Nicholas Sheran
Narrow gauge locomotive
View of the town of Blairmore
  • Indigenous effigy made from coal in the form of a bison

    Early indigenous people transform coal found in seams in foothills and mountain regions into effigies.

    Most of the effigies depict bison, usually cows, with tongues out, indicating either running or being in labour. The specimens have all suffered damage from ploughing but are still remarkable and accurate anatomical reproductions of bison.
    Source: Royal Alberta Museum

  • First record of coal in Alberta, Peter Fidler’s Journey page

    The presence of coal in Alberta is first recorded by a European explorer.

    In the February 12, 1793, entry of “Journal of a Journey over Land from Buckingham House to the Rocky Mountains in 1792 & 3 by Peter Fidler,” Fidler describes his coal discovery.
    Source:  Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba, E.3-2 fo.30

  • First commercial coal mine in Alberta, Sheran mine in Glenbow, Edmonton, 1948

    The first commercial coal mine begins operation near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta.

    Nicholas Sheran’s mine, 1881
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1948-2

  • First large-scale commercial coal mine in Alberta. Nicholas Sheran’s mine, 1885

    The first large-scale commercial mine begins production in Alberta.

    The entrance to Galt Drift Mine No. 1 in 1885 near present-day Lethbridge; Sir Alexander Galt establishes the mine to exploit the region’s abundant coal deposits. Galt also establishes the North Western Coal and Navigation Company in the same year to supply coal to the Canadian Pacific Railway.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-3188-43

  • A view of International Coal and Coke Company at Coleman in the Crowsnest Pass, ca. 1912

    Coal mining begins in the Crowsnest Pass region of Alberta.

    A view of International Coal and Coke Company at Coleman in the Crowsnest Pass, ca. 1912, eleven years after production started; the region yields a high volume of industrial steam coal.
    Source: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries, PC003325

  • Mountain Park Station, Mountain Park, Alberta, ca. 1920-1923

    Coal Branch mines open southwest of Edson, Alberta.

    Mountain Park Station, Mountain Park, Alberta, ca. 1920-1923; small-scale mining had begun in the Coal Branch about 1909, but after 1910 the arrival of the railway opened up the region to large-scale mining. Mountain Park appears to have been the first major community to grow, reaching a population of about 330 by the early 1920s.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, CL26

  • Pit ponies pulling loaded coal-filled wooden mine cars underground at Newcastle Mine in 1914

    First large commercial mine in Drumheller starts production.

    Horses pull coal-filled wooden mine cars underground at Newcastle Mine in 1914, three years after Newcastle opened in Drumheller.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6152

  • An initial gas explosion triggers a larger coal dust explosion, killing 189 miners. The initial fatalities estimate reported in the Edmonton Capital newspaper on June 19, 1914, was later revised

    Alberta’s deadliest coal mine disaster occurs at Hillcrest, Alberta.

    An initial gas explosion triggers a larger coal dust explosion, killing 189 miners. The initial fatalities estimate reported in the Edmonton Capital newspaper on June 19, 1914, was later revised.
    Source: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries, Ar00113

  • Strikers from One Big Union (OBU) at Drumheller, Alberta,  in 1919

    Cost of living rises by 65% since onset of World War I in 1914, contributing to coal industry labour unrest and heightened union activity.

    Strikers from the One Big Union (OBU) at Drumheller, Alberta, in 1919; the union forms after labour workers broke away from the United Mine Workers Association union. Miners are drawn to the OBU because of the deepening economic crisis.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-2513-1

  • Newcastle Mine in the Drumheller mining district of the province after ten years of expansion in 1921

    The province is divided into thirty-two coal mining districts as the industry expands broadly.

    Newcastle Mine in the Drumheller mining district after ten years of expansion, 1921; Drumheller is one of thirty-two districts created to facilitate keeping track of the booming industry’s developments, inspections and infrastructure requirements.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, A6081

  • A view of the booming International Coal and Coke Company Ltd. at Coleman, ca. 1945

    The Second World War begins to revive Alberta’s economy and coal industry, which had declined during the Great Depression.

    A view of the booming International Coal and Coke Company Ltd. at Coleman, ca. 1945; increased demand for steam coal during the war years led to greater production within the industry.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NC-54-2930

  • On February 22, 1947, an issue of The Western Examiner proclaims the discovery of the Imperial Leduc No.1 oil well as the birth of a new Alberta oil field.

    The discovery of a major oil deposit at Leduc, Alberta, foreshadows a decline in the province’s coal production.

    On February 22, 1947, an issue of The Western Examiner proclaims the discovery of the Imperial Leduc No.1 oil well as the birth of a new Alberta oil field. During the decade after the 1947 discovery, many mines close, and most coal towns decline significantly.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-789-80

  • A heavy-duty truck hauling coal at the Wabamun surface mining operation near the TransAlta Power Plant demonstrates the advanced mechanization propelling Alberta’s modernizing coal industry in the 1960s

    Large-scale surface mining begins in Alberta near Lake Wabamun to fuel a large thermal electric power plant.

    A heavy-duty truck hauling coal at the Wabamun surface mining operation near the TransAlta Power Plant demonstrates the advanced mechanization propelling Alberta’s modernizing coal industry in the 1960s.
    Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, gr1989.0516.1088#1

  • The Whitemud Creek Mine in Edmonton’s river valley in 1968

    The last mine in Edmonton’s river valley closes.

    The Whitemud Creek Mine in Edmonton’s river valley in 1968; this operation is the last of Edmonton’s coal mines to close in 1970. At this time, the mine continues to rely on horses to haul coal to its opening.
    Source: City of Edmonton Archives, EA-20-4998

  • Atlas Mine in Drumheller Valley after restoration.

    Drumheller Valley and Canmore mines close after decades in operation.

    The Atlas Mine in Drumheller stops production in 1979 and officially closes in 1984. The large structure is the last wooden tipple standing in Canada. The mine is a Provincial Historic Resource, a National Historic Site of Canada and one of the region’s star attractions.
    Source: Courtesy of Sue Sabrowski and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology

  • The retired Marion 360 Stripping Shovel at the Diplomat Mine site near Forestburg, Alberta.

    Mining near Forestburg ends after more than seventy years.

    The retired Marion 360 Stripping Shovel at the Diplomat Mine site near Forestburg, Alberta; the interpretive site is a Provincial Historic Resource and Canada’s only surface coal mining museum. The kind of large-scale surface mining conducted near Forestburg requires massive equipment such as the Marion 360.
    Source: Diplomat Mine Interpretive Site

  • The Wabamun power plant in the final stages before destruction.

    Wabamun coal-fired power plant is retired and demolished after almost fifty years in operation.

    The Wabamun power plant in the final stages before destruction; it had begun generating electricity in 1962 by burning coal mined at large-scale surface operations near Wabamun Lake. The planned closure of the plant is featured in an Edmonton Journal article on April 2, 2010.
    Source: Edmonton Journal

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The Spirit of Entrepreneurialism

By the early 1860s, frontiersmen and prospectors from Montana had begun arriving in southern Alberta with the dream of finding gold. While they never found the precious metal they sought, they did find other significant opportunities. They learned about a place that the Blackfoot tribe of the region called “Place of Black Rocks,” an area of abundant coal outcrops along the Belly River (now Oldman River). Early frontiersmen and prospectors referred to these coal-rich valley hills as the “Coal Banks.”

At this time, many prospectors coming into southern Alberta were filled with the spirit of entrepreneurialism. It was Nicholas Sheran who arrived at the Fort Whoop-Up trading post in 1874 and quickly perceived a tremendous opportunity there. Sheran initiated a one-man drift mine operation along the banks of the Belly River within present-day Lethbridge, thereby establishing Alberta’s first commercial coal mine. He began to sell the coal he mined at Fort Whoop-Up to traders from Montana and eventually to the North-West Mounted Police.

Alberta’s coal trade was further established with the 1879 arrival of Elliot Galt, then Assistant to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Upon observing the good quality coal of Sheran’s drift mine operation and in anticipation of the developing railroad and an influx of settlers, Elliot suggested to his father, Sir Alexander Galt, that a company be organized to exploit the coal of the region. An established mining engineer was hired to survey the area and confirmed high-quality coal seams near the then-proposed line of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Soon after the survey was complete, Alberta’s first large-scale mine, the Galt Mine, opened in 1882 near present-day Lethbridge. Earlier that year, Alexander Galt had created the North Western Coal and Navigation Company and established a contract with the CPR for the delivery of its coal, marking the first involvement of coal and railways in Alberta.

During the 1880s, a number of other mining operations opened in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Canmore and Edmonton. In 1881, William Humberstone began mining coal at the bottom of Grierson Hill in Edmonton. In the 1890s, larger collieries opened in the Crowsnest Pass, while mining operations began in the Coal Branch in the foothills south of Edson after 1909. Mines at Edmonton were operated by two or three men and provided coal for home heating, whereas operations in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Canmore mainly supplied steam coal for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1906, a coal operation began in Redcliff along with a brick factory, named the Redcliff Brick and Coal Company, which supplied the whole southern part of the province with coal and clay bricks. These entrepreneurial developments established the coal industry in Alberta, which has been commemorated by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a National Historic Event.

In this Section

Nicholas Sheran

Nicholas Sheran, credited with establishing Alberta’s first commercial coal mine, was an Irish-American adventurer and Civil War veteran.

Sir Alexander Galt

As high commissioner for Canada in London, England, Alexander Galt was in a position to further the development of western Canada.

Galt Mines

William Stafford, an experienced Scottish-Canadian coal mine engineer, and fifteen fellow Nova Scotia miners began to drive the first Galt drift mines.

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