Bankhead

Located just off of the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive (across the TransCanada from Banff Avenue), Bankhead offers a tourist friendly ghost town experience completed with plaques and exhibits to illustrate Bankhead's influence on the formation of today's Banff National Park.
Legend:
 
Red: Lamp House
 
Black: Power House
 
Maroon: Coal Slags and Chinatown
 
Yellow: Tipple
 
Blue: Coal Cart Exhibit
 
Purple "Stairway to Heavan" Holy Trinity Church Foundations
 
White Borders: 
North: Upper Bankhead (Residential)
South: Lower Bankhead (Industrial)
 
 
          Among the ghost towns around Banff, Bankhead is the easiest one to access and find information on. Its preservation has created a valuable cultural resource for the National Park. However, at one point in history its continued existence as a historical resource was threatened by economic and environmental forces, with people buying the original buildings in Upper Bankhead, as well as the Park wishing to reclaim the natural landscape of the townsite. Luckily Parks Canada recognised the importance of preserving Bankhead as a reminder of the role resource extraction played in the formation of National Parks. It serves, then, to remind visitors of the very complicated history of “preserved” wilderness in parks. The ghost town is used today as both a recreational and educational attraction for visitors of the Park. Bankhead is located on the road from the town of Banff to Lake Minnewanka; just follow the road until you see a road pull-out with informational signs overseeing a valley. It’s hard to miss. Bankhead has nice clear paths in the industrial area of the town to see the foundations of the mining operation. There is also an upper-town area where the workers and the families would reside. The upper-town is located further up the road, but only a parking lot and picnic area will greet you. The main attraction in-between the upper and lower-town is Bankhead’s Holy Trinity Church. Only the stairway to the church, commonly referred to as the “Stairway to Heaven” has survived the passage of time. Parks Canada has provided plaques for each of the major foundations within Bankhead to illustrate show the history and function of each of these landmarks. Be aware of wildlife calling Bankhead home, as well as the many hazards that exist within the national park. When we visited in late May there was a lot of bear and elk activity in the area and we were cut off from a part of the town due to the elk that were resting in the grass nearby.
          This operation started around 1903 to 1904, just after the nearby Anthracite operation moved to Canmore. Even though high quality anthracite coal was hard to come by from the apparently rich Cascade Coal District, the CPR disclosed their findings of large deposits of high-grade coal at the base of Cascade Mountain in 1903. After this find, the CPR incorporated their mining operation as the Pacific Coal Company, and obtained leases covering close to 5,000 acres of land to begin development of the Bankhead mine and townsite (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 97, 1976). Bankhead’s operation was quite sophisticated and had a lot of money behind it, with a population of 1,000 people, where 275 individuals worked in the underground mine, and 155 miners worked above ground producing an average between 500 to 600 tons per day (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 97, 1976). An old Parks Canada brochure, Bankhead, describes the daily routine: “At five o’clock every morning, in the crisp chill of the Rocky Mountain Dawn, the Bankhead Mine roused to another working day. Outside the Lamp House, 100 miners lined up waiting to be issued their Wolfe Safety Lamps before entering the mine” (Fryer, pg. 14, 1982). Interestingly, mining lamps served as a roll call in addition to their practical purpose in dark mines. If a miner’s lamp was not accountable by the end of the shift,, a rescue operation was mustered. Even though the working conditions were rated better than most, the underground miners still had to deal with never seeing sunlight for 6-day stretches, from dawn ‘till dusk (Fryer, pg. 15, 1982).
          Bankhead’s economic situation was at one point better than the town of Banff’s. By 1906 the town had 123 houses, two large boarding houses for single men, police barracks, schools, restaurants, stores, barber shops, poolrooms, and a hotel (Lothian, Ch. 6, Pg. 26, 1976). This did not include the saloons that sprouted up in the area when prohibition was lifted. However, the consumption of liquor was still a major issue within the townsite and mining camps – especially in 1915 when the Superintendent of the Bankhead Mines requested the help of the Banff Park Superintendent in controlling the bootlegging activities within the townsite. However, despite efforts to control the drinking activities of the miners, the Park suggested that it was the Company’s responsibility, not the National Park’s. Bankhead also had a Chinatown, established by Chinese miners. This area of town reflected the comparatively poorer straits facing Chinese labourers; it consisted of mostly shacks considered by the Chief Superintendent as “a disgrace to civilization” (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 97, 1976). Thankfully efforts were made by the company to establish a sewage system and help clean up the slum that made up “Chinatown”.
          When you walk around the town you can see for yourself the large size of Bankhead. The foundations that exist today give you rough idea of the scale of these facilities, especially within their industrial area. A large mine tipple, power house, transformer building, coal trains, boiler house, briquette building, and the lamp house still stand today, with plaques as an epitaph to their former service. You can get a sense of the large scale of work for the briquetting plant, constructed in 1907, by the slack heaps of low-grade coal peppering the valley. In 1908 the plant had an output of 600 tons of briquettes a day, utilizing pitch from Pennsylvania. 
          The death sentence for Bankhead began in 1922. Despite the forecasts of a population of 2,000, the mines were closing and the residents moving to find better work (Fryer, pg. 16, 1982). The CPR had no way of knowing that the strata of Cascade Mountain was becoming increasingly difficult to exploit (Fryer, pg. 16, 1982). The coal seam that was mined in Cascade Mountain was made up of the youngest rocks in Banff National Park, which were from the Lower Cretaceous period. The synclinal structure of the seam can be seen in the southeast on a mountain ridge when you drive towards to the east entrance of the park. What is interesting is that the coal resource is still quite abundant in the Cascade Mountain and valley where Bankhead and Anthracite used to lie, however the National Parks Act of 1930 banned all resource extraction from Banff to preserve forever the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The issue with extracting the coal in the early 1920’s was that they needed electrical mining equipment to get through the unusual strata at the foot of Cascade Mountain, with the seams becoming twisted and warped. The electrical mining equipment couldn’t have been used because of the various methane gas pockets throughout the mine. That much gas in the air increased the risk of an explosion (Fryer, pg. 16, 1982). The coal that was extracted was very brittle, so it had to be converted into briquettes. Briquette coal was great for home fuel, but terrible for steam locomotives, which was, obviously, not optimal for the CPR’s business model. It might have been used to heat the interior of cars, but it couldn’t drive engines.
          Geological reasons were not the sole cause of Bankhead’s demise. Economic competition from the Canmore, Drumheller, and Lethbridge mines, in addition to labour disputes, made it difficult to keep the operation profitable. Strikes broke out in 1909, 1911, 1919, and finally 1922 (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 98, 1976). This caused increasing operating costs, discouraging both managers and workers who wanted a decent paycheque. After a devastating eight-month strike in 1922 rendered the mine inactive, the manger Lewis Stockett received orders to close the mine for good (Fryer, pg. 17, 1982). For a fleeting moment after the devastating closing of the Bankhead mine, the briquetting plant still had some work to convert the already mined coal to be sold to market. But eventually the plant closed too, leaving both empty buildings and a lone Danish caretaker to protect the buildings from vandals (Fryer, pg. 17, 1982). 
          It was not until 1925 that it was realized the Bankhead mine would not be reopened, despite efforts to renew lease expiries in 1923 and 1924 (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 98, 1976). Before the Bankhead Mines Limited realized that the mine would not reopen the CPR sold buildings and dwellings in Bankhead for about $200 each (approximately $2,800 in 2015 dollars) (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 98, 1976). With many of the purchasers wishing to move the buildings into the Banff townsite, a stop order was sent to the park superintendent to preserve the townsite of Bankhead. However, despite the ruling to keep the buildings in Bankhead, many of the purchasers were not happy being denied their property. Concessions were made and about 35 relocations took place between 1926 and 1927, with the last relocation in 1930 (Lothian, Ch. 10, pg. 98, 1976). By this time most of the mining and briquetting buildings were demolished and removed to reclaim the landscape. Within the lease contract there was no condition for the Bankhead Mines Limited to restore the land after its termination, however, 6 months later the buildings and equipment were forfeited to the Crown if they had not been removed. Eventually Parks Canada removed the remaining buildings, but kept the concrete foundations as a grave marker of a once booming community.
         For the longest time many tourists wandered through the old boomtown not really knowing what they were exploring. But now, with the abundance of informative plaques and history available, they have a clear picture of the complex story that made up Bankhead Alberta. In close proximity to Bankhead is a World War I memorial that honours the lives of J.H Murray, R. Dougall, H. Littler, W.B. Scarr, F. Woodworth, G. Redpath, H. Wilson, and W. Willoughby. This memorial prompted this research project to uncover the lost history of Alberta and remember those who we have forgotten. The many plaques illustrating the day-to-day life of residents of the town makes this article I am writing almost redundant. You are better off seeing this beautiful site for yourself.
    
 
 
    
Photos
  1. Unidentified Remains
    Unidentified Remains
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  2. Lower Bankhead
    Lower Bankhead
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  3. Unidentified Remains
    Unidentified Remains
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  4. Lamp House
    Lamp House
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  5. Tipple Plaque
    Tipple Plaque
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  6. WWI Memorial
    WWI Memorial
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  7. Bankhead Powerhouse
    Bankhead Powerhouse
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  8. A True Ghost Town...
    A True Ghost Town...
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  9. Shrapnel
    Shrapnel
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  10. Tipple Remains
    Tipple Remains
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  11. Resident Wildlife
    Resident Wildlife
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  12. Generator
    Generator
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
  13. Coal Engine
    Coal Engine
    Photo by Phillip Van Hooft
References
Fryer, Harold. Ghost Towns of Southern Alberta. Surrey, B.C.: Heritage House,
1982. Print. 
 
Lothian, W. F. "Chapter 10: Minerals and Timber." A History of Canada's National
Parks. Vol. IV. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1976. Pg. 96 - 101. Print.
 
Lothian, W. F. "Chapter 6: Townsites and Subdivisions." A History of Canada's
National Parks. Vol. III. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1976. Pg. 26. Print.
    
Photos taken by:
Mike Wells Photo
TRUNK Studios (Phillip Van Hooft)