Ghost Towns of Canada: Bankhead, Alberta

A historic coal mine in the ghost town of Bankhead, Alberta.
A historic coal mine in the ghost town of Bankhead, Alberta.

By designation, a ghost town is a township or a village that has no human population or life although it still contains visible signs of the existence of people at the site in the past. There are several reasons why a town may become a ghost town. For example, the economic activity that used to be the major source of its sustenance came to a close, a disaster (either natural or man-made) struck, and many other reasons. In some cases, the term may also be used to describe a place that has significantly less population now than before due to reasons such as high levels of unemployment. Over time, ghost towns have evolved to become tourist attractions, especially those that have the original architecture of the former town intact. These towns include the likes of Oatman, Centralia, South Pass City in the United States, Elizabeth Bay in Namibia, Bankhead in Canada, and many more all over the globe.

3. Where Is Bankhead?

Bankhead is an abandoned small town that is located in Alberta, Canada. More precisely, Bankhead is located close (around 4.6 miles) to the town of Banff, Alberta in Banff National Park. The abandoned town lies on the Lake Minnewanka road which is a short time away from the Trans-Canada Highway. Furthermore, the former mining town is situated close to the Cascade Mountains which had high-quality anthracite coal sediments.

2. Town History

Bankhead’s main economic activity during its time was the mining of coal. The mining work began in 1903, making it the first anthracite mining operation in Canada. The coal mine was operated and maintained by the Pacific Coal Company which was a company belonging to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The CPR needed the coal to use as fuel for the engines of their trains. After its establishment, the mine at Bankhead had a population of about 1,000 people with 275 of them working in the underground mines while 155 workers were tasked with overseeing things on the surface. On average, the mine used to produce between 500 and 600 tons of coal every day.

Accounts of that time show that operations began at five o’clock in the morning when the workers would line up to receive their headgear or headlamps before going underground. Aside from the most apparent use of the lamps, they were also used as a means of keeping track of the miners. If by the end of the day one lamp was unaccounted for, then this would be taken as a sign that something was wrong and a search party would be formed. Miners would sometimes go for an entire week without seeing the light of day.

Accounts show that the mining operation was so successful that Bankhead’s economic situation was at some point better than that of the nearby town of Banff. In fact, by the turn of 1906, Bankhead had improved massively to become a town dependent on its own resources. At that time, the town had about 123 residential structures, two lodging houses for unmarried men, restaurants, a police post, hotels, barber shops, and several other amenities. In addition to all these, the Chinese workers established a Chinatown of their own although this was a poorer part of town which was composed of shacks and temporary structures.

Things began going south for the town in 1922 when a notice for the closure of the mines appeared. The population had greatly increased at that time. One of the reasons why the notice was issued was because of the constant unhappiness of the workers. In addition to the disgruntled workers, competition presented itself from the mines that were in Drumheller, Lethbridge, and Canmore. Between 1909 and 1922, there were several strikes from the miners which led to increasing costs of operations. Consequently, the mining operation began generating little profits, if at all. In 1922, there was a devastating strike by the miners which lasted for an incredible eight months. That strike was what ultimately led to the permanent closure of the Bankhead mine. For a brief period after the official closure, the town ran as usual while the factories processed the already mined coal before complete abandonment.

Other sources say that geological reasons also had a part to play. The coal layers in the mountain were extremely brittle and were becoming harder by the day to exploit safely. Further, it was dangerous to use electrical equipment to mine through stubborn places since there was plenty of flammable gas being produced by the mine. In 1930, Canada established the National Parks Act which prevented all future mining of coal in the mine or any other resource from the mine. Eventually, most of the CPR sold most of the buildings in the town

1. The Town Today

Bankhead is a popular tourist attraction for people from all over the world. The town is under the protection of the Banff National Park authority which oversees visitations. Previously, people would go to Bankhead but would gather little knowledge from such visits. However, the management of the park has put several plaques in place and information sites within the town which inform visitors of the different places they may wish to visit. Most of the buildings have been worn down by time although most of the foundations are still visible. In close proximity to the former town, there are memorial sites for several historical figures who participated in World War I. These figures include those of J.H Murray, W.B Scarr, H. Wilson, and a few others.

The park sought to preserve the ghost town because of its historical and cultural significance. Aside from the obvious recreational use by visitors, the site is also used to educate anyone wishing to learn of its history and the role it played during its time. While most buildings have crumbled, there is one that has survived the test of time. This building is the Holy Trinity Church of Bankhead which is also described as a stairway to heaven itself. Despite all the informative sites within the town, visitors are urged to be alert as animals such as snakes may be lurking around. Other animals living in the ghost town include bears and elks.


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