June 28th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 26
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Silent Sentinel – Coal Power at the Lake
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Westside of Sentinel Plant amongst the foliage
It might surprise some to learn that once upon a time the Pass was supplied power by a nearby coal-fired generation plant. It was located on the eastern tip of Crowsnest Lake near the start of the Crowsnest River. Today foliage obscures most of this huge brick and concrete building that stands dormant amongst the trees on the north shore of the lake. Many visitors to the east side beach area don’t even realize it is there. It was known as the Sentinel Power Plant, an appropriate name as it has now stood as a silent sentinel over the lake for almost fifty years.

There is a prominent feature of this magnificent structure missing, a feature that used to stand out on the shore and was usually perfectly reflected in the lake on calm days. That feature was the power house exhaust stack, all 210 feet of it. The original chimney was eleven feet in diameter at its base and stood at the very west side of this massive remnant of our power-hungry past. The reinforced concrete stack was brought down in the early 1970’s by a salvage contractor commissioned by Calgary Power and reportedly was buried right where it fell. Sounds like a real headache for some future contractor. Can’t you just see an uninformed backhoe operator going clunk and moving over and clunk and moving over and clunk…

The story behind how the Sentinel Power Plant came to be has a lot to do with the principle of supply and demand. In the old days the mining companies used to sell their excess power to the nearby towns. But in the “20s demand began outstripping supply”. East Kootenay Power and Light Company (EKP) recognized a ready market to the east and by June of 1922 power from the little Bull River hydro station was linked to the Pass by new transmission lines. (See Harnessing the Bull River Parts 1 and Parts 2 in my Pass Herald on line archives –September 2011)
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By 1925 ever expanding demands on the EKP by Consolidated Mining and Smeltings’ Kimberley operation and the Elk Valley and Pass coal mines dictated that an additional generation plant be developed. Having been unsuccessful in finding yet another hydro (canyon) source similar to Elko and the Bull River the company turned its eye towards the steam generation option.

Crows Nest Lake proved to be the best choice. It would still be in close enough proximity to Kimberley’s demands, had coal mines a relatively short rail haul distance away and had an abundance of cooling water. On July of 1926 EKP struck a deal with the town of Coleman to buy 2.9 acres of waterfront to construct a steam-powered generation plant. By August of 1927 two boilers, fired by powdered coal (the first installation of its kind in Western Canada) were furnishing steam to a 5,000 k.w. Parsons turbo-alternator. Riley pulverizers were used to reduce ¼ inch slack coal to 200 mesh (.0075mm) which was blown into the fire boxes by pressure and burned in suspension. Further system demands lead to the installation of a duplicate generator and third boiler in April of 1928. The plant had a voracious appetite consuming 200 tons of coal per day along with 10,000 gallons of lake water.

The original plant building was well constructed with a huge steel frame, concrete floors and of course red brick siding. It was divided into a turbine room and a boiler room and had a coal storage shed on its north wall alongside the coal delivery spur line. There were several cottages built nearby for married staff along with a large three story staff house with floors finished with “battleship linoleum”. That stuff is over a ¼ inch thick and just about indestructible. That beautiful house was unceremoniously torn down years later as part of that boondoggle called Bridgegate.
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The Sentinel plant had a 42-year running record interrupted only briefly by boiler replacements in 1946 due to caustic embrittlement and an explosion in #2 boiler in 1960. Throughout its history it pumped hundreds of millions of kilowatt-hours into the Pass area grid, from 1927 until its closure in 1969.

One of the most significant milestones in the East Kootenay Power Company’s history was their interconnection with Calgary Power in February of 1930. Calgary Power built a 66 kV line west from Fort MacLeod back then which joined to the East Kootenay line built eastward from Bellevue. Sentinel became a small but important cog in a big electric wheel.

Throughout the years for one reason or another (floods, forest fires, over demand) there were periods of power rationing imposed on the industries connected to Sentinel and the Bull River (Aberfeldie) and Elko hydro electric plants. Eventually companies like West Canadian Collieries and Hillcrest Mohawk found these system disturbances too cumbersome and expensive and applied to become Calgary Power customers in 1951.

The rapid growth of Calgary Power and BC Hydro and the impact of oil and gas undoubtedly brought continual load losses and changes to the East Kootenay system. Sentinel was retired finally in 1969 and all its fine generators and boiler systems were stripped out for scrap.
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I had occasion to wander through that magnificent relic that is the Sentinel plant many years ago and as a former student of architecture, I contemplated its adaptation and renovation into something useful again. It was exciting to learn back in 2005 that Bridgegate would breathe new life into this structure that served us all so well for so many years. Their master plan indicated “a number of restaurant and entertainment uses” for the power house. Alas this was not to be.

Many were skeptical in the beginning about this massive proposal with dozens of buildings, some as high as 25 stories. A boat launch, a marina, beaches, pavilions, hotels, recreation center and even a train station on the old spur to the plant. Hell it even has street names like Jackpine Mews and Pintail Pointe. Gotta say though that no pintail (duck) in its right mind would want to hang around Crowsnest Lake. The skepticism on the Bridgegate development proposal was well founded it seems. Many could not imagine living with the ever present wind that rips over that area off of the lake. And the water temperature. Well let’s just say one should wear a wet suit.

The land is privately owned these days by a family who by all reports intend to keep it just the way it is thank you very much. The area around the plant has an amazing archaeological history. A 1973 excavation on the east shoreline revealed a prehistoric campsite dating back 8,500 years. And so the Sentinel Power Plant stands today, tall and silent, a magnificent remnant of an industrial era of coal fired generation. It appears that many more coal fired plants across Alberta will soon meet this fate. Or will they?

Author's Note: The first shot shows the plant with an intake channel in the foreground and a canoeist. Another fellow and I actually chased a beaver up that channel in a canoe. It was a magical place that appears to have been filled in in google earth.
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June 28th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 26
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