Welcome to the Alberta Coal Branch...

Legend:
Red: Foothills, Sterco, Lovettville
 
Blue: Luscar
 
Green: Cadomin
 
Brown: Mountain Park
 
Orange: Robb
 
Black: Coalspur
 
Purple: Mercoal
 
Grey: Brule
 
White: Pocahontas
 
So you want to explore the Alberta Coal Branch, eh? Well I hope you have a 4x4, jerry cans, and an ability to survive without cell service for most of your adventure.
The Coal Branch is known for its isolated surroundings and treacherous roads. It is also known for its beautiful scenery, abundant wildlife, and the numerous ghost towns clustered in the region. The many active mines bear witness to the resource potential recognized by original prospectors who staked claims herein the early 1900’s. However, these active projects make finding some of these fabled ghost towns a lot harder. In fact, I was not even able to get into the Foothills area that covers Coal Valley, Sterco, and Lovettville. The entire Foothills area is currently a strip-mining lease owned by Coal Valley Resources Incorporated (CVRI). Meanwhile the westernmost part of the Coal Branch has active coal mining activities impinging alongside historical sites, cemeteries, and even hamlets with active populations. Teck Coal’s lease is closing in on the Mountain Park Cemetery, Cardinal River Coals operate inside the Luscar townsite, and even CVRI’s project is closing in on the active hamlet of Robb.
The history of the Coal Branch has a mysterious cast of characters with names like Martin Nordegg, Baldy Robb, and John James Gregg. These men shaped the mining industry in Central Alberta. Gregg staked his claim at Mountain Park and Luscar, which influenced the CNR to make a spur line Northwest from Leyland, and the Mountain Park Coal company to create a spur line in from Coalspur in 1912. Peter Addison “Baldy” Robb was a former freighter and guide before becoming an entrepreneurial coal and mineral prospector. He staked the claims in Old Robb, started various businesses, and became one of the area’s most well-known individuals. Some of that reputation was not all good. He went to jail for tampering with ballots in the 1925 election. Martin Nordegg started the Brazeau Collieries with German and Belgian Capital and influenced the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to come further south from Edmonton.
The railway is not only a visible element of the ghost town landscape in the Coal branch. It was the most important factor in the production and boom in the area. With Coalspur as the operational heart of the Coal Branch, it set the boundary for the type of coal that was extracted. The coal that was mined west of Coalspur was purchased by the railways for locomotive fuel. The first customer was the Grand Trunk Pacific and after its nationalization (and joining with the Canadian Northern), into the CNR, the company began purchasing thermal coal from the mines. The coal mined east of Coalspur was focused more on domestic heating due to its sub-bituminous properties.
By 1920 the key producing mines on the Coal Branch were Sterco (1918), Mercoal (1920), Cadomin (1917), and Mountain Park (1912). By 1918 new technologies were utilized, such as steam-operated shovels and draglines. These technologies were developed on the Coal Branch as well as techniques such as “Rock-Tunnelling” in Cadomin, and a Coke Cleaning plant using “Static Process” in Luscar. It is hard to believe that these projects, with such high productivity and support by the latest technology, vanished overnight in the 1950’s. But it was not because of a lack of coal in the area. In fact, the geology of the area proves that the Coal Branch is an ideal place for resource development. The kiss of death was the economic forces from the Leduc Discovery of 1947 that spurred the modern oil and gas industry. The railway, the Coal Branch’s largest trading partner, switched to diesel and stopped purchasing coal. This devastated the region, and even today there is next to no activity in these areas compared to other resource-based settlements like Fort McMurray.
There is a parallel narrative between each of the ghost towns detailed here. The towns went through two distinct periods: initial development, operation, and closure (1909 – 1960); and a revival period (beginning in 1969). By the latter date, long-term contracts with Japanese steel firms revived the region. About $1.5 billion of funds supported firms like Teck Coal, Cardinal River Coals, and CVRI. This has generated new activity not experienced by the Coal Branch ever since its closure. However, even towns like Robb that were in a period of growth in the mid-1970’s are now even seeing a decline. Even though some of these places have a summer population , winter slow down leaves the location isolated in its difficult living conditions. In addition, the current coal mining activities in the area prove to be as impressive as they are frightening. The sheer scale of the operations threatens the historical value of these old towns, as well as the environment of the Yellowhead County. I can only hope that this publication will raise awareness for both of these elements and can therefore be well preserved for future generations to see.