TWO. ONE.” CLICK. We all turn off our headlamps. And it’s dark in here. Really dark. I reach for my daughter’s hand. Above our heads is 12 metres of earth; ahead of us, the mouth of the mine. We’re walking up the angled ramp of the underground gantry in the Atlas coal mine. Alongside us is the wide rubberized canvas belt that once carried the chunks of coal shovelled out of the mine, in East Coulee, Alta., to homes across Canada.
As we click our lights back on, our guide, Chelsea Saltys, an area local and engineering student, tells the story of a young miner named Eric Houghton, who slipped one rainy day on the wet links between the coal cars. He fell underneath the moving train and was severely hurt: broken hip and leg, punctured lung, crushed ribs. After a shot of morphine and a cigarette, he made it to the hospital, then spent months in traction. When he got out of the hospital, he got a job at the Banff Springs Hotel as a night watchman. Physiotherapy was climbing the stairs at the grand resort. But the black gold called him back and he returned for his old job. “It goes to show you what these men were made of,” says Saltys.
THERE’S A KIND OF DESOLATE BEAUTY that comes with abandoned towns. Driving along the hoodoo-lined highway to the Atlas coal mine, the eight-storey wooden tipple, once used to load coal into railway cars, stands out as a landmark. It’s the last wooden tipple in Canada and a national historic site.
(You might have seen it on last summer’s Amazing Race Canada, where contestants competed to load a two-tonne coal car.) On the site, rusting trucks from the 1940s are permanently parked. A narrow gauge track runs in front, evidence of the railway’s role here. Still standing are the miners’ wash house, lamp house and mine office — the last owner’s business cards and Christmas list also remain, tucked in the desk drawer, left behind when the mine closed. But Atlas hasn’t been forgotten.
When it was threatened with demolition in the 1980s, the community rallied. A heritage society was formed to preserve this chapter in history when coal was king and the Drumheller Valley was the coal mining capital of Canada — or to put it in modern terms, when it was the Fort McMurray of its era.
Nowadays, the area is better known for its paleontological history. A young Joseph Tyrrell, exploring for the Geological Survey of Canada, made two major discoveries here in the summer of 1884. He found a 70-million-year-old dinosaur skull (later named the Albertosaurus) and what would become the largest deposit of domestic-grade coal in North America. The first coal mine in the valley opened in 1911 in Newcastle, about 20 kilometres from Atlas.
In total, 139 mines worked the black seams, with miners’ labour firing up kitchens, heating homes and powering trains from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Vancouver. The last load of coal left the Atlas #4 mine in 1979.
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