Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter XXI Mining Industry in Alberta
Next to agriculture mining is the most
important industry in Alberta. It is particularly associated with coal
and natural gas. Gold has been found in paying quantities in the gravels
of the North Saskatchewan River. Other minerals such as galena, lead,
gypsum, have been found but not in any quantity.
Alberta contains 85 per cent of the coal
deposits of Canada and 18 per cent of the coal deposits of the world. An
exhaustive study of the Alberta coal fields has been made by Dr. G. M.
Dawson, R. G. McConnell, J. B. Tyrell, and D. B. Dowling of the
Geological Survey of Canada. Their work shows the geological structure
and a real distribution of the measures. The coal is found in three
horizons distributed from the summit of the Rocky Mountains eastward
over the entire prairie region to Manitoba and from the International
Boundary Line to the Mackenzie River. Each horizon produces coal of
different qualities depending upon its age and distance from the
mountains. The three coal horizons are as follows:
(1) Kootenay (Early Cretaceous).
(2) Belly River.
(3) Edmonton (at the top of the Cretaceous).
Kootenay Formation:The Kootenay coals in
Alberta are generally exposed in narrow bands in the mountains. These
are here numerated in order from the south Coleman area is estimated at
35 square miles, with 38 feet of coal in the section, giving an
estimated content of 1,050,000,000 tons.
Blairmore-Frank area is irregular in
shape, and broken by faults and folds; but assuming for it an area of 90
square miles with an estimated thickness of 50 feet of coal, its total
content is estimated at 4,500,000,000 tons.
Livingstone area lies north of Blairmore,
and west of the Livingstone range of mountains. The area containing coal
approximates 343 square miles. A maximum estimate of its coal reserve is
Moose Mountain area, lying outside the
first range of the Rocky Mountains, consists of a narrow band encircling
this outlying mountain. It extends from near the main line of the
Canadian Pacific railway, south to Sheep Creek. Its area is estimated at
12 square miles, with a thickness of 15 feet of coal in the section.
This would give a probable coal content for the area of 200,000,000
Cascade area is a long strip between the
ranges, containing workable seams for about 40 miles of its length. It
is estimated to contain about 760,000.000 tons of anthracite, and of the
softer grades 2,100,000,000 tons.
Palliser area, on Panther River, is
comparatively small, but with an area of perhaps six square miles has,
possibly, a coal content of 30,000,000 tons.
Costigan area lies east of Palliser, and
is estimated in 12 square miles to possibly contain 90,000,000
tonsmostly bituminous coal.
Bighorn area, between the Saskatchewan
and Brazeau rivers, is estimated at 60 square miles, with a content of
at least 1,400,000,000 tons.
Belly River Formation:The coals that
belong to this horizon, grade generally between lignite and bituminous,
and are found over an enormous area. Roughly measured oil map, this area
is about 25,000 square miles. An estimate on this basis would, however,
be very misleading, since portions are known to be either unproductive,
or to contain only small seams of inferior coal; 5,000 square miles
might be assumed as being reasonably valuable. Four feet of coal
underlying this area would furnish 13,000,000,000 tons. Most of the
productive value is in Alberta. The amounts contained in the two
provinces, respectively, may be estimated at 189,000,000,000 for
Alberta; and 33,000,000,000 for Saskatchewan.
The Edmonton Formation (Area in Alberta)
:The coals of this formation are generally lignites; but in the
foothills grade up to bituminous. The foothill areas, though but narrow
bands, have a length of about 400 miles and may have an exposed area of
possibly 52,000 square miles. This has been estimated to have possibly
800,900,000,000 tons as a total content, half of which is sub-bituminous
The total coal reserves of the province
are by careful estimation of the Geological Survey of Canada as follows:
Exposures of coal are so frequent in
Alberta that mention is made of this fact by most of the early
explorers. The earliest mention of coal in the North-West is probably by
Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1789 of a coal seam on Great Bear River in
the Mackenzie Valley. The beds were then on fire and were still on fire
when Sir John Richardson passed them in 1848. Mackenzie states that a
narrow strip of marshy, boggy ground, producing coal and bitumen runs
along the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains, and he specifies the
latitude-52 degrees north, longitude 112½ degrees west on southern
branch of the Saskatchewan River; latitude 56 degrees north, longitude
116 degrees west in the Peace River, as places where coal beds are
The earliest discovery of coal in Alberta
is shown on maps, 1801, and 1811. These maps trace the journey of Peter
Fidler, as we have already learned in 1792 to Southern Alberta. At the
mouth of Rosebud Creek and in the vicinity of the present coal mining
centre of Drumheller, Fidler notes "great quantities of coals." David
Thompson mentions collecting bushels of coal on the North Saskatchewan
after high water, and in 1800 he discovered a bed of "pure coal" about
100 yards below the Rocky Mountain House which was used by the
blacksmith of the Fort with excellent results. Alexander Henry, in his
journey down the Saskatchewan in 1811, mentions the great seam at Goose
Encampment, which he estimated at 30 feet in thickness.
Gabriel Franchere, who descended the
Athabaska in May, 1814, mentions several veins of bituminous coal
out-cropping between the Mountain House and the mouth of the Pembina
River. his party "tried some and found it to burn well."
The coal at Edmonton was noted by Sir
George Simpson in 1841. He mentions a seam 10 feet thick running for a
considerable distance along both sides of the river. This coal was used
by the blacksmith of the Fort and would have been used in the stoves at
the Fort but for the want of proper grates. Ten years later Sir John
Richardson obtained specimens from Edmonton and considered them to be of
the same horizon as the coal on the Mackenzie River.
Father Dc Smet mentions coal in Alberta
in his trip over the Rocky Mountains in 1845. Sir James Hector, who
wintered at Edmonton in 1858, described the coals he saw there and on
the Red Deer River. In 1859 he discovered coal on the Athabasca, and on
the Pembina along the present line of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway,
and thought it was of the same coal-bearing strata he had observed on
the Saskatchewan and the Red Deer rivers. The seams at Edmonton were
also examined by Capt. Thomas Blakiston, who accompanied Captain
Palliser and Dr. Hector on this expedition. Captain Blakiston thought
the beds at Edmonton extended up the river as far as Rocky Mountain
Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle observed a
bed of coal fifteen feet to twenty feet thick on the Pembina. Sir
Sanford Fleming and Dr. Grant who crossed the country in 1872 referred
in their report to the coals of Edmonton and Pembina.
In 1873 Dr. Selwyn descended the North
Saskatchewan and recorded in great detail the coal seams on this river.
This is the first report by an officer of the Canadian government.
Discoveries in the Southern part of the
province along the International Boundary were made when the boundary
was surveyed in 1875. Coal seams at Blackfoot Crossing were recorded by
Professor Macoun in 1879.
It was not until the construction of the
C. P. R. that coal mining became an industry of commercial importance.
The building of the railway through the Mountains led to the discovery
of coal near Banff in 1888; on the Cascade River, opposite the present
Bankhead mines. Soon after, coal was discovered at Anthracite. The mines
at Canmore were opened in 1888. Coal mining commenced at Medicine Hat in
1883 and at Lethbridge in 1886.
The development of the industry in the
Edmonton district followed closely upon the growth of settlement.
Shipment commenced when the Calgary and Edmonton railway was built into
Strathcona in 1891.
The construction of the Crowsnest Branch
of the C. P. R. in 1899 opened up what has proved to be the largest
producer of any field in the province up to the present time. The fields
along the upper reaches of the Athabaska and its tributaries were
developed as soon as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and the Canadian
Northern Railway reached the Yellow- head Pass. Shipping began from this
field in 1911.
About the same year the Drumheller field
was brought in by the projection of the C. N. B. eastward from Calgary
There are now 12,500 men employed in the
coal mines of Alberta compared with 2,800 in 1906. The growth of the
industry is indicated by a comparison of the production in five year
periods since 1900 as follows:
The value of the annual output at the
present time is over $30,000,000. Over $14,000,000 is paid in wages.
In the early stages of the industry,
primitive methods of handling coal were naturally used, but within the
last ten years a great improvement along these lines has been made.
Except in small out-of-the-way mines, modern plants are used and the
best and safest methods are employed, while greater attention is being
paid to the preparation or grading of coal for the market.
The Coal Mines Act of Alberta secures a
large measure of government regulation over this industry. Various
commissioners have been appointed by the Government of Alberta to
ascertain the best methods to ensure Justice to the miners and the
operators. In 1906 a commission was appointed to investigate conditions
re hours of labor, wages and other phases of the industry. In the year
1908 legislation was passed limiting the hours of work below the ground
to eight hours per day.
A second commission investigated the
conditions surrounding the industry in 1912. As a result of its labors a
revised Coal Mines Act was passed by the legislature in the session of
1913. Improvements concerned the handling of explosives, the use of
electricity, and the qualification of operatives responsible for the
safety of the miners.
Again in 1919 the coal industry was the
subject of further inquiry by a Government Commission representing the
Government of Alberta, the miners, the operators and organized labor.
This commission advised an extension of markets in order to ensure a
greater output of the mines, and steady employment for the miners. At
present the mines are operated little more than half time, resulting in
dissatisfaction among the workers and increasing the cost of production.
Shortage of railway cars, and misrepresentation in the size and quality
of coal have led to a restriction of the market iii Places where Alberta
coal comes into competition with American coal. Notwithstanding the
number and splendid equipment of the Alberta mines over 2½ million tons
of coal are imported annually into the territory that should be supplied
wholly by Alberta mines. Freight rates on prairie lines are a
contributing factor, as well as the unfamiliarity of eastern consumers
with the qualities of Alberta coals. Last year the Government of Alberta
appointed a trade commissioner, Mr. Howard Stutchbury, and a Combustion
Engineer, Mr. M. L. Hyde, to prove the splendid qualities of our coals.
The mines of Alberta have an equipment sufficient to double their
output, if an adequate market can be found.
Particular attention is paid by the
Government in its supervision of the mines to the quality of explosives
and the method of shot-firing. Only explosives which are on the "British
Permitted List" are used in the bituminous and anthracite mines, and all
shots are fired by means of electric batteries, managed by duly
certified shot-firers, whether gas has been found or not.
In 1912 the Government established Mine
Rescue stations in different parts of the province. An official is
appointed to each station to instruct those interested in the use of
life saving apparatus and to conduct practical tests of exploring mines
in order that life-saving corps may be prepared for any emergency that
may arise. Railway cars with complete rescue apparatus are kept in every
important mining centre in readiness to be hurried to the scene of any
Since 1905 six hundred mines have been
opened in Alberta. Of this number 276 are now in operation. Consequently
324 or 64c have been abandoned. During the same period it is estimated
that 100,485,000 tons of coal have been affected. Of this amount
47,228,000 tons have been extracted, thus leaving over 53,000,000 tons,
one half of which is lost beyond recovery. The total investment in
mining properties since 1903 is placed at 37,110,775 of which $9,813,500
or 26% was invested in the mines that have been abandoned.
There have been two serious mine
disasters in the history of the industry. The first occurred on December
10th at Bellevue in a mine operated by the West Canadian Collieries.
Thirty-one men lost their lives due to an explosion of gas caused, it is
supposed, by a cave of the roof.
The second disaster was one of the most
terrible in the history of the Dominion. It occurred at the hillcrest
Collieries on June 19, 1914. At the time of the disaster 235 men were in
the mine. Of those 189 perished. Judge A. H. Carpenter of the Bench of
Alberta conducted a judicial inquiry into the cause of the calamity. The
conclusion of the investigation was "That the disaster was caused by an
explosion of gas, the origin and seat of which is unascertainable, this
explosion being augmented by the ignition of dust throughout the mine."
Both disasters occurred at nine o'clock in the morning.
Since 1905 there have been 481 fatal
accidents in the mines of Alberta including the victims of the two
disasters at Bellevue and Hillcrest. Every 100,000 tons of coal produced
in the last fifteen years has cost a human life.
An important and far-reaching action in
the development of milling industries was begun by the Government of
Alberta two years ago when preliminary research work was instituted with
a view to ascertaining more definite knowledge of the occurrence, extent
and economic value of the minerals of the province. This movement was
due to the initiative of Hon. J. L. Cote, Provincial Secretary of
Alberta. Experiments were made with the bituminous sands along the
Athabasca below Fort McMurray. The salt springs in the Slave River
Valley, west of Fort Fitzgerald were examined, and a reconaisance of the
geological structure of the country along the coal branch of the G. T.
P., west of Edmonton.
The success of these experiments led to
the formation of a Scientific and Industrial Research Council, January
6, 1921. This Council was composed of Hom. J. L. Cote, (Chairman), Dr.
H. M. Tory, Professor J. A. Allan, Professor N. C. Pitcher, and J. T.
Stirling (Chief Inspector of Mines). The research work is to be
conducted at the University of Alberta where special laboratories have
*Since August, 1921, Hon. Herbert
Greenfield has been chairman.
NATURAL GAS, OIL AND
The occurrence of bitumen, natural gas,
and oil has long been known along a portion of the Athabasca River,
having been commented on by Sir John Richardson in 1823, by Professor
John Macoun in 1875 and by Dr. Robert Bell in 1882. In 1890 Mr. R. G.
McConnell of the Geological Survey of Canada made a careful examination
of the Athabasca and Peace rivers and the country lying between,
particularly for oil and gas. Following this report the Dominion
Government bored for oil at Athabasca Landing. Work was commenced in
1894 and continued at intervals until 1896. It was anticipated that the
sandstones containing the oil would be found at 1,800 feet deep. A test
hole of 1,770 feet was made, but owing to the incoherent character of
the rocks, and the unexpected thickness of the overlying cretaceous
strata the boring was discontinued. Traces of gas were found at various
depths. At 245 feet the gas threw the water in the borehole over the
derrick. Another flow at 334 feet was so strong that the roar was heard
half a mile away. The experiment was inconclusive and another boring was
made at Pelican River about 100 miles farther down the river where the
petroliferous sandstone is estimated to be about 700 feet below the
surface. Work was commenced in 1897. The "tar sands" were reached at 750
feet. The boring was continued 70 feet below this point. "Maitha or
heavy petroleum was met with, saturating the sands and shales in a
manner similar to that found in the same lower Cretaceous beds where
they out-crop naturally farther down the Athabasca. At 820 feet all
heavy flow of natural gas under great pressure was struck, such as to
prevent further work in the hole." (Geol. Survey Rept. 1898.)
A well was also drilled at Victoria on
the North Saskatchewan River about 100 miles below Edmonton in 1898.
Next year boring was continued until a depth of 1,840 feet was reached.
Little gas was found, and operations were abandoned for the same cause
as that found at Athabasca Landing.
Up to the present time no development of
an important character has been done at Victoria or at Athabasca
Landing. At Pelican River a number of wells have been drilled by private
parties, and the results seem to indicate gas in economic quantity.
The greatest natural gas field yet
discovered in Alberta is located in Southeastern Alberta, around the
city of Medicine Hat and the town of Bow Island, 41 miles west of the
latter place on the Crowsnest Pass branch of the C. P. R. It was first
discovered in 1883 at Langevin on the main line of the C. P. IL in
drilling for water. Two wells were sunk, the first to a depth of 1,155
feet, the second 1,426 feet. A flow of 50,000 cubic feet per day was
obtained in the second well. Gas was found in a similar manner at
About 1898 the city of Medicine Hat
drilled a number of wells to a depth of 700 feet and found gas. The
wells did not produce more than 700,000 cubic feet per day. The old
wells were deepened and new ones drilled to 1,000 feet where all flow of
gas was tapped. In 1912 the City had 12 wells yielding each 3,000,000
cubic feet per day and registering a pressure of 583 pounds per square
inch. The City is piped and the gas utilized for heat, light and power
purposes. The street lights are kept burning all day and all night. A
well at Dunmore four miles from Medicine hat gave a pressure of 600
The greatest flow of gas was found at Bow
Island. One well (Old Glory) has a capacity of 8,865,000 cubic feet per
day and registered 810 pounds pressure. It is one of a series of wells
used by the Canada Western Natural Gas, Light, Heat and Power Co, Ltd.
to supply the towns of Southern Alberta with natural gas.
Gas has also been found at several other
points in the province, notably at Tofield, Vegreville, Castor,
Wetaskiwin and Morinville. In 1914 gas in economic quantities was
discovered at Viking, 73 miles east of Edmonton. The discovery indicates
a large field. Since 1914 tell have been drilled in the Viking field,
the ten wells registering a total open flow of 48,000,000 cubic feet per
day, and all rock pressure of 800 lbs. per square inch. The field has
been piped to supply the City of Edmonton.
Oil has not been found in Alberta at any
point in economic quantity up to the present time, but the indications
of its presence at various places have induced a great many prospectors
to take the field and considerable sums have been spent in boring. Like
natural gas, oil is suspected to occur over a wide area.
"The Cretaceous rocks which underlie
almost the whole of Alberta have as their basal member, where exposed on
the plains, the Dakota sandstone, a porous rock suitable for oil. It in
turn, along its exposed borders at least, rests upon the Devonian, and
is over-lain by shales that would form an impervious cover which might
retain any oil that found its way into the Dakota sands." (Geol. Survey
Rept. 1909). The stratigraphy of Alberta and of the country north to the
Lower Mackenzie Valley is not unlike that south of the international
boundary line. Similar structures prevail southward to the Gulf of
Mexico. The discovery of many productive wells in Texas Oklahoma,
Wyoming and more recently in Montana close to the Alberta border, has
stimulated field investigations in different parts of the Province.
The Dakota sands are exposed along the
Athabasca and other places in Northern Alberta. They are charged with
tar to the extent of 12 per cent of the whole mass. The tar represents
the residue of petroleum which has escaped along the exposure. Small
quantities of petroleum are still escaping. McConnell in his report of
the Athabasca in 1893 estimates the tar sands at 1,000 square miles, and
the total content at 4,700,000,000 tons. No doubt a great quantity of
oil has escaped but it is altogether improbable that this process has
gone on indefinitely and that all the oil has been drained off. "That
the distribution of oil is probably extensive is indicated by the
finding of tar in the sands near the surface, far to the south, in the
Edmonton country, apparently formed by the limited escape of oil from
minor fractures in the rocks. Oil Seepages also occur in Southwestern
Alberta, in South Kootenay Pass and the Flathead Valley." (Geol. Survey
Rept. 1909.) Since McConnell's report of 1893 a great deal of
exploration of the tar sand deposits along the Athabaska River has been
made, notably by Mr. S. /C. Ells, of the Department of Mines of Canada,
and it is known now that an area of at least 15,000 square miles is
underlain by this formation. The thickness of the formation varies from
125 feet to 225 feet. Dr. T. 0. Bosworth, Chief Geologist of the
Imperial Oil Company, Limited, speaking at an Industrial Congress held
in Edmonton in 1919, made the following statement:
"In the district of McMurray on the
Athabaska River we have the largest natural exposure of oil in the
world. It is interesting to consider the amount of oil in this
territory. For this purpose we will suppose the area to he 15,000 square
miles, the average thickness 50 feet and the average yield to be 10
gallons per ton. A simple calculation gives the result as 30,000 million
barrels of oil. This is an immense quantityit is six hundred times the
world's annual production."
Considerable prospecting has been done
for oil in Southern Alberta at Oil Creek, the Old Man River and Okotolcs.
A number of wells have been drilled. One, 1,120 feet deep is stated to
have yielded at the outset 300 barrels per day, and another 1,170 feet
is estimated to be capable of producing 25 barrels per day.
The Imperial Oil Co. of Canada discovered
oil at Fort Norman 1,800 miles north of Edmonton in August, 1920. Little
information as to the quantity and known possibilities of this field
have yet been made known. The discovery, however, has been sufficient to
compel the government to issue regulations to control development and
provide for the administration of justice, and the filing and developing
of claims. Hundreds of claims have been taken up by prospectors in close
proximity to the holdings of the Imperial Oil Co. and the summer of 1921
will witness the invasion of hundreds more. Thousands of dollars are
being spent at the present writing in preparing means of transportation
by steamers, gasoline boats and aeroplanes. The first aeroplane to reach
the Mackenzie landed at Fort Simpson, March 28, 1921.
Since 1921 most of the prospecting and
drilling for oil in Alberta has taken place in what is known as the
Edmonton-Wainwright Field. Late in 1921 the Imperial Oil commenced
drilling at Fabyan. At 2,727 feet oil and gas were found. Two more wells
were drilled by the British Petroleums (Ltd.) in 1923, one of which
produced 200 barrels of fluid oil per day.
At numerous points along the Athabasca
River and particularly at Fort McMurray the "tar sand" deposit or
asphalt softens under the sun's heat and flows down in great masses
below. At a temperature of about 60 degrees Fahrenheit it has the
consistency of hard cheese and may be cut into blocks. So much of the
asphalt has flowed down and such great masses have accumulated at
various points that a hard crust composed of sand and moss has formed
over the surface. Holes are cut in the crust and the tar or asphalt
collected in barrels by means of wooden spatulas. It is used in the
North by the Hudson's Bay Company and the mission stations, for covering
boats and roofs and there is no doubt that it will eventually be used as
pavements, and. insulating material on a large scale when railway
communication is established to this point.
A few miles north of the Alberta boundary
occur the famous salt springs of the North on Salt River, which flows
into the Slave River. The basins of the springs are encrusted with a
deposit of salt of excellent quality. From this source the people of the
Mackenzie Valley have secured their salt supply for years. Recent
borings have proved enormous salt beds at a depth of about 600 feet at
On all the rivers running eastward from
the Rocky mountains to the international boundary where prospecting has
been done, gold has been found, but in the form of such fine scales, and
particles so minute as to require the employment of mercury in order to
collect the same.
The North Saskatchewan has, hitherto,
been by far the most important river upon which gold mining operations
have been carried on, and is the only one which has offered a continuous
and considerable output of gold. The length of the river upon which work
has been found to pay under favorable conditions, is about 120 miles
with Edmonton as a centre. Up to 1898 gold washing had been performed
almost entirely by hand, or, with the aid of very antiquated appliances.
Subsequently dredges were introduced, but judging from results, these do
not seem to have proved very successful, as the gold output has
materially diminished. In 1895, 1896 and 1897 as much as $50,000 per
annum is reported to have been received from the Saskatchewan district.
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.