Alberta's Provincial Historic Sites, Interpretive Centres and Museums
Leitch Collieries Provincial Historic Site

Buildings on site

There are a number of buildings and structures that powered Leitch Collieries. Below the image, learn more about the following:

  • Coke Ovens
  • Mine Manager's House
  • Northwest Mounted Police Cairn
  • Passburg
  • Power House
  • Tipple
  • Washery
  • Weigh Scale

Leitch Collieries Site Map (PDF | 8 MB)

Leitch Collieries site map

Coke Ovens

Coke is a solid but porous substance similar in texture to pumice. Composed almost entirely of pure carbon, it is created by cooking coal for two days at a temperature of 1,050 degrees Celsius in a low oxygen environment. This process forces out the volatile organic compounds – tar, methane, hydrogen, and ammonia – as the coal softens and swells to form coke. Coke is used in the smelting of metal ores, and the iron ore smelters in British Columbia provided a ready market. The coke ovens held promises of profits because, while it cost $2.00 per ton to produce coke, it sold for $4.00 per ton.

The ovens at Leitch Collieries were very efficient, but coking operations were plagued with problems. Soon after construction began in late 1910, a lengthy strike brought coal production to a virtual standstill. A business slump in 1913 and the outbreak of World War One in 1914 further depressed or disrupted markets. By the time of the Leitch Collieries’ collapse after the war, only the first 32 of this impressive array of 101 coking ovens had ever been fired. .

Mine Manager’s House

William (Billy) Hamilton was the general manager of Leitch Collieries. He had originally come from Ontario to farm in Saskatchewan. He had always been interested in coal mining, and took a job in a nearby coal mine during the winters. Hamilton worked his way up to become mine manager, and then moved west, ending up in Taber. He finally landed here at Leitch Collieries in the Crowsnest Pass when the Kerr brothers found promising seams of coal.

The Hamilton house was just west of the mine site. A sandstone bluff blocked the worst of the visual and air pollution from the surface plant, and the Hamilton home was a showplace. It stood three stories high, had a verandah all around the main level, and boasted hardwood floors, stained glass windows, and a fine fireplace. The house had electricity – one benefit of being so close to the mine – as well as indoor plumbing, a real novelty for the Crowsnest Pass. William Hamilton lived here with his wife, Ellen, and their six children. 

North-West Mounted Police Cairn

Police Flats

This cairn marks the site of a police outpost built in 1881 to combat cattle rustling. Ranching predated mining in the Crowsnest Pass, and so did rustling. In the early 1880s, thieves were using this area to gather herds of cattle to drive to Montana. The enclosing hills, abundant grass and water, and adequate shelter made it an ideal place to hold animals until they could be smuggled across the border to the United States. The North-West Mounted Police post here was the westernmost outpost in the country at the time.

In 1907, while prospecting the seams that would become Leitch Collieries, the Kerr Brothers lived in the old outpost until they had new homes built in Passburg. By 1909, the company decided to move its main operations to Police Flats in order to expand northwards to better seams with fewer development problems. Also, there was good water there, sandstone for building, and fire clay that would be useful with the coke oven operation. The large flat area would be perfect for the surface operations of the mine. 

Passburg

Most mines in the Crowsnest Pass had a town close by. The closest town to Leitch Collieries was called Passburg. This was not a company-owned town, which meant that the company did not provide housing to its workers. It also meant that if a miner built a house, he owned it outright. The residents of Passburg enjoyed a variety of services including grocery and clothing stores, a butcher, a pool hall, bars, churches, and a school. Bill Kerr operated a general store and his brother John, who was pit boss in the coal mine for many years, later joined him there. Once Leitch Collieries closed down, many employees left to find work elsewhere, and because many owned their houses outright, they took these with them. There are few reminders of Passburg left at the site today, just the foundation of the school and bits of broken glass and chinaware.

Power House

Boilers in the power house turned water into steam. This was the raw power that turned engines (turbines) and compressors to generate the electricity and compressed air that was used throughout the mine site. The coal sorting, cleaning, and coking equipment all required power. A machine shop in this building allowed workers to make or repair virtually any piece of equipment they might need. It also provided a place to service the mine’s two steam locomotives, which had to be kept in top working order to keep the coal moving around the site.

The power house was constructed in 1909 from sandstone quarried onsite, and was used until the mine closed in 1915.The metal roof and machinery were eventually removed to be reused somewhere else, and gradually the building fell into graceful ruin. This and the other ruined buildings were stabilized in 1982. 

Tipple

A beehive of activity, the tipple is where coal was stored, sorted, cleaned, and loaded into railway cars. After being hauled out of the mine, coal was dumped into a chute, which could hold 2,000 tons/1,800 tonnes. It was then sorted into three sizes as it passed over a series of electrically-powered shaking screens. The largest pieces, which passed over all of the screens, were known as lump coal. These were larger than 3 inches/76 mm in diameter. Nut coal was between 1.5 and 3 inches/38 to 76 mm. Slack coal was less than 5/8 of an inch/15 mm in diameter. The lump and nut coal were dropped into cars below and sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway to use in their steam engines, and to consumers to heat their homes. Sorted coal sold for $2.00 per ton. Unsorted (“run of mine”) coal cost $1.50 per ton. Instead of going directly to market, the slack coal took another journey up a conveyor belt to the washery where it was cleaned and stored before being moved on to the coke ovens.

Washery

The washery at Leitch Collieries was the largest mine building in the Crowsnest Pass at the time (100 feet or 27 metres high). Because smelters would not accept coke with “ash” (rock) content of over 16%, it was necessary to clean the slack well before it was coked. From the tipple, slack travelled up a conveyor to the top of the washery. Passing through moving Luhrig washers, the slack was cleaned of ash at a rate of 50 tons per hour. The Luhrig washers separated ash from the coal by water flotation, a process not dissimilar from methods of separating placer gold from gravel (gold panning). Refuse from the washing process was dumped in a pile outside the building. The cleaned slack was stored in bins, and then transported to the coke ovens by electric "lorry" on an elevated railway track from the second storey of the washery to the top of the coke ovens.

Weigh Scale

This was the busiest spot on the site. Several tracks brought rail cars carrying coal or coke to the scales, and then on to market, while empty cars were returned to the tipple. The mine’s biggest customer was always the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Before the CPR would accept the coal or coke, it was weighed for “ash” content (rock or other mineral material). Since coal is lighter than many other rocks, it was possible to judge the percentage of ash from the weight of the car. More than 17% ash meant rejection. The CPR hired a check weighman to work here and check that the Leitch weighman was accurate.

Of 944 cars loaded at Leitch Collieries between December 1914 and April 1915, the CPR, always a hard bargainer, rejected 141. There were rumours of "dirty coal." The reason for this is something of a mystery, as Leitch Collieries could choose from a number of good seams and the washery could remove almost all the rock from the coal that would be coked. Whatever the problem, the CPR was not impressed. 

 

Last reviewed/revised: May 30, 2016