It’s a morning like many others.
In the crisp chill of the Rocky Mountain dawn, the community of Bankhead rouses to a working day like many others. At the mine entrance, a hundred miners line up waiting to be issued their safety lamps before entering. As the sun nudges higher, the bustle of the town catches up with the pace of activity under- ground and, around the mine buildings and trade shops the air fills with noise, smoke and coal dust.
Scattered around the industrial area, the streets of the residential area are equally busy – shops open, children are hurried off to school, and wives set about the business of the day. Everything revolved around coal, and Bankhead is bigger and busier than the neigh- bouring tourist town of Banff.
The Canadian Pacific Railway, eager for a cheap, reliable fuel supply between the Prairies and the Pacific to provide coal to their locomotives and Banff Springs Hotel boilers, established the Bankhead Mine in 1903, and the city started strong.
Around the mine everything grew quickly, with mine buildings and trade shops, stores, school and community facilities, and about a hundred private homes. The frontier community was a forward-looking, thoroughly modern community, with its power plant that produced all the electricity needed for mine and town, and enough to supply the town of Banff as well.
It was a multicultural town whose residents came from a wide range of cultures – there were Polish, Italian, British, Russian, German, Irish, Czechoslovakian, American, and Francophone families.
There were also 60 Chinese workers, brought to Canada to sort coal from rock at low wages. They kept (or were kept) apart in every respect. Each morning they walked in single-file to their dirty jobs in the tipple and, in the afternoon, they returned to their shacks without the benefit of the company wash-house. The few children who were allowed to visit (or did so on the sly) found the Chinese to be quite likeable. They presented them with small gifts including Chinese litchee nuts, paper flowers, and even firecrackers! The First New Year’s blowout took the town by surprise. After that, the event always drew a crowd.
The Chinese laborers endured systemic discrimination from the government and from mainstream society. Under the Chinese Immigration Act, the Canadian government required every Chinese worker and family member to pay a head tax to enter Canada (from $50 per person in 1885, and raised to $500 per person, from 1903 to 1923 – when the federal government put an end to Chinese immigration to Canada with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act). Interestingly, the federal government did not require immigrants from any other country to pay a head tax to come to Canada and, because of the head tax, an enormous sum of money in those days, most early Chinese immigrants were men, who came to Canada just to work.
In any case, at the peak of Bankhead’s prosperity, nearly 300 men worked underground and another 150 laboured above-ground, and coal production reached nearly 200,000 tons a year.
Even in the good times, mining Cascade Mountain presented a hard challenge. Despite the coal was there, lot of coal, and the deposits were rich, actually getting at it was another matter, as much of the stuff lay in difficult to access folding and faulted seams that forced miners to dig an inefficient 185-mile-plus network of tunnels and ventilation shafts underneath the town.
Moreover, the unusually brittle coal was far from ideal for the railroad and, as soon as it was exposed to the air, it began to crumble, and at the end of the production line nearly half of it was classified as dust.
However the story of Bankhead was over not by its coal, but by the problem that beset the entire industry during this period: labour relations.
Miners everywhere were striving for safer and better working conditions and higher pay. In a decade known for its labor strikes, at Bankhead there were several walkouts that won the workers higher wages, but exacerbated the mine’s cashflow problems.
An April 1922 strike was the final blow with a labour action that involved much of the coal production in North America. All underground operations were shut down at Bankhead and by June the mine entrance had been sealed. The following year the power house and briquette plant closed. The strike was the last straw and the Bankhead Mine never reopened.
Since it was a company town all economic activity dried up with the mine, and eventually all its residents drifted away. Some sought work in mines elsewhere or left mining entirely to make a fresh start. Over the next few years, under orders from the park administration, almost everything was demolished, dismantled or relocated, and many of the homes and public buildings were moved to Banff or Canmore.
When the National Parks Act became law in 1930 it ruled out any future mining or logging in the parks, and Bankhead’s fate as a ghost town was locked in place. Once a bustling mining town operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the crumbling ruins of Bankhead now lie abandoned up in the mountains of Banff National Park, with educational plaques and an interpretive trail that tell the story of what one historian dubbed “the twenty year town.”
Well…and what about supposedly curses?
Whenever there was a fatality at the mine, the funeral and burial took place in nearby Banff, since Bankhead had no cemetery of its own.
Eventually, a cemetery was commissioned in Bankhead, but there was a hitch. Many of the workers in Bankhead had immigrated from Scotland and China –distant corners of the Earth with cultures that were incredibly different. But something they had in common was a superstition that being the first person to be buried in a new cemetery would put a curse on their family: that the entire family would soon follow the deceased into the afterlife. As a result, no one was actually buried in the Bankhead cemetery for some time. And as it turns out, only two bodies were ever buried at Bankhead, and today, only one remains.
The first to be buried, in 1921, was a Chinese worker. The Bankhead residents reasoned that since the deceased worker’s family was so far away, in China, the curse was unlikely to affect them. However, when his family found out, several years later, that he had died, they arranged to have his remains returned to China.
The other burial was the town’s stray dog. Despite everybody adored the dog, it didn’t belong to anybody, and they figured that if they buried the dog, the curse would end. And apparently the only body still remaining in Bankhead’s cemetery is that dog.
But it seems there is another curse…as story goes, in 1921 the body of a Chinese worker, Yee Chow, was found near a snowbank in the big avalanche slope above town. Apparently he had been searching the slope for herbs, and was killed in a snowslide.
Before his death, Yee Chow visited the elderly town laundryman, Sam Sing, who was accused of murdering Yee Chow. For lack of evidence, he was acquitted, but in response to pressure from suspicious townsfolk, Sam Sing was deported. At that point, someone started a rumour that he laid a curse on Bankhead when he left town, and that this is why the mine closed down a few weeks later, making Bankhead a ghost town.
Images from web – Google Research