Bankhead, Canada: A Ghost Town Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Bankhead, Canada: A Ghost Town

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The mountain parks of Canada's west are now collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore their natural beauty is to be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations throughout the world. Within the parks, however, are a number of historic sites - some officially designated by the Canadian government, some preserved as a part of the national heritage by Parks Canada. One of the most intriguing and poignant of these sites in the mountain parks is the ghost town of Bankhead, just a few kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park.

The Coming of the Railroad

In the 1880s, survey crews were crawling over the Canadian Rocky Mountains, particularly in the watershed of the Bow River, searching for the best route for a railroad through the mountains. The railroad was a dream of Sir John A MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada. The dream was to link the Atlantic to the Pacific with a railroad completely on Canadian territory. But the dream needed coal to power its locomotives - a commodity that the Rockies held in abundance.

Canada's First National Park

In 1883, three young railway workers were preparing to spend the winter at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. While exploring their new neighbourhood they stumbled upon a new resource which became an additional element in the railway equation. The Cave and Basin Hot Springs presented to Canada, and to Sir John, the notion of tourism. The health-giving hot springs would bring wealthy visitors, and they would return for the vistas and landscapes that the survey crews had been working through for years. But the visitors would need hotels; cement factories would be needed for the hotel foundations, and for the foundations of the towns; and, more than anything, coal would be needed for the locomotives. Canada's first National Park was founded on the principal of development and exploitation of the park's resources in order to make the park a playground for all Canadians (who could afford to get there).

By the turn of the century, American interests had opened coalmines at Canmore and Anthracite. Depending on American interests to power Canadian locomotives was unacceptable to both Sir John and the new Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR). They needed a Canadian coalmine. The CPR turned its sights on the dozen coal veins at the base of Cascade Mountain and set to work on a micromanaged 'company mining town'.

The Model Town

The new town of Bankhead was an urban planning project from the beginning, a model town with some similarities to such Victorian British projects as Bournville, Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City. Unlike the nearby mining towns of Anthracite and Canmore, the prospecting town of Silver City farther north near Castle Mountain, or the hopeful tourist town of Banff to the south, Bankhead was carefully laid out to accommodate 1,500 residents by the head office of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. A school, church, hotel, curling rink, tennis courts, soccer field, baseball diamond, hockey rink, mine offices and tidy homes for the mine workers were mapped out on a bench at the foot of Cascade Mountain. Some thirty metres below, the coal works were out of sight on the other side of the main road from the Bankhead train station (and Banff) to the holiday village of Minnewanka Landing. Beyond the coalworks, behind the slack piles and out of everyone's sight, were a few ramshackle huts1, where the Chinese workers lived their segregated lives. Ironically, it is only the lowest members of the Bankhead social hierarchy who have left a living legacy in the town site.

In 1904 work began on the construction of Bankhead. Houses, stores, the hotel (Cascade House), the waterworks and the power plant2 were constructed in preparation for the first families to move in. Unlike other towns in the area or, indeed, in much of the country, Bankhead had running water and electric lights in each house. There was a detachment of the North West Mounted Police next to Cascade House. Handy hoses attached to fire hydrants throughout the town provided fire protection.

For twenty years Bankhead was a vibrant community whose workers provided coal to heat homes, train stations and passenger cars throughout western Canada. As well, the sons of Bankhead set off into the wider world, some finding fame as professional hockey players, with teams such as the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins. Eight others made the ultimate sacrifice in the trenches of World War I. Those children of Bankhead who remained until the end remember a childhood of constant play, whether in the various sporting fields of their town or in the great outdoors of what the world knows today as Banff National Park.

Life for the fathers of Bankhead was less of a joy. From the Chinese work crews grinding their days away sorting coal in the tipple, to the Europeans working kilometres underground beneath Cascade Mountain, the life of coalmine workers were hard, dirty, and often short. For the workers at Bankhead it was as hard and dirty as at any other coal mine of the day, but Bankhead had a remarkable safety record: in the twenty years of Bankhead's operation, only fifteen men were killed in the mines.

None of the fifteen killed, nor any non mine-related fatalities, are buried in the Bankhead cemetery. There was a superstition at the time that it was unlucky to be the surviving family of the first person buried in a new cemetery, so, through the entire history of Bankhead, all funerals ended in a long procession to the cemetery in Banff. In the beginning this procession was necessary, as the CPR town planners seemed to have forgotten the inevitable and made no provision for a cemetery in Bankhead. In time however, the good citizens of Banff grew weary of the boisterous Bankhead wakes that disrupted their sleepy town shortly after each death in Bankhead. The CPR was petitioned and Bankhead was provided with a fresh, empty cemetery. Only two burials ever occurred in the Bankhead cemetery: the remains of a particularly loved dog reside in the mountain soils to this day, and the remains of Chee Yow, one of the Chinese workers, were interred there briefly before his countrymen exhumed his body and shipped it to their homeland for the respectful treatment he had not known in Bankhead. One miner, Narcissus Morello, remains buried where he died, deep inside Cascade Mountain under a collapsed coalface.

Bankhead coal did not live up to the hopes of the managers of the CPR; it was not of high enough quality for use in the steam locomotives of the day. The temporary solution of mixing the coal dust with coal tar imported from Pennsylvania and pressing higher quality briquettes proved too expensive in the long run to be competitive with anthracite coal from other locations. World War I provided a temporary reprieve of government subsidy, but with Armistice came a return to real market prices. Real wages returned and the Bankhead miners went on a series of strikes. On 1 April, 1922 the miners walked off the job for what was to be the last time. After two months, the CPR told the miners they must go back to work or the mine would close permanently. The miners called what they thought was a bluff and were shocked on 15 July when the company followed through on its threat. But the shock at the closure of the mine was as nothing to the pain that came from a sudden order from the Dominion Parks Commissioner. The CPR was required to remove every trace of Bankhead from the lands of the National Park. The founding policy of the park - the policy of exploitation - was being replaced by a policy of conservation. The mine was to be blasted shut, the coal works were to be removed, the houses and stores, the school and the church, Cascade House and the Chinese laundry all had to go. And so did the families.

The Remains

Many of the families relocated to the nearby mining towns of Canmore and Anthracite. Others went further afield to foothill mining towns like Nordegg, or to the Prairie mines of Drumheller. Most of the Chinese men left their gardens and shacks to return across the Pacific to their homes.

Over the course of two years the usable equipment of the coal works was sold, much of it to the mine in Canmore which continued operating into the 1970s. Other industrial equipment was sold as scrap. Most of the buildings of the town were moved, many to Banff or Canmore, where they are still in use. The church went to Calgary and was finally torn down in the 1960s.

Upper Bankhead

Today, Upper Bankhead - the residential area of the old town - is a picnic area. Unless on a careful walk, most would not notice the foundations of the houses, which still poke above the junipers, between the spruce and poplar trees. The basements of the miners' homes are still there in neat rows. There are no signs to indicate what was there. There are only the crumbling foundations standing in rows along the vanished streets and the quiet of the primeval forest. Across the new Minnewanka road the stone steps of the church are there to be climbed but they lead only to a view of the crumbled foundation and the trees beyond.

Lower Bankhead

As it was in life, Lower Bankhead - the industrial sector - is a stark contrast to Upper Bankhead. Parks Canada has made of Lower Bankhead a huge Interpretive Centre. Like Upper Bankhead, the foundations are all that remain. But here there are informative signs along a carefully laid-out path explaining to the visitor the unfamiliar buildings and technology of early 20th Century coalmining. Signs are not needed in Upper Bankhead to explain that here was a house, here a family. But in Lower Bankhead the visitor learns about the Tipple, the Lamphouse, the compressed air engines, and the only building left standing, the Transformer Building. In Lower Bankhead you are told that beyond the black slack piles is where the Chinese workers lived, but don't go off the path to have a look because there are still toxins in the soil from the briquette process, even after all these decades.

The War Memorial and the Miners' Memorial

Beside the Minnewanka road, only a metre off the asphalt, the Bankhead Cenotaph still stands. Each year a wreath is still laid to the memory of JH Murray, R Dougall, H Littler, WB Scarr, F Woodworth, G Redpath, H Wilson, and W Willoughby - Bankhead's war dead. Most drivers would miss the memorial, as like Bankhead itself, it is embraced by the spruce trees and almost hidden.

In a corner of the Banff cemetery there is a monument to the fifteen miners killed in the Bankhead mine. It is hard to find, not looking much different from the other tombstones. It was 'Erected by the members of the Bankhead Union No 29 of the UMW of A'. Lichen is growing well on the stone.

The Coolie Rhubarb

Each autumn on the slack piles of Lower Bankhead a harvest awaits. The gardens of the Chinese men have flourished. Their rhubarb has crept over the slack piles and migrated to areas of the coal works they never saw. Each October the rhubarb stands dry and crackling in the breeze, and the abundant seeds fall and find a place to grow. Bankhead rhubarb cannot be eaten; like everything in the lower town, it is full of carcinogens and in any case, it is illegal to remove plant material from Canadian National Parks. But the rhubarb grows again each year - a monument to the 90 Chinese men who called Bankhead home, and to Chee Yow, who lost his life there.

Postscript: The Sinking of Minnewanka Landing and the Triumph of Conservation

In 1912 the damming of Devil's Creek flooded a major portion of Minnewanka Landing. The residents moved to higher ground and the holiday village grew bigger. In 1941 a much larger dam and the diversion of the Ghost River put Minnewanka Landing under more than 50 metres of water. The village was removed from the map by a final act of the old park policy of exploitation. Conservation has been the policy since. In the 1990s a military cadet camp and the Buffalo Paddock, a captive herd of bison3 were removed. Only concerns about the safety of small planes flying through the mountains - where flying conditions can be treacherous and airfields are few - prevented the closure of the Banff Airfield at the foot of Cascade Mountain.

1Called 'bunkhouses' on the early maps.2The power plant was completed in 1905.3Although bison are native to the Bow Valley, the unnaturally small Paddock had blocked a wildlife corridor for a century. The last ten bison were sold in 1997 and the fences were removed to allow bears and wolves, in particular, but also their prey, to have more freedom of movement in the park.

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