What comes to mind when one thinks of Alberta? Usually, it's the beauty of Banff National Park and the remote nature of one of Canada's most diverse forested areas. A ghost town isn't typically something one would associate with a region known for its hiking trails and outdoor recreation. However, Alberta is home to a ghost town that exists within the mountains of Banff National Park, and it's an eerie reminder of the area's mining history.
The town itself is not too difficult to find when following directions to the trailhead parking lot, and it is worthy of exploring. While many of the buildings are dilapidated now, their most prominent historic features date back to the early 20th century.
The Ghost Town Of Banff National Park
As with many once-bustling mining towns, Bankhead was at the height of its intentions during the turn of the 20th century. During that time, Banff was a place where coal was in abundance and the mining industry had seemingly - no pun intended - struck gold. With the CPR locomotives and Banff Springs Hotel requiring coal for its boilers, it was seemingly the perfect location to start up a town. Thus, it was established in 1903 as a 'company town' operated by the Candian Pacific Railroad.
It only took two years for the town of Bankhead to get up and running to its full capacity. In 1905, one walking through the town would find services such as a school, various shops dedicated to the needs of its residents, community buildings, and plenty of residential homes. The creation of the town also led to the creation of 300 jobs, which was more than enough incentive to bring families from all around the region to move into this newly-founded place. With a working crew of 300 men, the miners were able to produce 200,000 tons of coal each year.
The Downfall Of Bankhead
It's not surprising that this story has a sad ending, although it is one that was quite unexpected when the town began to see some serious traffic. While coal was able to be mined from deep within the mountains in Bankhead, it turns out that the process of doing so was not as simple. No mining operation is ever guaranteed safe and, in most cases, it was quite dangerous. These dangers increased in the Banff mountains, where tunnels needed to be dug more than 185 miles deep at times, according to Atlas Obscura - and these included ventilation shafts.
In addition to the digging, the coal itself was often found in areas that were folded and faulted, which meant that retrieving the coal was another story once it was found. In the event that it was brought to the surface, it was so brittle and delicate that much of it would disintegrate within moments of being exposed to the air above ground. This crumbling coal would not do the job in the long term and was not reliable enough to keep locomotives running to and from the town.
As one can imagine, this led to issues with the miners themselves. Multiple strikes meant that no work was getting done, and no increase in pay meant that the jobs simply weren't worth the risk or the effort. The final strike happened in 1922, and the Canadian Pacific Railroad closed the mine shortly after. When a law was enacted that prevented coal mining to take place in Banff, there was no chance of the town ever experiencing a revival. Since it was founded on mining and mining alone, its purpose was effectively dissolved, as was the town itself. Soon after 1922, families began moving away, leaving behind the crumbling ruins of its buildings that still remain to this day.
Visiting Bankhead In Banff National Park
The town itself can be found on the slopes of the Cascade Mountain, not far from Lake Minnewanka. Visitors will want to head north on Range Road before making the turnoff to the parking lot, which will be on the righthand side. Signs will point them in the direction of the lake.
- Note: The turnoff for this road is closed between the months of November through April due to severe weather conditions.
After pulling into the Lower Bankhead parking lot, hikers can follow the trail that descends down into the entrance of the town, marked by the Lamp House. This is where miners would pick up their lamps before venturing down into the Bankhead mines.
- Fact: These lamps also served the purpose of keeping a headcount of the miners. If any lamps were missing at the end of the day, miners would venture back to search for the missing miner who was presumed to still have the lamp in his possession.
The trail follows in a loop, taking visitors past the town's most historic buildings, including the Power House, Briquette Building, Boiler House, and the Chapel ruins, which lie at the end of a trail in the back of the parking lot. The entire historic loop will bring hikers back to the lot at the top of the trailhead.