The birth and eventual demise of Bankhead somewhat parallels
the history of its nearest neighbour, Anthracite. Separated by
only two kilometres, the towns shared elements that made them
attractive to mining companies. They had accessible coal
deposits and were in close proximity to the Canadian Pacific
Railway (CPR) line.
The CPR founded Bankhead in 1903 through its subsidiary
company, the Pacific Coal Company. Originally, the sole purpose
of the Bankhead mine was to supply coal for its locomotives.
With a train scheduleís efficiency, the town soon flourished to
a population of around 900 people, with room to grow to 1,500.
At it height, the town supported 100 homes, a business section,
two schools and four churches. Particularly popular were several
saloons that opened when the prohibition ban was briefly lifted
prior to Albertaís Prohibition Act of 1915.
Working conditions in the mine were similar to those in other areas in
Alberta. The men faced long demanding days and their job
security was dependent on fluctuating coal prices. Prior to
winning the right to an eight-hour day in 1919, miners worked up to 12 hours a day. In the winter, men
awoke prior to the morning sun and worked 12-hour days,
returning home after dark. Many did not see the sun for six days
at a time, and to the minerís mind, their pay did not reflect
In the 18-year history of Bankhead, the town was beset by
disputes and strikes. The labour unrest slowed production,
increased operating expenses, and pitted miner against
management as well as other miners. In addition to mounting
labour difficulties, the coal was becoming more difficult to
mine. As miners dug deeper through the Cascade Mountains, they
found the seams twisted and warped, compounding the cost of
extraction. Electrical equipment could have increased
production, but with pockets of methane gas throughout the mine,
an errant spark could trigger an explosion.
Of greatest concern was the poor quality of the coal. The
area contained semi-anthracite and semi-bituminous coal
deposits, 35 percent of which crumbled to dust after sliding
down pitching chutes. The substantial amount of coal lost to
fines convinced the CPR to install a briquetting plant in 1907.
The process involved mixing coal fines with molten pitch,
pouring the mixture into molds, pressing it, and lastly,
cooling. The deterrent was that the pitch came from Pennsylvania
via Sault Ste. Marie, making the process expensive. The
briquettes were sufficient for heating homes, but additional
coal from other mines was needed for use on the locomotives.
The last incident in a string of difficulties occurred in
1922, when an eight-month strike finally crippled the town.
After months of negotiations between officials and the union
failed, the shutdown remained permanent. Today, Bankhead is a ghost town with very little remaining
from its past. Of the few markers, the two that stand out are a
Union Jack and a commemorative plaque. Both are as reminders
of the miners who gave their lives during the First World War.