Nordegg: the Alta. ghost town that came alive

Tourists can tour the remains of the coal processing plant and loading facilities as well as historical buildings

NORDEGG, Alta. — Deep in the heavily forested hillsides of the foothills of the Canadian Rockies lie the remains of the old coal mining site of Nordegg, an hour’s drive west of Rocky Mountain House, Alta. Martin Nordegg, a German businessperson started to develop a coal mine around 1901.

With German, British and Belgian investors, Nordegg formed a partnership with the Canadian Northern Railway to create the Brazeau Collieries Ltd. In 1911, construction of a processing plant began and a town site started. By 1914, more than 100,000 tons of coal had been processed at a rate of 1,000 tons a day.

The town of Nordegg was founded that year. The main streets were laid out in a circle with side streets running to the town’s centre similar to spokes on a wagon wheel. The idea for the town’s layout came from the garden city design of the English town planner Ebenezer Howard and also from neighbourhoods in Montreal around Mount Royal.

The Nordegg town site provided homes for 250 miners, plus hotels, churches, club rooms and a large Big Horn Trading Company store. The town also had a modern hospital and, for a short time, a “red light” district for brothels.

One of the service buildings remains at the coal mine site. | Duane McCartney photo

When the First World War broke out, Martin Nordegg was expelled from Canada.

After the war, Nordegg returned to the area and sold his shares in the coal company in 1923. He remained in Canada and died in 1948.

The mine and the town flourished with nearly 3,000 people, including 900 mine workers. By 1923 it was the most productive mine in Alberta with the railway being its biggest customer.

However, as the railway went, so did the mine. With the lack of agricultural rail freight during the Great Depression of the 1930s, demand for coal severely dropped. Disaster struck in October of 1941 when a huge explosion at the mineshaft killed 29 miners.

There was a rebound in the 1940s because the demand for coal increased during the Second World War.

The strong market continued after the war and was so good that the company went into major debt to replace the processing plant with a more modern and larger facility after the original plant was destroyed by fire in 1950.

As time went by, the railways started to replace steam engines with diesel-powered locomotives, which marked the beginning of the end for the Nordegg coal story. The high transportation cost of moving coal and the increasing availability of fuel oil made coal uncompetitive. People left the town and by 1955, the mine closed.

Several years of inactivity followed but a minimum security penitentiary was established for a brief time in the remains of the town site in the early 1960s. The prisoners lived in some of the boarding houses left from the coal-mining days.

During the 1980s, a group of people started to save the remains of the mine and restore the old town site. In 2001, Nordegg was designated as a national historic site. Most of the homes are gone but today tourists can tour the remains of the coal processing plant and loading facilities, as well as some historical buildings in the town site. Tours are available during the summer and more historical information is available at the register of historical places at www.hermis.alberta.ca.

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