September 23rd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 38
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Bankhead – Mining Coal in a National Park
Looking Back
Canadian Parks Services
Massive Bankhead tipple where coal had to be hoisted 100 feet to the top
While driving west on the Trans-Canada ,if you turn right off the traffic circle just outside of Banff and head down the Lake Minnewanka loop road about 4 miles you find the remains of a turn of the century coal mine known as "Bankhead". Very little remains of the mine and town site today but there is a nice interpretive walk-around trail with signs set up by Parks Canada at the site.

Bankhead was named after a Scottish town of the same name and its name means, "The head of the seam". It was opened in 1903 by the natural resources arm of the CPR known as the "Pacific Coal Company." Its development occurred about the same time as the Hosmer Mine just east of Fernie, which was another CPR venture into coal. These two mines were the railway’s attempt at getting into the coal business to supply its own needs and also to capitalize on a booming coal market at the time. CPR invested heavily in Bankhead and, like Hosmer, over equipped it in what turned out to be an unsteady coal industry.

The coals that were mined in its brief 20-year history were semi-anthracite and semi-bituminous grades from the Cascade Coal Basin and proved to be very friable. A fascinating part of the mining process there was the coal breaker, a pretty important element of coal handling at any mine. Bankhead’s raw coal was full of impurities like bone and shale and needed to be crushed and sorted. The mine produced 9 different sizes of coal for marketing through that breaker that ranged from the largest , called “broken” at 3 inches in size, down to the lowest, known as Buckwheat #3 at less than a ¼ inch. In between sizes sported names like egg, stove, nut, pea and Buckwheat’s #1 &2. Buckwheat #3 was used in the plants boilers and smaller than that (dust) was, at first, wasted.
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About 35% of their mined coal broke up and turned to fine dust after handling and sliding down steeply pitching chutes underground. Bankhead coal was great (high calorie, clean burning) for domestic and industrial use but the amount lost to fines convinced CPR to install a briquetting plant in 1907. Briquette coal was in high demand back then and could be used in all areas including locomotive steam generation, a fact rather important to CPR. Briquettes were a popular form of coal for consumption for some time. Coleman had a briquette plant years ago and my father worked in that plant for a time.

Briquettes were coal fines mixed with molten pitch, poured into molds, pressed and allowed to cool. In Bankhead's case the pitch was imported from Pennsylvania via Sault Ste Marie, no doubt making it an expensive process. The barrels of pitch had steam vents running through them and when needed were hooked up to a steam outlet from the boiler house so as to melt the pitch inside.

The pitch was then tapped off and sent to a mixer, blended with the coal dust and then passed between two revolving indented drums that press formed the briquettes. The briquettes were then allowed to cool and set. My father told me a story about one night shift in the briquette plant in Coleman when, while peering down into the mixing bin, his glasses fell off into the mixer. On a lark he ran up alongside the slow-moving cooling conveyor to watch and see if they had survived. He claimed that he found them coming up the belt with a briquette formed over each of the lenses. What are the odds? These were, of course, old style wire framed jobbies.
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As mining towns go Bankhead was as typical as they get with it's collection of serviced and unserviced cottages and a complement of stores. There was also a Chinese ghetto area by the slack heaps close to the Cascade River. There were 35 Chinese workers employed in the cleaning plant as "slate pickers", picking rock and boney coal from the good coal on picking tables. But like any other mine in Alberta they were not wanted underground.

Bankhead was projected to reach 2,000 plus population but it barely made half that. The populace was highly mixed with Germans, Italians, Swedish, Polish, Irish and Chinese and unlike a lot of other mining communities all ethnic peoples got along well except of course the Chinese who were not accepted into the population which resulted in the slack pile ghetto area.

Similar to many boom and bust mine towns Bankhead came and went quickly, meeting its demise in 1922. The coal friability problem combined with reduced demand and growing competition brought this overbuilt mine to the edge of collapse. A general strike that lasted 8 months in 1922 was the final blow and the mines were closed. Like Hosmer, the Bankhead mine's powerhouse provided electricity for the town except in Bankhead's case it supplied the Banff town site as well.

It is said that when Hosmer closed permanently in 1914 all the lights in town went out at once. In Bankhead's case the powerhouse was kept running long enough for the government to build a hydro powerhouse below the Minnewanka Dam. That meant their briquette plant ran an extra 18 months after the mine’s shutdown providing electricity.
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By 1928 Bankhead had ceased to exist as a town. As happened with many mining towns that closed down, the whole town was dismantled or scrapped. National Park policy, that had been lenient enough to allow resource development there at the time, was tightened and the decision was taken to remove all evidence of Bankhead. Houses were sold for $50 a room; some 38 of them were moved to Banff, others to Lake Minnewanka and Canmore. Bankhead’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church wound up in Calgary's Forest Lawn area. It was moved in 1927 on flat cars for $8000. The Bankhead CPR station now resides at the corner of Moose and Otter streets in Banff and has been made into a very nice youth hostel.

The parallels between Hosmer and Bankhead are many and varied but there is one interesting difference between them. While Hosmer had a fairly well developed cemetery Bankhead's on the other hand had only one occupant. He was a worker of Chinese descent who was murdered on the avalanche slope south of Bankhead. Originally, when a death occurred in Bankhead, the burial took place in Banff, resulting in a very long funeral procession to that town. (About 5 miles). Since no off sale liquor was allowed by CPR in Bankhead, apres funeral imbibing in Banff generally got out of hand.

In 1907 the park superintendent's protests to the Bankhead mine manager on this issue resulted in the planning of a cemetery at the mine. It was completed 9 years later! (So what's to construct?) The problem was, no one wanted to be buried there. Local superstition held that the family of the first person buried there would be forever cursed with bad luck. When this fact was finally realized, in 1921, 14 years after the cemetery's conception (poor word for a cemetery) the superintendent arranged for the first burial there. It was, you guessed it, our lone Chinese friend, named Chee Yow. Bankheaders never had a chance to use the cemetery as the mine closed the following year, in 1922. Thirty men perished in Bankhead Mine throughout its history many of which are buried in Banff, with some acknowledged with markers placed by the Bankhead U.M.W.A. Union No.29. In 1939 the cemetery was closed permanently and its sole occupant, Chee Yow, was disinterred and shipped back to China.
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Some 50 years or so after its closure a reunion was held there and people came from all over to remember their time in that spectacular mountain setting. Banff National Park and the Coal Association of Canada worked together in 1989 to publish a marvelous book on the Bankhead story. It was written by none other than Ben Gadd and I got involved a bit with the final editing of its content back then.

Amongst the reunion pictures found in this now rare publication “Bankhead-The Twenty Year Town” you will find a group shot with several familiar Pass faces. Amongst those in one group picture are Johnny Kulig, Mike Kubica, Joe Speviak, Rinaldo D'Amico and Louis Trono. They all worked there at one time or another. Coal miners moved to where there was work and often moved between places like Drumheller, Lethbridge and so on looking for better opportunity or if the mine they were at shut down. Families had to be fed.

So if you get the chance, drop by Bankhead and take a stroll around its scant remains. They are in a beautiful setting, tucked up against the foot of Cascade Mountain. If you’re lucky you'll find some exotic Chinese rhubarb growing wild over by the slack heaps.
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September 23rd, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 38
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