December 16th, 2015 ~ Vol. 85 No. 49
Financial hardship for Bellevue Mine
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Vyk Harnett Photo
Entrance to Bellevue Underground Mine.
Pass Herald Reporter
A few things are going right for the Bellevue Underground Mine.

Under executive director Elaine Hruby, the Bellevue mine regained museum designation last year from the Alberta Museums Association (AMA) after losing it several years ago.

The museum is attracting more visitors. In 2015, 13,000 people took the tour of the old mine and learned a bit about the harsh conditions faced by the men who worked underground. They had 260 visitors on their busiest day and their numbers go up every year, said Hruby.

But the Bellevue Underground Mine is having something of a cash-flow problem. With only two bathrooms, no office-space and a real life mineshaft that hasn’t been inspected by an engineer in 30 years, the mine is having something of a cash flow problem.

Representatives from the mine were before council on Dec. 8, to ask for a $50,000 grant.

The grants that are available to the museum all require matching money that the museum doesn’t have, said the representatives in a report. Most available funds are earmarked for tunnel and portal conservation. The cost of staffing tours is greater than the revenue from them but their biggest problem is a lack of bathrooms.

“We need washrooms really desperately,” said Hruby. “We have two but we have as many as 60 children here at one time.”

The Bellevue mine has operated at a deficit for much of its history. The deficit had been covered by drawing on the funds that had been generated by land sales. Those funds are now depleted. The latest parcels they’ve sold have been tiny lots to homeowners hoping to extend their yards a few feet.

The Bellevue mine recently stopped renting office space at the MDM Centre in Bellevue to cut costs but now museum staff must work from home or out of several skid shacks at the site.
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The biggest challenge in operating the mine is also its biggest asset; the fact that it used to be an actual working mine.

Maintaining the tunnel and the portals requires that special mine engineers, and conservation architects be contracted. Heritage expert, James Reid of Taigh Architecture, has estimated the architectural and engineering study for the mine portals alone, at $22,600.

“If we lose that structure, then we’ll lose our ability to take in tours,” said Hruby.

The representatives said the mine is safe but that due diligence calls for a formal inspection.

Representatives from a dedicated group of volunteers who’ve been maintaining the mine for years were also before council.

“Our plan is to do a little section every year,” said Kenneth Brands, a retired coal miner who volunteers to maintain the mineshaft. “Hopefully I can train some young people to do it because as we know, underground coal miners are a dying breed and there’s not much of us left to do it. I’m 61 years old I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing it.”

Hruby said Brands and his team have done tens of thousands of hours of work maintaining the mineshaft.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to stay open,” she said flatly.

The representatives reminded council that the Bellevue mine is unique to the province. The Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site near Drumheller, is also a former working coal mine but it has an artificially created underground tunnel

“They don’t have an authentic underground mine,” said Hruby. “We’ve got a real one.”

Hruby and a dedicated board believe the mine has a lot of untapped potential.

“With proper branding and marketing and having more curb appeal, people would come in,” she said. “ But we have problems getting people from the highway to the mine.”
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Council did not comment on whether the $50,000 was available but Councillor Bill Kovach suggested the board contact David Eggen, Alberta’s Minister of Culture and Tourism, for support.

“It’s not only a heritage for the Crowsnest Pass,” said Kovach. “It’s a heritage for this province. It’s the only underground coal mine tour anywhere. It takes extra money to maintain a museum of this type.”

The museum was a working West Canadian Collieries mine in 1903. It depended largely on the Canadian Pacific Railway, which purchased coal to run its steam engines.

With the phasing out of coal-fired steam engines in favour of diesel locomotives, the demand for coal dwindled.

The loss of coal sales meant that West Canadian Collieries was no longer a viable company and if finally ceased all operations in January of 1961. In 1986, the Crowsnest Pass Eco Museum Trust Society was created with its main project being the Bellevue Underground Mine.

In 1990, the society opened the re-timbered three hundred meters of the underground mine and began giving public tours from May until Labour Day.

Their season now starts April 1 and lasts until October 31. They take pre-booked tours year round.
December 16th ~ Vol. 85 No. 49
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