5 Tantalizing Tales and Dark Secrets about the Drumheller Valley & the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site
By Jaybo Russell
Photos courtesy of Travel Alberta
Drumheller Valley – that’s the place with the dinosaurs and the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum, right? Why, yes it is, but did you also know that Drumheller has a history so gobsmackingly wild that it makes Dawson City look sleepy by comparison? Here’s 5 Tantalizing Tales and Dark Secrets about Drumheller Valley and the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site.
1 - It all started back in 1884, when Joseph Tyrrell, working for the Geological Survey of Canada, found the largest deposit of domestic coal in North America. According to legend, Tyrrell was hiking along the banks of the Red Deer River when he made his historic discovery. So impressed by the coal seams, Tyrrell evidently stumbled backwards over a rock – which later proved to be the skull of an Albertosaurus. This single day defined Drumheller’s destiny as it spawned both the Fossil Rush and the Great Coal Boom.
2 - There were only about 50 residents in the entire district when the Valley’s first coal mine, the Newcastle, opened in 1911. However, by 1916 two dozen mines were operating full tilt– attracting over 12,000 people to the new coalfield.
With no pre-existing infrastructure, the new mining towns had serious growing pains. Canvas tents, generously called bunkhouses were overcrowded and infested with bedbugs. Outhouses overflowed into the drinking water. Typhoid and Scarlett Fever broke out frequently.
Working conditions were just as bad – considered by the Department of Mines to be the worst in North America. Unflattering nick-names such as the Western Front, Devil’s Row, and Hell’s Hole were bandied about by cynical miners.
3 – Every Drumheller town bristled with taverns, pool halls, gambling dens, bootleggers and brothels. At its peak, Drumheller had at least 16 brothels. Daylight robberies and shoot outs were so common, bank tellers were eventually supplied with pistols. In 1920, there were four murders in one week alone in Newcastle.
4 – When war erupted in 1939, the Drumheller coalfield was declared nationally important for the war effort. Work was plentiful as the mines operated around the clock. By 1945, Drumheller Valley’s population peaked at around 20,000 people – rivalling Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. Drumheller was now called the Wonder Town of the West, and Payroll Town. Drumheller Valley was Alberta’s first Fort McMurray.
Coal was king, and Drumheller was the crown jewel - becoming Canada’s most important coal mining district. From Vancouver to Ottawa, Canadians heated their homes, cooked food, ran trains, and made electricity with Drumheller Coal.
Then oil was discovered in great quantity at Leduc – marking the beginning of the end for King Coal. Mine after mine shut down. Thousands of men at a time were thrown out of work.
Eventually the Atlas Mine was the last remaining coal mine out of 139 that once worked the Valley. When the last boxcar of coal left the Atlas in 1979, a total of 60 million tons of coal had been dug – enough coal to fill 1.5 million box cars, which is enough to wrap around the entire world at Drumheller’s Latitude.
5 -Luckily, the amazing stories of Drumheller ‘s Dark and dirty past are well preserved at the family friendly Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site. The Atlas is Canada’s most complete historic coal mine and features the nation’s very last wooden ore-sorting tipple. Visitors are able to take tours into Canada’s Last Wooden Tipple as well as ride on an authentic Mantrip train ride around the surface. A cap and lamp guided hike underground is one of the Atlas Coal Mine’s most popular tours. Also popular with the grown-ups is the Unmentionables Tour. Tales of Drumheller’s dark past and wild history are brought to light.
To learn more at Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site and Drumheller Valley’s wild history, please check out their website www.atlascoalmine.ab.ca
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