Mining for coal in Alberta has a storied past

Cattle now graze on the banks of the Battle River where coal was once mined.  |  Duane McCartney photo

Farmers first began digging coal in the early years of the 19th century, and the Diplomat Mine was eventually developed

In central Alberta, near the banks of the Battle River, sit the remains of the Diplomat coal mine.

The site was originally the homestead of Austing Bish and his four sons, who arrived in the Forestburg area from Oregon in 1905. The family farmed their homesteads and began to exploit the coal deposits in the Battle River Valley.

In the early days of coal mining, underground mines, also called gopher holes, were dug into coulee banks into seams of coal. Coal was removed by hand.

As the demand for coal increased, tunnels were used to create drift mines using the room and pillar technique to mine the coal. “Rooms” were areas where the coal had been removed and could be as long as 60 metres. Pillars were layers of coal left to support the overhead roof of layers of clay and topsoil.

Coal miners using picks and shovels would load small mining cars on wood or steel tracks and push or use horses to move the coal out of the mine. A team of six miners could load 25 tons of coal a day.

Later, shaft mines became popular. A hole was dug into the ground and the shaft mines used the room and pillar method for extraction.

The massive Marion 360 Stripping Shovel eventually made coal mining much easier. | Duane McCartney photo

The Bish family were not the only coal miners in the area. The nearby Tofield Coal Company and the Dobell Coal Company operated large strip mines in the Tofield area in 1912.

The Tofield Coal Company used a German-built Lubrecher machine with buckets that loaded dirt on a conveyor belt and dumped it behind where the coal had already been removed. A Ledgewood steam dragline was then used to extract the coal.

The Bishs’ original underground mines were small compared with other mines of this period in other parts of Alberta. The family operated their small underground mine until 1949, when they opened a strip mine.

With the Canadian National Railway spur line arriving in 1950, they were then able to move more of their coal to buyers.

In 1949, Forestburg Collieries took over the coal mining enterprise from the Bish Brothers. In 1950, Luscar Coals Limited bought out Forestburg Collieries and arranged for the Sinclair Coal Company of St. Louis, Missouri, to manage the Diplomat mining operations at Forestburg.

The Battle River power plant near Forestburg, Alta., used to be powered by coal from local mines but is now in the process of converting to natural gas. Heartland Generation Ltd., an affiliate of the international Energy Capital Partners, bought the plant in October 2019. | Duane McCartney photo

As the coal market increased, more production was required. Strip mining was introduced to the area in 1950.

This was a faster, safer method of mining coal compared to underground mining. It used less manpower at a quarter of the cost. The material above the coal seam was placed in an adjacent previously mined-out pit.

The mine reclaimed some of the area by levelling and replacing the original topsoil. The Diplomat Mine was the first mine in Alberta to be awarded a reclamation certificate.

In 1950, a Marion 360 shovel excavator was moved to the Diplomat Mine site from a mining operation in Pequot, Illinois. Built in 1927, the Marion 360 was the largest mobile land machine in the world.

In 1927 when it was built, the Marion 360 excavator was the leading edge of mining technology.

The Marion 360 stripping shovel’s electric motors powered these huge tracks to move the shovel when stripping off the overburden. | Duane McCartney photo

The machine used a hydraulic levelling system with four large pistons in the corners of the lower frame. It weighed several hundred tons and had a 27-metre boom, 17-metre dipper handle and a shovel capacity of about seven cubic meters.

The demand for local coal continued to increase and with the expansion of the nearby Battle River electrical power generating station, a Bucyrus 950-B Shovel was imported. It had been erected in 1937 and at the time was the largest excavator in the world. It weighed more than 1,400 tons with a boom length of 33 metres.

This Bucyrus 950-B was known as Mr. Diplomat. The excavator’s massive scoop, nicknamed the Big Dipper, had a capacity of about 25 cubic metres. The mammoth Bucyrus shovel could remove three times the amount of overburden above the coal seam with one scoop compared to the Marion 360.

In 1991, the Mr. Diplomat excavator was cut up for scrap and only the shovel bucket remains. It is still the largest shovel of its kind in Canada.

Coal miners used picks and shovels in the early days of coal mining to load coal cars. A team of six miners could load 25 tons of coal a day. | Duane McCartney photo

Surface mining wasn’t common in North America until after the Second World War. The Diplomat Mine produced 15.7 million tons of coal during its lifetime from 1950 to1986. After the mine was closed, portions of the site were reclaimed for agriculture.

Today, cattle graze on the former mining site.

The local Diplomat Mine Museum Society has developed an interpretive site outlining the history of strip mining in the area and several mining shovels are on display. The Marion 360 revolving shovel excavator is said to be one of the largest and oldest excavators in workable condition in the world and is on display.

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