Passburg/Leitch Collieries

Now a popular tourist destination, Passburg was once a promising mining operation that failed from a very unlikely cause - overexpansion. With guided tours and many educational exhibits, the Leitch Collieries is the perfect ghost town for tourists and adventurers alike.
Legend:
Red: Power House and Weigh Scale
 
White: Passburg Residential Area
 
Blue: Hamilton Estate
 
Purple: NWMP Police Barracks
 
Black: Washery
 
Orange: Tipple

 
 
          Passburg, Police Flats, and Leitch Collieries. These are the three names associated with the locality that had promise to be a very successful mining operation. In fact, the collieries were the only solely Canadian owned and operated mine within the Crowsnest Pass. Today it is a provincial historic site with guides around the site to tell you the story of how the Leitch Collieries came into fruition and how the entire operation failed. I encourage you to visit so you can witness for yourself the scale of the development that took place, which is owed to the preservation of this gorgeous site under the Provincial Government. The Leitch Collieries accept donations from visitors to continue their work in educating the public of the impact of resource exploration and development in the Crowsnest Pass. It may not be as derelict as other ghost towns I have covered, but the information they provide about the Crowsnest is very important to carry with you as you travel through the area and visit the more isolated and unknown areas.
          The story behind the beginnings of the town of Passburg, or Police Flats, contains many different characters, from humble homesteaders to wealthy bankers, who had great influence in the Crowsnest Pass. One of them was Mr. William Hamilton, an entrepreneur from Ottawa, who decided to move out west to make his mark as a pioneer in the west. He had a small mining operation in Saskatchewan for a few years before moving out to Medicine Hat with two prospectors, Jack and Bill Kerr, checking out riverbanks for coal outcroppings (Hamilton, 1979, pg. 225). Around the same time the Leitch brothers, Archibald, Angus, Malcolm, and Alexander, from the Quebec side of the Ottawa Valley, who followed the CPR rail line out west providing railway ties. Before mining was prominent in the west, Cattle Ranching was the most lucrative business to participate in. Where the collieries are located, in the hills on the east end of the Pass, there is a flat plain where the grazing grass is excellent. Cattle rustlers were attracted to the area, as it was reasonably close to the US border. The rustlers would run bunches of cattle down the flat so they would stay in the coulee, where the cattle would be later driven across the border when the NWMP were sleeping (Fryer, 1982, pg. 8). The police saw this as a major problem in the area, and as a result set up a post - a roomy low barn built out of heavy logs, which became known as Police Flats. In 1898 the CPR completed a branch line from Lethbridge through the Crowsnest Pass to get to the mining operations in British Columbia. With the railway’s completion, many homesteaders, prospectors, and entrepreneurs came out west to seek the most demanded commodity of the time; coal.
          Angus Leitch was the first one of the family to prospect the coal seams near Police Flats in 1901, where he bought up land to develop a mine. According to a sign at the historic site, tragedy struck early for the Leitch family when in 1903 Alexander, his wife, and four of seven kids died in the Frank Slide, leaving each of the three girls that survived with the remaining Leitch brothers. By 1906, William Hamilton and the Kerr brothers arrived in the Crowsnest Pass and began to buy coal land with the help of the government, 13,000 acres to be exact, in the Police Flats area (Fryer, 1982, pg. 10). The NWMP post was well abandoned when the Kerr brothers arrived, but it was a great prospect for fuel, water, and shelter at the time. A year later the John Kerr and his family inhabited the old police fort and called it home. Short on capital, Hamilton partnered with the Leitch brothers and in 1907 they formed the Leitch Collieries Limited. With Malcolm Leitch’s strong relationship with the Imperial Bank, Union Bank, and CPR, who were the company’s strongest financiers, he became a logical choice as the president of the company. As production began, Jack Kerr was assigned as the pit boss administering operations; meanwhile his brother Bill opened the first general store on the townsite (Hamilton, 1979, pg. 226).
          The settlers that came to Police Flats worked together to help build up the town.  A man named Fred Lacoste supplied most of the lumber to build up some of the modest cabins in the townsite (Hamilton, 1979, pg. 227). In return for these contributions to the infrastructure of Passburg, Mr. Hamilton would return the favour. The Hamilton family had a soft spot for the local Presbyterian minister James Lang. They provided food for him, and even let him stay in their lavish manor regularly (Fryer, 1982, pg. 10). Before the Collieries were developed the pioneers had to use horses, drawing scrapers, and a whole lot of manual labour before the Leitch Collieries decided to invest a significant portion of capital into development. Today, with the beautifully preserved remains of the operation, it is evident that everyone involved in the development of the collieries built it to last, with the most advanced technology of the time being used to extract coal from the mine about 1.5 km south of the site. The mine was most likely focused on the middle succession of the Blairmore group, which contains thin coal beds that are of lower Cretaceous age. The formation’s outcroppings have distinctive green/maroon coloured sandstones, and just east of Passburg the Beaver Mines formation (part of the Blairmore group) that has a large rock outcropping that erodes regularly resulting in debris collecting in the ditch below.
          The bullish markets for coal and coke were creating a pace of development that the Leitch Collieries had trouble keeping up with. As the company evaluated their portfolio they found a great amount of high quality coal seams, as well having enough surface space to build coke ovens. The location of these newfound seams were perfect for the development of the mine tipple, allowing for transportation into a coal holding bin by gravity. The limestone available on the land permitted for the building of the coke ovens, as well as a reserve of fireclay above a high quality coal seam, saving cost on the construction of the coke ovens. This boosted development on the police flat and generating an accelerated rate of infrastructure in the area. During this boom the impressive powerhouse was constructed that contained a generating plant that supplied power for the entire site, a machine shop for repairs and fabricating, and an engine house that had two stalls where they could switch engines. At its completion in 1910, the building was nine metres wide and 61 metres long, built from sandstone quarried from a nearby outcrop. The quality of the masonry still stands as exceptional to this day, with the remains of the powerhouse standing as proud as it ever did. The boilers in the powerhouse produced large amounts of steam with water from the creek that was diverted into the powerhouse, generating 250 kilowatts and powering a straight-line air compressor capable of 500 cubic feet per minute of output, which was utilized underground for the pneumatic and electrical mining tools.
          One of the last stone buildings built in the site was the three storey house built for the Hamilton family, designed by his wife Ellen, that boasted its own indoor plumbing made possible through a spring of pure water coming out above the house that was also used for cold storage for food. It also had hardwood floors, three fireplaces, and a dumbwaiter connecting the floor kitchen with the second floor dining room, and a generous amount of space for the guests, children, household staff, and Hamilton’s impressive office. By this time the limestone quarry was a crater on the side of the mountain, a symbol of the amount of resource it took to build up the beehive that was the Leitch Collieries.
          The amount of capital and work to establish the advanced operation made operating monetary and human capital for day-to-day coal extraction extremely limited. The company tried to keep spending in check, but with assay reports showing their impressive reserves of coking coal with higher fixed carbon, less ash, and less sulphur, it was considered to be the most impressive reserve on the market. One of the Passburg samples included 62.69% fixed carbon, 30.85% volatility, 0.66% sulphur content, and 5.88% of ash in a ton of coal (Hamilton, 1979, pg. 235). The Milton Hersey Company, who are established assay chemists, commented on the excellent steaming, gas making, and metallurgical properties of the coal, making the coal some of the most versatile in the market. With the CPR as the collieries largest customer, and other establishments demanding the high-quality coal, they had a solid market to keep business booming. With a daily output of up to 175 tons of coal, the balance sheet had positive margins, albeit small margins due to the high upfront costs of developing the mine site. For example, the margin for March 1909 was $5,000 (over $100,000 in 2015 dollars). However, in the month following there was a strike, which was not settled until eight months later.
          The strike was pivotal to the site's demise. Rather than geological, sociological, or even environmental reasons for the closing of the Leitch Collieries, it was almost entirely financial (CTV, n.d.). During the eight months of inactivity due to the strike, management thought it would be beneficial to continue developing the site so when the strike was over they could have the technology to increase their output. To achieve this the Leitch Collieries had to take a loan from the Union Bank, which added onto the ungodly mortgage that the company had with the Imperial Bank. With increasing debt and zero output, the strike drove the CPR to reach out to other mines for coal, increasing tensions between the CPR and the Leitch Collieries, resulting in business relations going south. With other markets such as the copper market slowing down, the marketing of the Passburg coal was becoming extremely difficult. The final straw was the outbreak of WWI that dwarfed Leitch’s prospective coal markets. With the Leitch Collieries establishing contracts with customers in the Balkans, the entire business model of the company was coming to its end (Fryer, 1982, pg. 11). Many coal men bid on the Police Flat property wanting the coal and the facilities with speculation that the site will be running sooner than later, but wartime made finances tight for everyone in the Pass. In 1915, after 8 years of the mine running, the banks decided to stop lending money to the mine, never to see a return on their investment. The collieries closed down with the Maple Leaf Mine taking over the coal lands, but wasting the amazing technology that stood within the Police Flat.
          Over the years the remains of the site have been preserved thanks to the Provincial Government making it an official historic site on June 1st, 1980 (Fryer, 1982, pg. 11). The actual town of Passburg is now fenced out and is now a nature reserve. The entire original townsite is overgrown and reclaimed by nature. When you visit you will be greeted by a knowledgeable guide that gives tours around the Collieries, giving each building its own character and explaining how early 20th century mining technology worked. Compared to most ghost towns I have visited, this is the safest and most family friendly one. If you on your way to British Columbia during the summer months, and want to have a quick historical excursion, I highly recommend visiting this historic site which is located right off of Highway 3.
        
Photos
  1. Nature Reclaiming What Used To Be Passburg
    Nature Reclaiming What Used To Be Passburg
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  2. Mine Tipple
    Mine Tipple
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  3. The Original Spot of the NWMP Barracks
    The Original Spot of the NWMP Barracks
  4. Power Plant and Cart Weight Scale
    Power Plant and Cart Weight Scale
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  5. Hamilton Estate
    Hamilton Estate
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  6. Inside the Hamilton Estate
    Inside the Hamilton Estate
  7. The Hamilton Estate
    The Hamilton Estate
  8. Ruins of a Mansion
    Ruins of a Mansion
  9. Ruins
    Ruins
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  10. Inside the Power House
    Inside the Power House
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  11. Pictures Within The Powerhouse
    Pictures Within The Powerhouse
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  12. Leitch Collieries Information Plaques
    Leitch Collieries Information Plaques
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  13. The Powerhouse's Modern Bathroom Area
    The Powerhouse's Modern Bathroom Area
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  14. The Masonry of the Old Buildings Remains Strong and Beautiful
    The Masonry of the Old Buildings Remains Strong and Beautiful
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  15. New Structural Beams for the Power Plant
    New Structural Beams for the Power Plant
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  16. More from the Powerhouse
    More from the Powerhouse
    Photo by Jason Ferris
  17. Desolate Memories of an Industry
    Desolate Memories of an Industry
    Photo by Jason Ferris
References
CTV News. "Leitch Collieries." Alberta Primetime. CTV News. Calgary. Web. Aug
2015. 

Fryer, Harold. "Passburg:" Ghost Towns of Southern Alberta. Surrey, B.C.:
Heritage House, 1982. Print. Pg. 8 - 11.
 
Hamilton, W.L. "The Story of Police Flats - Leitch Collieries.” Crowsnest and Its
People. Coleman, Alta.: Crowsnest Pass Historical Society, 1979. Print. Pg. 225 - 238.
 

 
Photos taken by:
Deadwood Imaging (Jason Ferris)