Alberta’s Coal Branch region, southwest of Edson, was once an area bustling with activity, not only due to coal production, but also with the day-to-day goings-on of communities. In its heyday, the Coal Branch supported a population of almost 3,000 people spread out among several towns including Cadomin, Mercoal, Mountain Park, Luscar, Lovettville, Coalspur, Robb, Coal Valley, and Beacon Hill. These communities, though small, had many amenities including stores, community halls, sports fields, schools, churches, and hospitals. Today, many of them have been completely abandoned or are only used for part of the year.
Yellowhead Mine and its associated “stag camp”, and later townsite, was the first mining operation in production in the Coal Branch. Run by the Yellowhead Pass Coal and Coke Co., the mine began operations in 1909, before railroads or roads reached the area. Since the only way in and out of Yellowhead was by pack trail, the settlement was fairly isolated and difficult to get to. When mining first began, the coal could not be shipped out due to lack of rail access, so coal was stockpiled. The railroad eventually reached the Coal Branch in 1912 and the first shipments of coal went out from Yellowhead in April of the same year. Daily service to Yellowhead began in January of 1913. According to archival records, the height of mine production was in the first half of 1914. At that time, there were 128 men working underground and 44 above ground; they were producing upwards of 250 tons of coal per day. Mine production slowed in July of 1914 when a natural brush fire caused a fire at the mine, in the coal seam. They managed to keep the fire at bay for some time so that mining could continue but eventually the fire became unmanageable and the mine had to close for some time in 1915. It did reopen in 1916, with the fire still burning in some spots. Production continued until 1919 when the fire, and perhaps financial and operational mismanagement, ultimately caused the mine to close completely.
After the mine closure, people began moving out of Yellowhead and buildings were either moved elsewhere or abandoned and left to decay over time, eventually being absorbed into the forest floor and overgrown by trees and moss. As time took its toll, it became difficult to see the remnants of the town, some structures hidden so well by the vegetation that you wouldn’t even know they were there.
The Yellowhead Townsite and Mine was first recorded by archaeologists in 1981. Archaeological work continued at the site in 2008, 2009, and 2010 ahead of proposed development in the area. As archaeologists began peeling the layers back, the rich history of Yellowhead was revealed. Over the course of survey, testing, mapping, and excavation in 1981 and from 2008-2010, 126 features over a 700 metre by 800 metre area were recorded at the site. These features include houses, storage buildings, lamphouses, a boiler/power house, a coal shed, a pool hall, a bath house, powder houses, trenches, depressions, pits, mine entrances, railway tracks and beds, a corral, areas of mining debris and, the sites most prominent feature, the tipple. Of these 126 features, archaeologists excavated 42 including a few houses, some of the industrial buildings related to coal production (lamphouses, boiler house, powder house and mine entrances), several privies, dumps, a smithy, the area around the tipple, and the pool hall.
Excavation of these features uncovered thousands of metal, glass, ceramic, brick, leather, faunal, and other miscellaneous artifacts. Of the items recovered, there were a variety of local goods (the Edmonton Journal included) as well as goods imported from eastern Canada, Europe, and the U.S.A. Imported goods included canned and bottled foods, liquor, medicine, stoves, ceramics, lamps, bricks, and pipe. Several whiskey labels found during excavation point to an origin in the United Kingdom. Lamps recovered show origins in Pennsylvania; bricks were largely transported from Ontario; and some of the pipe originated in Minnesota. Most of the ceramics found were likely from Europe. Many items also made their way to Yellowhead via order through catalogues such as Eaton’s. Some of these goods, particularly those from Pennsylvania and Ontario, can be traced along the same rail line that Yellowhead was on, which would explain how they made their way to this remote location. Interestingly enough, during excavations at the pool hall, where numerous bottle caps were found, it was discovered that the Calgary Brewing Company was the main supplier of beer, along with a few from Lethbridge Brewery. There were brewing companies in Edmonton/Strathcona during the time of mine operations so it is strange that beer wouldn’t have been brought in from this more accessible location. Interesting miscellaneous finds included a miner’s ID tag, both women’s and men’s boots and shoes, electrodes, pipe stems, tobacco tins, and coins.
Overall, archaeological work at the townsite and mine determined that while the mine itself had several ups and downs throughout the years, a substantial and diverse community was built during those 10 years of operation. Numerous houses, cabins and bunkhouses, as well as artifacts representative of both men and women, show the presence of not only single men but also families. Archival photos also show the presence of children. Luxuries such as heated water supplies and electricity were present at the community in its later stages. Hot water went to the bath house, cookhouse and other mine structures and access points for running cold water were located close to houses. Electricity for lighting was available to the mine structures and some of the private houses, a luxury that some neighborhoods in Edmonton and Calgary didn’t even have at the time, and long before some other rural locations in Alberta. These families and men that lived at Yellowhead, early in the Coal Branch region’s history, likely helped the region grow from a few small camps to many integrated communities; after mine closure these families probably moved to nearby communities to take up work in other mines. Although Yellowhead closed relatively early, it is one of the most important sites for understanding the history of the Coal Branch.
Written By: Courtney Lakevold, Archaeological Information Coordinator
den Otter, Andy A. 1967 A Social History of the Alberta Coal Branch. M.A. thesis, Department of History, University of Alberta.
Meyer, Dan, Kendra Kolomyja, and Jason Roe 2012 Historical Resources Impact Mitigation Coal Valley Resources Inc., Coal Valley Mine Yellowhead Tower Extension, Disturbances at FhQg-5 and FhQg-77 Final Report, Permit 2010-127. Consultant’s report on file, Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Edmonton.