Mercoal

Once known as the"Capital of the Coal Branch", Mercoal is now reduced to a remote seasonal community with some modern mining activity taking place a few miles away from the original townsite.
Map Legend
Yellow: Train Station 
 
Red: Location of tipple foundation and collapsed mine shafts
 
Blue: Abandoned barn and Cemetery
 
Pink: Coal Valley Resources Mercoal strip mine 
Route to Mercoal from Edson, AB.
           Much like Cadomin, Mercoal is also an isolated summer retreat for some 100 people who own real estate in the ghost town. However, there are no businesses anywhere near Mercoal. Especially with Robb’s general store and gas station now closed, you should plan an hour drive northwest to Hinton, and an hour and a half northeast to Edson just to get groceries and gas.
My advice? Bring jerrycans if you are staying. Mercoal has a plethora of little houses with original buildings used as sheds, shrapnel from the days of mining, an old mine tipple, a sign showing the original location of the train station, and old collapsed mineshafts. The old cemetery and derelict buildings are quite a sight to see. However, beware that among these relic sites, many of the buildings alongside them belong to people who are seasonal residents.
         Finding Mercoal was a challenge in itself, especially since I visited the town at the beginning of May shortly after a snowfall. Before the summer months Mercoal is truly an isolated and quiet community with not a soul in sight. Following Highway 40 south you pass a lease road for Coal Valley Resources Incorporated (CVRI) entitled “Mercoal West”. The mining project happening around Mercoal is part of CVRI’s Robb Trend project, which will add another 20 to 30 years of activity in the area, according to a project manager.  As you continue down the road you will see an exit that says “Local Traffic Only”, which is one of three consecutive exits to enter the isolated community, each with its own roads to explore old ruins.
            At one point Mercoal claimed itself as “the capital of the Coal Branch”, and for very good reason. It once had five hard coal mines, a 40-room hotel, a modern eight-bed hospital, and a population that peaked at around 1,000 persons (Fryer, 1976, pg. 143). It was also the last town in the Coal Branch to die – even though it never truly died out. Similar to Luscar it had a slow start compared to most Coal Branch towns because it wasn’t funded by large amounts of British or European capital. In 1920, Nick Gurvich of Prince Rupert opened a mine in Mercoal under the auspices of the McLeod River Coal Company (Fryer, 1976, pg. 144). Difficulty finding financing for the operations forced Gurvich in 1924 to sell to the Saunders Ridge Coal Company. Saunders Ridge investment capital brought in state-of-the-art equipment and a power plant, which made Mercoal one of the most efficient and technologically-advanced mining projects of its time.
            Regardless of its new-found financing and increased production, the isolated resource town felt its beginnings of internal and external challenges. . The nearby drought conditions beginning the Dirty Thirties affected Mercoal. In 1929 frequent forest fires in the area threatened to destroy the hamlet. In 1930, the declining fortunes of the coal industry, wracked by slumping prices, sparked labour disputes between the Mine Workers Union of Canada and United Mine Workers of America vying for control of the miners at Mercoal (Fryer, 1976, pg. 145). The RCMP had to address the threats of violence between union supporters. Miners finally decided to join the Alberta-born and quite radical Mine Workers Union of Canada. However, the officials of the American Union secretly signed an agreement with the Saunders Ridge Coal Company to keep the Mercoal workers unionized under them. As a result a massive strike ensued and the provincial government brought in the RCMP with machine guns for crowd control. Letters written by W.M. Moldowan, secretary for the Mine Workers of Cadomin, Alta, illustrates the anger and fear the mine workers of the coal branch had during this event, with the entire union protesting against the use of police and machine guns during labour disputes (Ross, 1974, pg. 94).
          Since Mercoal was only accessible by rail, in 1931 relief work gangs began constructing the road between Mercoal and Coalspur. In the same year Mercoal had its first doctor, Mr. N. Begg, move into town. As with every Coal Branch town, the Second World War brought good business into the Yellowhead County. The number of workers on payroll jumped from 150 to 250 men, and coal production expanded some 240% to 1200 tons per day (Fryer, 1976, pg. 146). During the war boom the hotel doubled in size and expanded its offerings to include a café. The owner of the hotel even had a neon sign showing that business was open – the first of its kind in the Coal Branch. In 1946, just after the war, a legion was built in Mercoal for worker veterans. The boom did not stop after the war unlike other Coal Branch towns. In 1949 the McLeod River Hard Coal Company announced that their production was now at 300,000 tons per year, breaking previous production records (Fryer, 1976, pg. 147).
           A turning point occurred in 1950 in Mercoal’s history. Surely the series of events that followed foreshadowed what was to come for the town. On April 22nd,, a fire broke out in the bunkhouse at Mercoal, which housed over 40 employees Another tragic fire occurred on May 21st when the Home Café, attached to the hotel, went ablaze with all of the tenants barely escaping with their lives. Despite the destruction, a brand-new curling rink was opened up that same year from the help of volunteer work and donations.. An eight-bed hospital opened in 1952 with a trained physician and surgeon, it was not built in time to help during the June 1950 scarlet fever epidemic hitting Mercoal with 15 cases diagnosed and 400 children needing inoculation (Fryer, 1976, pg. 147). Mercoal was also taking in workers and family after 1950 with the Mountain Park mine closing that year.. The town looked more like a refugee camp than a boomtown. In April of 1955 the beloved hotel burned to the ground. Mercoal still had a sizable population of 1,000 people but the deadly blow was dealt in 1959 when the monolith of oil and gas put coal out of business. With no more orders for coal coming in, everyone who lived in the isolated mountain town had to leave (Fryer, 1976, pg. 147).
            Harold Fryer’s 1976 book, Ghost Towns of Alberta, says that Mercoal only had one resident at the time of the books writing. A lot has changed within the last 39 years with many people, both locals and summer residents, purchasing property in the isolated community. Currently the seasonal population reaches about 100 people during the summer months, which is frankly hard to believe considering the massive coal mining operation neighbouring the town. When I visited in May not only was the active population was nonexistent, giant coal mining trucks occupied the road perpendicular to highway 40. Not only was this blatantly unsafe, the environmental surface disturbance was shocking. Despite Mercoal’s growth in recent years, it is definitely a ghost town with the lack of active commerce and seasonal population. With this being said, when exploring the area please respect the private property of the seasonal residents.   
Photos
  1. Mercoal Foundation
    Mercoal Foundation
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  2. CN Station
    CN Station
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  3. Barn Ruins
    Barn Ruins
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  4. Snow in May
    Snow in May
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  5. Amelia's Way
    Amelia's Way
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
References
Fryer, Harold. "Mercoal". Ghost Towns of Alberta. Langley, BC.
            Stagecoach Publishing Co., 1976. Print. Pg. 143 - 148.xs
 
Kozma, Leslie. "Railways and Coal: Good Old Days on the Coal Branch." CN
           Lines 10.4, 2001. Print.
 
Ross, Toni Antoniuk. "Chapter Eight: Cadomin Mine Workers Pass Strike
Resolution." Oh! The Coal Branch: A Chronicle of the Alberta Coal Branch Edmonton, Alta.: Ross, 1974. Print. Pg. 94.
 
.Steward, Charles, and Charles Camsell. "Cadomin Sheet - West of 5th Meridian
- Alberta." Alberta Geological Survey, 1929. Print.
 
Photos Taken By Caroline Thomas