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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 26,000,000,000 tons.

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 tons.

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 tons—mostly 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 coal.

The total coal reserves of the province are by careful estimation of the Geological Survey of Canada as follows:

Anthracite, 769,000,000 tons; Bituminous, 44,677,000,000 tons; Sub- Bituminous and lignite, 1,014,129,000,000 tons.

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 112˝ 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 exposed.

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 House.

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 towards Saskatoon.

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:

1900 --------------------------------311,450 tons
1905 --------------------------------931,917 tons
1910 --------------------------------2,894,469 tons
1915 --------------------------------3,360,818 tons
1920 --------------------------------6,908,923 tons

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 2˝ 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 disaster.

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 been provided.

*Since August, 1921, Hon. Herbert Greenfield has been chairman.


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 Cassels.

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 pounds.

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 quantity—it 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 Fort McMurray.


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.


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