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Halfway Between Heaven and Earth: A History of the Coal Branch

he Coal Branch began its half century of life in the high settlement period of the Canadian West, as the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad laid track south of Edson, Alberta. Tunnelling before the appearance of steel, the mines were producing by year-end 1913. Townsites mushroomed in 1912 and 1913, but the great influx occurred in the five years after 1916. In 1916, the total population in the Branch was 315; by 1921 it was 1,527; by 1926 2,758.1

The Coal Branch sold its fuel mostly to the railways. From 1922 to 1926, it produced 2.5 million tons of bituminous coal, and 1.9 million tons of sub-bituminous coal, the former 27 percent, the latter 84 percent of the provincial sum.2

The total payroll for the Coal Branch in 1923 was $2.4 million. Most colliers were neither wealthy nor poor, but could save enough for periodic voyages to the old country, to England or Italy, for example, or a trip to the coast.3 Mining paid well when there was work. By the early 1940s, Mrs. E.A. Brown, desk clerk at the Imperial Hotel in Edson recalled Coal Branchers sauntering up and down main street. Said she, impressed, “Many of them had diamond stick pins, diamond and gold cufflinks.”4

In the years of Father Louis Culerier’s ministry, the towns of the Branch, though never incorporated, grew to maturity. Of the three largest, Mountain Park burgeoned soonest, with a modest 141 souls by 1916 and 336 five years on.5

Rarely has a town been more magnificently placed. The setting for this highest village in Canada was an alpine wonderland, a perfect postcard, evoking the spirits of the mountain, sprites and gnomes cavorting 6,200 feet above sea level. The Edson Herald once said that “the thriving ... Mountain Park lies, as some of its inhabitants think, halfway between heaven and earth.”6 Nestled in a glacial valley fronting Mount Cheviot and Mount Tripoli, the camp was breath-taking with its sunlit “towering peaks and vistas of drop-curtain scenery.” Proper description, said another Edson paper, would “challenge the novelist... to an exercise of his best genius”; it would “bankrupt the English language.”7

The high meadows were awash with mountain flowers, hummingbirds, bluebirds and swallows. In the crisp mornings, deer, elk and moose grazed with horses and cattle.8 Fur bearers abounded, and trappers took them in spades—one in a single winter bagging 137 coyotes, 34 weasels, 19 lynx, 3 mink, 2 foxes, and 10 skunks.9

It was a berry picker’s paradise, with huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, and red and black currants at every step round the coal camps. A single foray at the height of season could yield a hundred pounds of huckleberries.10

In Mountain Park, as elsewhere, life was regulated by the mine whistle-one long blast meant work tomorrow; three shorts, no work. At 9 pm another whistle ushered in eventide.

By 1926 Cadomin and Luscar were both larger than Mountain Park, Cadomin, with 806 inhabitants, almost twice the size.11 Four years on, Cadomin had three hotels, three churches and a spacious community hall where tipple boss Fred Falkner ran movies twice a week.12 There were two department stores, a butcher shop, drug store, dairy, bank, and a new recreational complex, fixed with bowling alley, curling rink, and billiard tables, courtesy of the Cadomin Coal Company.13 The town boasted a symphony orchestra, the only one between Edmonton and Vancouver.14

Despite these amenities, the streets and alleys were sometimes a refuse heap of cans, rot, and muck. As in most communities on the lee of the Rockies, it was ever windy, and the gales contributed to the human-made disarray. Once, Mina Gourlay saw a woman’s nightie darting aloft, followed by a horse trough! Coal and stones sometimes hurled through the air, and one time several box cars blew off the railway track.15

More dangerous were the mines-less so in the hard coal areas like Bryan, Lakeside and Mercoal, more so in the soft coal centres of Cadomin, Luscar and Mountain Park. “At Mountain Park,” Vic Riendeau recalled, “you could count on at least one [death] a year.”16 From 1920 to 1929 forty-two men were killed in the Coal Branch and eighty-seven seriously injured.17

Individually, the miners were courageous, even heroic. On the last shift of the last working day of 1939, workers were just drawing the pillars inside the Cadomin mine when a deadly exhalation of methane gas released without warning. Hugh Docherty went down first and was dragged by fire boss Pete Nicholson to the chute. Just as Nicholson arrived, he fell into the chute, and with Docherty in tow, cascaded one hundred fifty feet down, damaging his back, slamming his body and landing at the bottom on his face. Alex Woods pulled out Joseph Nickjoy. But Jimmy Maddams, like David Murray at Hillcrest a generation before, clambered to safety, realized two comrades were still entombed, and ran back into the cloud of death to save them. At age 29, he died with them.


1. A.A. den Otter, “A Social History of the Alberta Coal Branch” (Thesis, University of Alberta, 1967), p. 40.
2. Report of the Alberta Coal Commission, 1925 (Edmonton: King’s Printer, 1926), pp. 59–60.
3. den Otter, “Social History,” p. 174.
4. Toni Ross, Oh! The Coal Branch (Edmonton: Friesen, 1974), p. 131.
5. Prairie Census, 1936, p. 873.
6. “Celebration at Mountain Park,” in The Edson Herald, 13 July 1917, p. 1.
7. “Mountain Park Banquet Great Social Affair,” The Western Leader (Edson), 21 April 1917, p. 1.
8. Ross, pp. 219, 189.
9. Ibid., p. 30.
10. Ibid., pp. 201–202.
11. den Otter, “Social History,” p. 189; Prairie Census, 1936, pp. 873, 881.
12. Ross, p. 74.
13. Ibid., p. 80.
14. Ibid., p. 72.
15. Ibid., pp. 232, 215.
16. Ibid., p. 124.
17. den Otter, “Social History,” p. 100.
Source: Excerpted with permission from David C. Jones, Feasting on Misfortune: Journeys of the Human Spirit in Alberta’s Past (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1997), pp. 213–17.