Robb

With the brand new school, gas station, and general store all closed down, Robb is truly on its last legs as a municipality
Directions to Robb from Edson, AB
Map Legend
Red: Original townsite of Robb
 
Green: Robb Cemetary
 
Orange: Closed down school
 
Yellow: Bryan Hotel
 
Blue: Closed down J&J General Store 
 
White Boundary: New Robb/Old Bryan, Alberta
 
          My first stop in the Alberta Coal Branch was undoubtedly the most interesting. As you pass Nordegg on Highway 40, a sign reads “No Services for 193 km.” You should take that warning seriously. As you approach Robb on the highway you pass a sign suggesting that there is food, gas, and a hotel you can stay at. Robb is 125 km away from Nordegg but there has been no gas to purchase in Robb ever since the gas station closed down within the last 2 years. The Bryan Hotel both serves as a saloon and a hotel, but it is also closing down. There’s a good chance that there will not be any services to supply passer-by’s exploring the Coal Branch. Almost every source I have on the Coal Branch suggests that services are in Robb, and that Robb is a growing community. The 2011 census shows that it has a population of 183 people, but all of this is hard to reconcile with what I saw at the time of my visit. In addition to the 2 main businesses dying, the brand new school that was built less than 10 years ago is now closed because of the lack of children within the locality. The locals I spoke with were optimistic about their community, but from what I could see, in a brief visit, it seemed to manifest unmistakable signs of decline.
            The modern hamlet of Robb sits on two old mining communities, Robb and Bryan. Where the modern townsite of Robb sits is what used to be Bryan, Alberta. The old town of Robb sits right across the creek situated in front of the Bryan Hotel.  The mine, owned by Lakeside Coal Limited, has been closed since 1957. However, there was enough industry such as fishing, forestry, game guiding, a hotel, general store, and service station to keep to town busy at the time. There were two mines that spurred the existence of modern Robb, the Lakeside (originally called Minehead) and the Bryan were discovered in 1912 by none other than P.A. Robb, also known as Baldy.
            Peter Addison (P.A.) Robb, or Baldy Robb (1887 – 1955), was a Scotland-born man who moved to Manitoba at the age of 4. He moved to Alberta at the age of 20 following the tracks being laid out by the CNR. He was known as a storyteller, booster, entrepreneur, and an opportunist. He entered the freighting business, but also dabbled in ranching, prospecting, running a stagecoach line, and most famously – politics. He saw the potential of the Coal Branch around 1910 when he worked as a Dominion Land Surveyor. His first major resource discovery was at old Robb, where his Minehead mine in 1918, he also staked out a large deposit in the Grande Cache area, where Macintyre Porcupine Mines operated in 1976. Throughout the 1920’s, Baldy attempted to have his stake developed by the Balkan Coal Company, Alberta Standard Coal Company, and Lakeside Coals Limited. He also opened a saw mill at the end of the 20’s in Robb. In the mid 1920’s Baldy was getting involved in politics through the Edson Conservative Party that controlled local civil service jobs. His political connections resulted in the town being named Robb in 1923. After his short stint with the Conservative Party, he moved to the Liberal Party. In 1926 Baldy was thrown in the Prince Albert Penitentiary for illegally initiating ballots while acting as a deputy returning officer in Edson to guarantee the victory of his close friend in the election. While in jail his wife looked after the coal operation. After his sentence he moved to Edson where he operated sawmills and sold coal until the 1950’s, where he spent the last years of his life in Edmonton (Fryer, 1976, pg. 157).
            Compared to other towns in the Alberta Coal Branch, the Robb operation was not as big. From beginning to end of their operation, 1918 to 1957, the mines produced 906,968 tons of coal. After many negotiations between the Minehead Coal Company and the Balkan Coal Company, the Balkan took control of the operation in 1928. It was owned by 10 shareholders of European descent who then sold out to the Lakeside Coal Company. The 10 shareholders were then hired on as miners in the Lakeside Company (Fryer, 1976, pg. 157). Unfortunately for Lakeside, they bought in at the beginning of the Great Depression when coal orders slowed considerably, so they devised ways not to bleed money. It also did not help that in 1930 they invested $150,000 (nearly $2 million in 2015 dollars) for new mining equipment and a new tipple (Fryer, 1976, pg. 158). From personal accounts of the workers it was evident that they were cutting costs in the mine camp with lower food quality. The original investors were fired when workers complained about the living conditions.
            Of course it did not help that the town felt isolated. Even today nothing has changed in that regard. In 1912 there was a freight-passenger train service between Edson and Minehead (Robb), with the formal opening of Coalspur in the middle of October of 1912. However, there still was no road anywhere outside of Robb. In 1932 United Airlines (now Canadian Pacific Airlines) began flying regularly between Edmonton and Edson. On one occasion, a plane landed in Robb to drop off one of the Balkan Coal Company’s officials (Fryer, 1976, pg. 158). However, there really wasn’t much road leading anywhere until what is known as Highway 40 came through, which is still uncompleted for the most part.
            Currently the most active industry is the mining industry. Coal Valley Resources Incorporated (CVRI) is strip-mining what is known as the “Robb Trend”. Currently most of the operations are taking place in Coal Valley and Sterco, with the mining lease swallowing Lovettville and parts of Old Robb (CVRI, 2014). According to a CVRI Robb Trend document from the Hinton Municipal Library, CVRI are planning to mine east of Robb by 2025, west of Robb by 2030, and to be finished mining by 2038 (CVRI, 2014). The locals have spoken out about the declining property values in Robb due to the mining operations and its disturbance on the community. Within the report there was a lot of rhetoric about the pros and cons of the active mining operations in the area, and how the mining operation would be beneficial to the community (Grigaitis, 2011). Despite this, when you explore the area yourself you can see the immediate and devastating impact the strip-mining projects have on the historical and environmental integrity of Robb.
            Boosterism supports Robb to a degree not seen in any other hamlet. Despite losing most of the amenities of a functional town, the immediate coal mining development in Robb’s back door, the potential drop in property prices, and its obscure location undoubtedly creating hardship for locals, town residents still see a future half a century from now. Of course, this hope for a future comes from the cyclical nature of the local economy. From sources dated in the 1970’s there was a lot of growth in the communities, partly owed to the mining activity initiated by trade agreements to the steel mills in Asia. In recent years, the decline is becoming more and more drastic. Nonetheless, the locals are passionate about their modest hamlet amongst railroad, dirt roads, and boarded up businesses. Perhaps they are right about Robb being an active community. But from my observations of the already desolate community, Robb is to be considered a legitimate ghost town in the Alberta Coal Branch.
    
Photos
  1. Robb Fire Hall
    Robb Fire Hall
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  2. Outhouse
    Outhouse
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  3. Robb Dwelling
    Robb Dwelling
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  4. Robb Dwelling
    Robb Dwelling
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  5. Bryan Hotel
    Bryan Hotel
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  6. Gas Pump
    Gas Pump
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  7. Old Robb
    Old Robb
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  8. Inside the Bryan Hotel Saloon
    Inside the Bryan Hotel Saloon
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  9. Coal Branch Plaque
    Coal Branch Plaque
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  10. Baldy Robb's Grave
    Baldy Robb's Grave
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
  11. J&J General Store
    J&J General Store
    Photo by Caroline Thomas
References
CVRI. "Robb Trend." Coal Valley Resources (2014). Print.
 
Fryer, Harold. "Robb". Ghost Towns of Alberta. Langley, BC. Stagecoach
Publishing Co., 1976. Print. Pg. 156 - 159.
 
Grigaitis, Paul. "Robb Trend Project Means More Life for Area Coa..." Edson
Leader. Edson Leader, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 May 2015. .
Photos Taken by Caroline Thomas