the material at a coal dealers, a lumber yards or at your local grain elevator.
On to the site now – walking around it here are many interesting things to see. There is old mining equipment, mine locomotives and coal cars, the wash house (coal mining was a dirty business), offices and the like – all fascinating parts of this complex operation. They have laid some tracks in the area (some original tracks remain – buried under brush), and you can ride a mine train if you like. You can view the site on your own, or you can get a guide to take you into some special areas, the tipple or underground for example. We choose to walk around unescorted. We barely scratched the surface here and hope to return to take in more of what the site has to offer. It’s worthy of another report.
For a twist, we decided to take some shots from the valley lip overlooking the mine. It’s a bit of a climb, not a problem for us, and the results are worth it. It’s nice to see a different perspective on the operation.
Further east down the Red Deer River valley is evidence of some coal piles and these were connected to the Western Monarch Mine which operated nearby. I hope to explore this operation soon. This mine was the second last in the whole area to close, that happening in the mid 1960s.
The East Coulee mines, including the Atlas, were the most easterly in the Red Deer River valley. There are no coal mines or even coal to be mined, further downstream (at least for a way).
To the west of the Atlas is the abandoned Murray Mine, another large operation that remained in production until the late 1950s. While it appears that little remains of it there are some bits and pieces left over that one can explore. If you follow the road that goes west through the Atlas Mine, you’ll come to the East Coulee road/rail bridge, a very interesting subject. Allowing both cars cross the river and trains to visit the mines, it’s been abandoned for some time.
Not far from East Coulee is the fascinating (almost) ghost town of Dorothy Alberta, and there are two picturesque churches to explore, along with an old grain elevator.
About Drumheller area coal:
“A so-called domestic coal, fair storage, from prairie areas. Can be stored, with care, under cover. It is a free-burning, non-coking coal that ignites easily and burns with a long, smokeless flame. Used for domestic heating and also for steam raising. It can be shipped in box cars.”
Source: Submission on the coal resources and coal industry of Alberta, in Royal Commission on the coal industry of Canada, Department of Lands and Mines, Alberta, Edmonton, 1945.
We explored another old coal mine site further west up the Red Deer River valley and to see that report, follow this link…
Stirling Mine – Commander Mine – Nacmine Alberta.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: July 2012.
Location: East Coulee AB, near Drumheller.