History in my Backyard: The Town of Bankhead

Well, not quite my backyard, exactly, but very close.

The Lamp House, where the miners picked up their lamps every day. A missing lamp at the end of the day meant a missing miner, and a search party would be sent out.

In Banff National Park, right near Lake Minnewanka, the ruins of an old coal-mining town are now a picturesque and short hiking trail.

The town of Bankhead existed for a mere 17 years, closing in 1922 when the CPR shut down their coal mine. (The price of coal had dropped, the miners were on strike, and the federal government had begun to consider a more conservation-based ideal in the national parks, as well as dealing with the reduction in royalties… the writing was on the wall.) At its peak in 1911, the mining operation processed 500K tons of coal. When the town closed, the mine entrances were sealed by blasting.

The parts of the town that could be moved were – houses went to Banff or Canmore, the church went to Calgary, and all useful parts of the mining operation taken away. The remaining concrete foundations are now overgrown with vegetation. The area itself is under monitoring due to environmental degradation from the coal. After all, in the early 1900s, no one had any concern (or much idea) of the ruin such operations would bring to the local environment.

A hardy rhubarb plant grows in the slag heap.

Plant life has survived and even flourished, but there are numerous signs warning visitors not to eat anything. The signs are necessary: rhubarb plants grow in many places, huge and flowering. If not for the signs, I would have been tempted to take a cutting; I love rhubarb. Planted by Chinese immigrant mining families that lived in shanties behind the operation, they are some of the hardiest plants around. The meadows are full of wildflowers and grasses; the forest has begun to overtake other buildings.

The Briquette building, where coal briquettes were made for use in home heating and locomotive engines.

The path is dotted with plaques and information, detailing the origins and functions of the various buildings. The transformer building includes photographs of some of the town residents and of their daily lives. The managers of the mine were British mostly and the workers were mainly immigrants (Polish, Irish, Italian, Chinese, etc.) They had a soccer team, kids played hockey, much like many towns today. They also had electricity, a modern sewage system. Their drinking water was supplied by a reservoir filled from the Cascade River. The town’s population was as high as 900 residents, so that’s quite a bit of water and sewage to deal with. The town was incredibly modern, even though it didn’t exist for very long.

And why did I come here?

My current novella features a town very much like Bankhead, and I wanted to get a feel for the area and its history before I started writing my second draft. There are bits of information that will make my story that much richer.

I’ll post some more photos of the hike this week; there were just so many to choose from.

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6 Responses to History in my Backyard: The Town of Bankhead

  1. Karen Loren says:

    I love the history of Bankhead. The rhubarb growing everywhere was pretty amazing too. Did you see the stone steps that are left near the road? I’d love to take some photos at those steps. Very cool place.

    • I don’t recall seeing those steps, but I’m sure they’re there. I guess there is the church foundation somewhere as well, but we only did the lower Bankhead trail and not the upper.

  2. Nancy says:

    We have a few places here in New Jersey like the one you just wrote about. Batsto Village comes to mind and is a very good place for time traveling and inspiration. I like to go across the river (Delaware) to a town called New Hope which is really quite strange now. There are alot of gentle Wiccans and Bikers. I’m writing a story which I hope will be a graphic novel called “Dark Red Roses” based in New Hope. We have an author here named Janet Evonavich who went to Rutgers University with my cousin and writes many funny mysteries that take place in the Trenton area near New Hope. Anyway sorry for the rant I enjoyed your piece on Bankhead. Keep up the good writing. Oh by the way since I know you like Julian Sands as do I and I noticed you read a book about Harold Pinter. Sands has a one man Poetry reading on the poems of Harold Pinter. He has been taking it around and is doing at the Fringe Festival in Scotland. Wish I could go. Apparently Pinter hand picked Sands to read his poems and even worked with him on it.

    • Hi Nancy 🙂

      I’d love to read your story/graphic novel.

      I’ve read about Julian doing the Pinter show, and I soooooo wish I could go over to the UK and see it. (sigh) If I had more money and more holiday time, I definitely would!

      • Nancy says:

        I just read that he (Sands) and John Malkovich will be touring with the show after the Fringe Festival. That means perhaps it will come to a city near you or me or both. we can only hope. I just entered a short story in a competition which could lead to publication (I hope) I would like to read your work also. Are you published yet? The Graphic novel will get published even if my daughter and I have to publish it ourselves. It will take a bit of time though.

        • I suspect ‘touring’ means ‘in the UK’.

          I’m not published yet but I’m currently working on a novella that will be published in March 2012. What’s your short story about?

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