Description of Historic Place
The West Canadian Collieries Mine is an early twentieth-century industrial site situated on approximately six hectares of land in the community of Bellevue. Two large concrete entrance portals lead into the mine, which includes such features as rock tunnels, visible coal seams and raises, rail and timber roof supports, concrete arches, train rails, coal cars, and chutes.
The heritage value of the West Canadian Collieries Mine lies in its association with the early history of mining in the Crowsnest Pass and its excellent representation of the industrial practices and technologies at one of Alberta's most significant underground mining operations.
The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway's (CPR) transcontinental line in 1885 and the subsequent expansion of the railway network in present-day southern Alberta dramatically increased demand for a reliable supply of regional coal to fuel steam-powered locomotives. In 1898, the CPR built a branch line west from Lethbridge to the eastern portion of the Crowsnest Pass, a site richly endowed with steam-grade coal. West Canadian Collieries Limited of Lille, France established a mining operation along the new line in 1903. The opening of the colliery resulted in the founding of the ethnically-diverse mining settlement of Bellevue. Seven years after the mine's establishment, the people of Bellevue were devastated by one of the worst industrial accidents in provincial history. On December 9, 1910, a powerful explosion rocked the mine, crippling the ventilation system and precipitating the formation of the poisonous gases known as afterdamp. Thirty miners and one rescuer died. In spite of this and other tragedies, the West Canadian Collieries Mine continued to operate until the early 1960s. Between the mine's opening in 1903 and the closure of the operation in 1961, workers extracted roughly 13 million tonnes of coal from the site, virtually all of which was purchased by the CPR. Following the Second World War, railway companies began to shift from steam engines to diesel-powered trains; by the late 1950s, this transition was largely complete. In the wake of this change, the demand for coal dropped precipitously and the mine was forced to close.
The West Canadian Collieries Mine maintains many of the essential features of an underground mine of the period. Both of the mine entrances - the original 1903 portal and the 1929 portal - are still evident. In 1929, the entrances were embellished with concrete columns and crowning arches. The inside of the mine provides an excellent representation of the "room and pillar" system of mining, complete with visible coal seams, rail tracks, steel rail and wood timber roof supports, as well as pillar faces and chutes. Over the decades that it operated, the West Canadian Collieries Mine participated in many of the changes to "room and pillar" mining practices and technologies that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. Early mining was conducted with pick axes, breast augers and powder. By the 1920s, air picks had been introduced to reduce the dangers of explosion, create a safer work environment and increase production. Between the 1940s and the closing of the mine in the early 1960s, mechanization became widespread to increase efficiency and compete with the emerging open pit and strip mines in the province. Many of these changes are reflected in the site features and artifacts present at the West Canadian Collieries Mine. The mine thus provides an excellent illustration of the evolution of underground mining practices between 1900 and the early 1960s.
Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Heritage Resource Management Branch (File: Des. 2181)
The character-defining elements of the West Canadian Collieries Mine are comprised of features that speak to the site's history as an underground coal mine, including:
- two entrance portals;
- remnants of stairs going up the hill;
- natural features, including the rock tunnel and visible coal seams;
- transportation elements, including the main haulage route and coal cars;
- mine supports and equipment, including compressed air piping, original wooden timbers, steel rail and wooden timber roof and wall supports with authentic notching, cap pieces and wedges, wooden lagging, sheet metal roofing with train rail supports, pillars, raises and crosscuts, wing boards, chutes, timber batteries, manway, concrete water drainage ditch, double chute, rock duster, portal concrete retaining wall, cardox tubes, rotary dump feed system for tipple, rock tunnel concrete arch that housed trap doors for ventilation, concrete water reservoir with shut-off valve, and Western Electric mine safety telephones;
- surface artifacts, including 100 horsepower ventilation fan and drill sharpener.