Nordegg

Once a "classic" ghost town, Nordegg is a growing community that is proud of its heritage as one of the most advanced mining operations of its time. However, the original townsite is at-risk of being torn down to build the new community, utilizing the original plan Martin Nordegg laid out of the townsite.
Map Legend
Red: Brazeau Collieries historic site
 
Yellow: Original main-street of Nordegg (At risk of being torn down)
 
Green: Other remains throughout the townsite
 
Blue: Cemetery
 
White Boundary: Nordegg townsite and new community
Directions from Rocky Mountain House to Nordegg, AB.
          Nordegg is truly unique from the other ghost towns in the Coal Branch. Much like Cadomin, it is not a classic ghost town. Despite its population of 200, Nordegg fits in my definition of what a true ghost town is. It went through an economic boom in its prime where it boasted a population of 3,500, which eventually hit close to zero before the Government of Alberta seized the land to become a low-security prison. Nordegg has three separate components to it that makes up the modern townsite; the abandoned Brazeau Collieries site, the original main street, and the active townsite. Nordegg offers guided tours of the well-preserved ghost town that used to be the original main street, which is kept separate from the active community. The tour also covers the Brazeau Collieries, the famous abandoned mine site that is maintained for tourists and ghost-towners alike. All of the pictures presented show a desolate community that once was booming up until the 1950’s. However, Nordegg is experiencing a revival period with new developments being built. Within the modern townsite there is a gas station that has a variety of supplies, a liquor store, a museum, a café, a restaurant, as well as a golf course. Despite becoming a new community for oilfield workers, young families, and retired couples that want to live in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, within the parameters of my definition, it is still a true ghost town. Nordegg might soon lose its title of being a ghost town once it reaches a bustling population size with a significant level of commerce, which seems quite realistic given the level of modern development.
         It is evident that the preserved ghost town is left as an epitaph for the dramatic history and life the town before its closing in January 1955. The town at its peak contained 3,500 people, 450 dwellings, and 1,100 miners on payroll (Fryer, 1976, pg. 122). The town owes its beginning to Martin Cohn Nordegg,  a man remembered for his ambition and kindness to the community he served. A Canadian Liberal Party Member of Parliament visiting Germany in the early 1900s met Martin Nordegg and convinced him to secure investment capital and cross the Atlantic to begin a venture in Canada (Nordegg Historical Society, 2010). Nordegg won the backing of German and Belgian financing and in 1906 came to prospect and work in the then-booming silver mines of Northern Ontario. By that point, the silver and cobalt booms were opening up not only that province’s northern development but also prompting investments into what became the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific railway lines that would, eventually, tap into Alberta. Much to his dismay he could not find any of the promised riches in Ontario and moved west to the Rocky Mountains, where he discovered the coal deposits in what is known as the Nordegg Coal Basin in 1910 (Nordegg Historical Society, 2010). The young entrepreneur managed to strike a partnership deal with William Mackenzie and his Canadian Northern Railway to transport and purchase Nordegg’s coal. After this, he began operations with the Brazeau Collieries.
         The first trains hauled  coal from Nordegg in 1914. Production was somewhat irregular in the early years, however, in its 41 years of operation it produced a total output of 10 million tons of coal. The main reason for the irregular production comes from the frequent labour disputes from tension between the working and managerial classes. Like most company towns, Nordegg had rigid class distinctions which created a near caste system segregating individuals of different socio-economic status. Women married to mine managers or officials would not socialize with the working class women, unless they absolutely had to (Fryer, 1976, pg. 123). This was especially evident at the first opening of the Nordegg theatre where the town’s upper managerial class sat in front, with a rope separating them from the common people in the back. Martin Nordegg, well respected by both the rich and working classes, acted as middleman between the two and tried to improve the living conditions of the workers after seeing the working conditions of the Drumheller mines. There was a lot of work for him in that respect. There were five large houses built for the elite in town, with a company-hired janitor to take care of the luxurious accommodations. The Miners Union fought to have recreational activities for their workers, including a curling rink used only for a few years before the town closed down. Despite the class struggle that existed in the company town, Martin Nordegg always took care of the working class during the Christmas season (Nordegg Historical Society, 2010). Throughout the year when mine workers filled a coal cart over capacity, the Brazeau Collieries would use the extra profit to finance Christmas parties for all of the workers and their children in the town. The company made sure the children would always get presents during the holidays despite their economic situation.
         When WWI broke out Martin Nordegg was advised by his colleagues in Ottawa to leave the country (Fryer, 1976, pg. 123). He likely evaded the internship that awaited many other recent German immigrants to Canada who, during the war years, fell under enemy alien status. Some of the town’s residents, prompted by the wartime German antipathy, mounted a campaign to have the town’s German name changed, and in in 1920 it was renamed Brazeau, after the name of the company. The rail station duly changed its name, but the post office refused.  This complicated pretty much everything regarding postage and travel (Craig, 1979, pg. 113). Letters sent to Brazeau went to a nearby town named Brosseau, or people trying to travel to Nordegg would be told that no such place existed. It was not until recently that the town became incorporated, since the company town was located on a Dominion Forestry lease that was held on a long-term basis. In addition, nobody owned any property on the site since Brazeau Collieries held the lease. Workers rented houses built by the company, or if they built homes, they didn’t have title to the land they built on (Craig, 1979, pg. 113). This allowed the company to have greater control over its workers.
         After the Great War, Martin Nordegg was allowed back into Canada, but he refused to move back to the town that soon no longer bore his name. He secured his assets, sold his shares, and moved to the state of New York to continue work in the mining industry. Despite his falling out with his town, he still had a passion for charity and building civilization in seemingly desolate areas. He contributed greatly to a charitable effort to reconstruct the war-torn areas of Europe (Nordegg Historical Society, 2010). Unfortunately, in 1948 the ambitious entrepreneur died at the age of 80 years old. The town he had built was thought to be dying, especially after the series of unfortunate events that took place beginning in the 1940’s. The mines operated by the Brazeau Collieries, considered being the most gas-free in the province, turned out not to be. On Halloween night, 1941, a mine explosion killed 29 miners. It was one of the worst accidents in the Alberta Coal Branch, and today is memorialized in a monument to the miners who risked their lives to make their superiors wealthy (Craig, pg. 112). The locals thought this tragedy would end the town, but as operations continued and WWII revived coal fortunes, the town became a lucrative source of supply for the Canadian war machine.
         At its peak Nordegg produced close to 2,000 tons of coal a day, but on average it was closer to 1,200 or 1,500 tons a day (Craig, 1979, pg. 113). The coal that was extracted was thermal coal used by the rail lines, rather than metallurgical coking coal. The resource potential that Martin Nordegg saw in 1910 is recognised today, as there are active mining and oil and gas drilling operations happening around Nordegg, Rocky Mountain House, and Highway 40. A 1950 report of the Natural Gas Reserves in the Prairie Provinces, by the Geological Survey of Canada, states that Nordegg’s potential gas reserves lie within the lower Cretaceous and Mississippian formations (Ignatieff, 1950). The Brazeau formation, in early exploration journals, show that it is a large structure no less than 20 to 25 miles in length with a core of limestone. Since the drilling depths were so deep for its time in the 50’s it was hard to make it economically feasible to extract natural gas within the area. However, near Nordegg the Blairmore Formation showed a lot of resource potential. Today, there is an abundance of activity in the oil and gas industry with a Lower Jurassic formation called the Nordegg Formation offering a popular tight oil play. Tight oil plays are formations composed of mostly siltstones and low clay content that require horizontal fracking to be economic to the oil companies exploiting the reservoirs. The five coal seams that were popular during the mine’s period of operation averaged 2.4m and 4.77m thick and were separated by 37.5m of rock. These seams belong to The Grande Cache Member of the Gates Formation of the Luscar Group where the coal that was mined was low volatile bituminous.
         Despite the mine’s post-war success, the town had only a few more years of life before becoming a ghost town. In June 1950 fire destroyed a tipple and a briquetting plant, a financial tragedy than anything else. A $1.5 million dollar rebuilding program restored the lost assets and operations recommenced in 1951. Despite the resilience of the town, on January 14 1955, the mine shut down due to the countervailing economic forces of the oil and gas discoveries around Alberta (Fryer, 1976, pg. 121). Nordegg’s most important client, the CNR, switched to diesel for locomotive fuel, and thermal coal became obsolete. The town became a ghost town for eight years before the Alberta Government took over the town and, alongside its remaining citizens, used much of it as a low security correctional facility, which acted more as a forced work camp. Old bunkhouses were converted into barracks to house 100 or so young fine-op offenders. Those serving their time were put to work in bush camps or fighting forest fires. In 1975 remaining community residents had mixed feelings about a proposed strip-mining project in Nordegg by a Red Deer based Coal Company. Some residents wanted the mining to increase economic activity; others would rather keep their hamlet quiet and peaceful.
         If you visit Nordegg today you will see new development taking place, construction crews restoring the old church, ghost town tours and exhibits, and new houses being built to accommodate the new community. Despite its newfound life, at the time of this writing all of the buildings within the original townsite are at-risk of being torn down. Delinquent youth in the area have pillaged the original buildings and have stolen many of the historical artifacts from the area, an offence that one can be charged up to $50,000 or imprisonment for a year under the Historical Resources Act. Because of the damages caused by the ignorance of certain individuals, and the loss of funding after the Alberta Government cancelled the Municipal Heritage Partnership Program, the original townsite faces the risk of being torn down sometime in 2015.  The only remains in the town are the centennial cemetery, restored church, and the Brazeau Collieries mine site. Replacing the original townsite will be a brand new community that is being developed using the original town plan that Martin Nordegg laid out. Like the phoenix, the community of Nordegg is rising out of the ashes as a revived community. Despite these new beginnings it is still quite unfortunate to lose the nostalgic atmosphere of a true ghost town that Nordegg still had to offer.
Photos
  1. Nordegg Cemetery
    Nordegg Cemetery
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  2. Old Hall
    Old Hall
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  3. Enter...
    Enter...
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  4. Restored Church and Old Main Street
    Restored Church and Old Main Street
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  5. Soon To Be Gone...
    Soon To Be Gone...
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  6. Coal Cart
    Coal Cart
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  7. Old Windows
    Old Windows
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  8. Downtown Nordegg
    Downtown Nordegg
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  9. Old House/Shop
    Old House/Shop
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  10. Forlorn Garage
    Forlorn Garage
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  11. Generator Room
    Generator Room
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  12. Scrap Wood
    Scrap Wood
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  13. Old House
    Old House
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  14. Nordegg Museum...
    Nordegg Museum...
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  15. Making a New Door
    Making a New Door
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
References
Craig, Fred. "Nordegg in the Old Days." The Days Before Yesterday: History Of
Rocky Mountain House. Rocky Mountain House History Committee, 1979. Print. Pg. 112 - 113.
 
Fryer, Harold. "Nordegg". Ghost Towns of Alberta. Langley, BC.
            Stagecoach Publishing Co., 1976. Print. Pg. 121 - 124.
 
Ignatieff, A., and G.S. Hume. "Brazeau Area." Natural Gas Reserves of the Prairie
Provinces. Geological Survey of Canada: Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, 1950. Print.
 
Nordegg Historical Society. "Martin Nordegg." YouTube. Nordegg Historical 
Society, 29 Apr. 2010. Web. 21 June 2015. .
Photos Taken By Caroline Thomas