May 062013
Slack pile and caboose

In this, the third instalment in the “In search of Mitford” series, we hike into the location of the Bow River Coal Mine/Mitford Colliery to explore what’s left. The first was one of the earliest operations of its type in the province and quite short lived, coming into production in the mid 1880s and closing a couple years later. The second, the Mitford Colliery, is a little newer and also longer lasting, having operated from 1908-1915 before it too closed.

Both, according to the Alberta Government, mined the exact same area and it’s possible the latter used some of the infrastructure of the former.

Located west of Mitford Alberta, both of these operations are connected to that town by way of their close proximity.

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Very little can be found about the older mine, just some early government geological reports. They give us little insight however into the operation itself and only discuss the nature of the coal deposits in the area. Only an obscure map from the late 1880s/early 1890s hinted at its location. However, since we know the second mine operated in the exact same place, we may be able to find something about it like it’s locations – and we do – which will help us track down the site of the first operation.

Coordinates now in hand, I use Google Earth to see if anything is visible from above – and it is. Jackpot, we can see what are clearly some slack piles. Good, we now know exactly where we are headed and so we set out to document these little known operations.

Having no idea what to expect, we assumed very little would remain. After all it’s been almost a century since the last mine closed. In the end we discovered much more then we thought we would, including building foundations, possible mine entrances, those previously mentioned slack piles, and other interesting bits.

It’s assumed most of what we saw was from the more recent Mitford Colliery operation, I’m pretty certain of that, but there is actually no accurate way to determine it. They may just as well be remains of, or partial remains of, the earlier Bow River Coal Mines workings. We may never know.

This trip report could technically be filed under hikes, but given the mundane route by the train tracks it’s not one we recommend unless you wish to visit the mine site in the process. If so, contact us and we’ll give you detailed directions in.

We started out on the south side of the river in the town of Cochrane and headed west. It would be a fair trek in, paralleling the Bow River and the CPR mainline. We’d be bushwhacking it most of the time, and outside of people playing on the river, and passing trains, we’d have the place to ourselves.

Right at the start we were able to get a glimpse of the Mitford Cemetery across the river. Not long after. we’d be at the train bridge, a structure you may have seen in a previous Mitford report. From our vantage point on the opposite side of the river we had a good overall view of the old town site and location of the church (now moved) and cemetery. Not far from here we find an abandoned and very smashed up car beside the river. It was shoved over the high bank before coming to rest here. Someone was up to no good.

Continuing on we follow cow paths and cross fields. The going is fairly easy though and we make good time and before long we are at the site.

Our first view is of some concrete foundations in the trees. There are two large ones, side by side, and others scattered about as well and one can only guess at what each was used for. Further west, a possible mine opening (collapsed) is seen, one of two in the area.

Further right again and we are at the modest sized slack piles. The waste material was more black dirt than anything else, hinting that the coal here may have not been of the best quality (good coal makes shiny slack).

On the field above the site, a larger number of subsidence pits are seen and these indicate collapsed sections of he mine. Nature is reclaiming most of the site, slowly but surely.

It’s not clear if the Canadian Pacific Railway was ever a user of the coal produced here (either mine) but certainly they must have at least “tested” the stuff. Other likely markets for the coal (again, either mine) were local ranchers and settlers who’d use it for heating and cooking. And perhaps there were some industrial customers too. If there was a railway loading spur here, we found no evidence of it.

The rail line came through here in the mid 1880s concurrent with the first mine opening. The original operation, the Bow River Coal Mine, was one of the first commercial ventures of its type in the entire west. By the time the second newer mine came into production is was one of many, even hundreds perhaps, in the province. The output of the second, newer mine was greater than the earlier one, but neither was a terribly huge operation based upon what we’ve seen. Alberta government documents showing tonnage mined, proves that.

According to that old documents mentioned earlier these were two buildings marked as “houses” located on the land opposite the train tracks from the original mine. Nothing could be found of them, although an odd structure, a shed of some sort perhaps, was seen nearby. Its exact purpose is unknown.

Oddly, if you type in Mitford in Google Maps, you’ll almost hit the spot we explored. The CPR calls the small yard and junction here by that same name.

At this point along the CPR, there a industrial track, called the Copithorne Spur (thanks Larry Buchan for correcting us), serving a nearby gas plant via a steep connecting line. A caboose is stationed near the mine site, as seen in our pictures, and it’s used when they back up the line as there are no run around tracks at the plant. When not in use it sits in the small yard here. Numbered 434697, it was built back in 1976 and in spite of what some may think, cabooses (cabeese?) are still needed for special situations likes this.

Rules of exploration: show respect, don’t trespass and take only pictures.

Given it’s remote location and obscure history, it’s doubtful many think of this place, and even fewer visit it. In fact, I am pretty confident we are the first to seek it out in eons.

While on the trip in and out we spot a number of Hawks soaring above and we see lots of nests too. One Hawk in particular was clearly unhappy with our presence and it shadowed for a while, flying around in an agitated state and squawking loudly at us. We also saw several Bald Eagles.

This trip took many hours to complete, yet in that time we only saw two trains on the nearby CPR line. This is that company’s mainline and usually it’s much busier. There were lots of water craft on the river, especially canoes. A great day for a paddle!

There is one other former coal mine in the area, a couple kilometres north from the river and we’ll make plans to visit it too. It appears to be an even smaller operation than the one in this report.

There was another operation in the province called Bow River Coal Mines, this second one being in Medicine Hat. It was I believe, only a proposed mine, but otherwise shares the same name with ours. It’s rather odd they called it that since the Bow River does not pass through that town. Also, there was a coal mine at a place called Bow City, along the same river but deep in the prairies. All these similar names can make things confusing.

At the time this first mine operated, the area was part of the North West Territories. It was 1905 before Alberta became a province.

To see parts one and two in our “In search of Mitford” series, click the links below…
In search of Mitford Alberta part 1.
In search of Mitford Alberta part 2.

To see an article on Bow City, mentioned earlier, go here…
Bow City townsite – with

If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!

Date: May 2013.
Location: West of Cochrane, AB.

Walking to the mines

Our journey starts…

Mitford Alberta Cemetery

We catch a glimpse of the Mitford Cemetery across the river.

Mitford Alberta

The town of Mitford was located on the far side of the track to the right of the bridge.

Mitford Church and cemetery

The church was located just to the right of the trees. The cemetery is still there.

Bow River smashed car

A smashed up car sits by the Bow River.

Mitford AB foundation

Remains of some buildings come into view – our first glimpse of the Bow River Coal Mines/Mitford Colliery operation.

Mitford Colliery building

One of many foundations at the site.

Mitford Mine buildings

Nearby is a second.

Angry Hawk

This Hawk was very unhappy to see us.

Mitford Colliery mine opening

One possible mine opening.

Bow River coal mine debris

There were some miscellaneous bits of brick and concrete scattered about.

Mine opening Mitford Colliery

What appears to be a second mine entrance.

Mitford Collieries slack

The waste slack piles come into view.

Mitford AB coal slack pile

More concrete foundations, but for what?

Slack pile and caboose

A caboose is seen in the distance. Read the article for why it’s here.

Mitford Colliery slack dump

The slack was more black dirt than coal.

Mitford Colliery mine subsidence

On the field above there were many of these mine subsidence pits.

CPR caboose 434697

CPR caboose 434697.

Caboose and coal slack

The slack piles are slowly being overgrow.

Mitford AB building

An odd structure. Can you spot the old saw?

Bow River Eagle

An Eagle soars overhead.

Old stove

The remains of an old stove near the mine site.

Bow River boat

Having some fun on the river.

Hawk's nest

A Hawk’s nest is spotted.

CPR train Cochrane

Surprisingly only two trains were seen this day.

Bow River canoeists

There were many canoeists on the river – it was a perfect day for a paddle.


Join the discussion...

12 Comments on "In search of Mitford Alberta part 3: Bow River Coal"

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Roland Thompson
Roland Thompson

Here’s an expert from the book Big Hill Country, about the mine owners.

“Mr. Chaffery from 1886 to 1887 was a partner with Mr. Merrill in a coal mine located at Sec.13-26-5-W5M, known as the Bow River Coal Mine.”

Emily G
Emily G

Very close to our house… might have to check this out.

Lila C
Lila C

Very interesting and looks like it was a great day for a hike.

Kelly Pearson
Kelly Pearson

Hi Chris and Connie,

What an amazing piece of Alberta history. And to think it’s so close to civilization, yet so unknown. Leave it to you two to find obscure and hidden gems like as this.


Kelly Pearson

Ryan E
Ryan E

Hi Chris and Connie,

I love reading your articles. I enjoy exploring and documenting similar sites, although my documentation is not as well organized. Keep up the great work!

That odd shed-like structure might be associated with livestock loading/sorting?

Ryan E


Hi, Chris and Connie,

I checked from the map,if we go hiking from the south side of the bow river to the west, we can not go further, because most of area is in the Stoney-Bearspaw Aboriginal Nation. how did you come in and take several hours hiking?
Can you tell me the direction ?
I am very interested in the Bow river coal mine operation site.
Reading your article is very enjoyable.

Jon Witherspoon
Jon Witherspoon

The old conductor that used to be on the 2 Switch, made sure that girl (the caboose) was working in every way. Vince started leaving her out there for fear it would go missing in Alyth, and be vandalized down at Keith. I had the pleasure of working the job a couple of times.