Canmore nestles in the Bow Valley corridor of Alberta, east of the entrance of Canada’s jewel, Banff National Park. Established in 1883 as a railway depot, the town sprang to life in 1887 when coal mining began. For over ninety years, coal and Canmore mines were synonymous.
Today the trendy shops, restaurants and art galleries lining main street, reveal little evidence of the coal mine industry. The community thrives on a vision of environmental sensitivity and economic sustainability.
Not necessarily an easy balance in one of the most beautiful towns in Canada.
Geology of Canmore Coal
Coal in the mountains around Canmore originated from swampy sediments being laid down in a shallow basin some 140 million years ago. The area at that time was sinking due to tectonic pressures from the west.
This sinking allowed the millions of years of sediments to compact under subsequent deposition. The continuous sinking compressed the vegetation laden layers over a 65 to 70 million years, transformed them into seams of coal.
Subsequent faulting and thrusting of the rock layers began in this region some 75 million years ago exposed many layers of rock, which incorporated coal seams. The Rundle thrust fault lifted the coal seams near surface in the Canmore area over a mere eight million years. Subsequent erosion of these rock layers resulted in exposure of the coal seams near Canmore.
History of Canmore Mines
Canmore was established in 1883 as a railroad depot during the push for a trans-Canada rail line which was completed in 1886. Canmore was officially named in 1884 by the director of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The name originates from the Gaelic name Ceann Mór, meaning “great head” or “chief”.
Coal was quickly discovered and a coal mining charter was given in 1886. The first coal mine near Canmore was opened in 1887 with the hope to sell coal to the new CPR rail system. The coal business initially struggled due to competing coal mines just west of Canmore in the towns of Anthracite and Bankhead.
However, the quality of the coal around Canmore resulted in a rapid expansion of coal mining. The town began to boom.
In 1899, the Canadian Pacific Railway moved their divisional headquarters from Canmore to Lake Louise. This resulted in Canmore becoming a true coal mining town.
Over the next several decades, Canmore, still synonymous with coal, had its share of good times and bad. Through two world wars the demand for coal rose and fell.
In 1966, incorporating from a village to a town of almost 1,400 residents, Canmore coal mining remained the primary industry.
Canmore becomes a weekend getaway from Calgary
As a young boy, I recall travelling from Calgary to the Canadian Rockies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Visiting Banff, Lake Louise and the ski hills in the area (Norquay, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise) became a common weekend excursion.
Stopping in the Canmore area was for a gas fill-up or a snack at the line of gas stations beside the highway. Due to the tall trees, one could not see the actual townsite from the highway.
That changed when my parents bought a small house in the Canmore townsite from a retired coal miner in 1976. This was their weekend place to escape the hustle and bustle of Calgary. In other words, my parent’s purchase was a foreshadow of things to come.
As the demand for coal lessened, the last coal mine near Canmore closed on July 13, 1979. The population at this time was just over 3,000 residents.
With the growing affluence in Calgary and the heavy restrictions of home ownership in Banff National Park, Canmore began transforming from coal mining town into a tourist town.
Tourism and the growth of Canmore
The seismic change in Canmore’s image occurred during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Chosen as the location for all the Nordic ski events for these Olympics, the little mountain town shone in the spotlight . The images of stunning mountain views and friendly atmosphere beamed around the world.
In the following 10 years, Canmore’s population grew from 5,000 to 10,000. Today the population is around 15,000 permanent residents. There are an additional 5,000 ‘weekenders’ (as my parents initiated back in 1976). There are even proposals to almost double the current population of Canmore.
Ironically, a portion of the newest development in Canmore is on top of or very near abandoned coal mines. This has caused issues such as land subsidence and localized sinkholes. Current proposals for development are also partially located above abandoned coal mines which is causing significant controversy.
Where is the best place to see the abandoned Canmore mines?
For safety and reclamation purposes, little evidence remains of the origins of this mining town turned world wide tourist destination. The Canmore Museum is the best location to learn more about the coal mining history of the area.
Although currently unavailable due to COVID-19, the museum has a virtual reality experience, exploring the depth of the Canmore mines.
The museum web page provides this map, where historic sites throughout the town are identified. Note the two pinpoints near the Three Sisters Parkway. Here a scattering evidence of the mines remains.
Above all, please use caution if exploring and be aware wildlife including bears can be present in the area.
Other articles on Canmore