Every winter the old lamp house located beneath Three Sisters Parkway in Canmore groans with age. The windows have all been knocked out, the roof is in disrepair and the frost has taken its toll on the walls with those that are still in tact subjected to graffiti.
It’s safe to say the building, which was where workers met and collected their lamps before heading into Coal Mine No. 2, is not what it once was, but neither is the town itself.
“I used to pick up my lamp there everyday,” said Gerry Stephenson, a former chief engineer who worked in the Canmore mines after moving here in 1968. “The miners picked up the lamps at the windows. It was full of charging racks, lamps, workshop benches and so on.
“Sometimes after a heavy snowfall you could hardly see parts of the tipple,” he added. The tipple was the structure where coal was loaded into rail cars.
The winter months in Canmore during the mining boom – a period that lasted almost a century after coal was discovered in 1884 – were long and harsh with daily tasks like walking to school or work sometimes a race to keep warm. For Stephenson, an experienced miner from England, it was an adventure he was seeking.
“The first winter was terrible, by any standards,” he said. “We had 22 consecutive days below zero Fahrenheit. I used to live in a house I built on the river and you had to cross the river to go to the office. Crossing that bridge with the wind coming down stream off the river at those temperatures, it was like going to the Antarctic. I’d never experienced temperatures like that.”
Despite the frigid temperatures outside for workers making the trek to the mines on foot, a task later made easier once residents started buying cars and trucks, heaters were placed on the intake shaft in the mines to keep them warm.
“If we didn’t do that the moisture in the air would freeze as it went down the shaft,” Stephenson explained. “You had pipelines that supplied compressed air and water for fire fighting and so on. If those pipes froze up you were in serious trouble.
“We had big natural gas heaters attached to the fan that sucked the air into the mine,” he continued. “They were kept going during the winter so it was never as cold underground.”
Working in the tipple, however, where the coal was sorted and loaded onto railroad cars or helping with the surface mining that began in the early 1960s resulted in miners being exposed directly to the elements.
“Most of it was open to the atmosphere,” he said regarding those in the tipple. “Parts of it were enclosed, but a lot of it was wide open so it was very difficult. It was probably new recruits and older employees. The new recruits because they hadn’t been trained to go underground and the older employees because some of them had an infirmative that no longer allowed them to go underground.
“Just about the time I arrived they started during surface mining,” he continued. “In the summer it was fine, but in the winter it was quite difficult. You could get shut down by the weather. Sometimes you had to run the diesels all night.”
Life beneath the surface did not come without challenges in winter and, with the fans sometimes blasting 100,000 cubic feet of air per minute, the colder days could be felt anywhere.
“When it would come down to 40 below, that’s when it was cold in the mine,” said Wayne Hubman, a local who began working with Canmore mines when he was 18 years old. “Your sandwiches would be frozen in your lunch pail. An orange was as hard as a baseball.
“You’d have to really watch when it was cold out and go in the wash house and have a shower. When you come out your hair was still a little wet. As soon as you got in your truck the whole thing was iced over,” he added.
Hubman recalls an instance in the early days of the mine when his father had to push the coal carts along the rail track outside during winter months; a much easier task during summer.
“He would push them into the tipple and if there was three or four feet of snow you had to snow plow it first,” he explained. “I remember times when he was gone sometimes 16 hours a day in the cold. You had to clean everything first and then push all the cars in.
“When it got really cold like 20, 30 or 40 below, the cars themselves would already turn because the grease would get so thick on them,” he said. “That was a tough job.”
The days off for the miners and their families in the mountain town – Canmore was officially incorporated as a town in 1965 – were filled with activities from skiing to watching the local hockey team, the Canmore Flyers, battle its rivals from Banff or Calgary police officers.
“This is one of the best places in the world to grow up,” Hubman said. “In the winter time we played hockey. The ski hills in those days were Mount Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine. There was no way you’d ever be bored.”
“As kids we walked to school,” added Lena Shellian, who grew up in Canmore and whose father and husband worked in the mines. “We never had a bus going. In the winter the river used to freeze over so we took the short cut across the river.
“When we were walking to school the snow would be up to my knees,” she added. “It’s a good thing the miners walked because they made a path along the tracks. We had boots and good warm clothes. We were just tough.
“Half the time you’d be walking backwards you were so cold,” said Canmore native John Miskow, who started working in the mine in 1949.
“You were dressed for it, but it was cold,” he added. “When you took your rubbers off in the wash house your sock was actually frozen to the felt lining. It was something else.”
According to Shellian, at Christmas time the company in charge of Canmore Mines always supported the workers’ families since the majority of people in town worked in the mines.
“The company was good to us,” she said. “At Christmas we all got gifts. The school would put on a program over at the Union Hall. Some young fella would say ‘oh I just got a call from Santa Clause, he’s in Exshaw now’ and everybody just screamed.”
Having such a small population in the area also benefitted residents in truly establishing a sense of community where everyone looked out for each other, especially in the colder months.
“It was like a big family. Everybody knew each other and helped each other,” said James (Jim) Fitzgerald, a miner since 1946. “If somebody was going to shingle or do something, they’d mention to the guys they were going to do this and everybody would go help.
“We never hired any carpenters in those days,” he added. “We did it all ourselves.”
Following the closure of Canmore mines on July 13, 1979, a day commonly referred to as Black Friday, the town experienced dramatic changes to its main industry, its population and even the weather.
“There were some really cold winters. They don’t seem to get near that cold anymore,” Hubman said.
“I don’t know a soul in town, hardly,” added Fitzgerald. “You walk up town and never meet anyone I know and at one time you knew everybody you met.”
With the emergence of mild winters and a growing population of people seeking a mountain town experience, the history of mining in Canmore exists in the survivors of the boom and the celebration of their legacy.
The remnants of the mines, including the lamp house in its decrepit state, are scattered around the area quietly collecting snow each winter. However, the spirit of those who lived and breathed the town’s lifeblood for the better part of the last century will continue to live on throughout the Bow Valley.
*This article was published in the Rocky Mountain Outlook’s winter Mountain Guide magazine.