One Alberta Town’s Coal Mining Past
The year 1938 was a big one for the mining town of Canmore. A premium quality coal seam was found in the area, and the town’s two rival coal companies merged to form Canmore Mines.
Management decided to open a new mine—and the timing couldn’t have been better. Coal markets were flourishing with the onslaught of the Second World War.
Canmore’s boom, however, did not last, and it turns out the company would need an engineer’s ideas to redefine its approach.
Oil and gas were replacing coal as the province’s top source of energy, after major petroleum deposits were found across Alberta in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As markets shrivelled up, coal mines and coal towns across the province were abandoned. Their future looked bleak.
That was the reality faced by Walter Riva, P.Eng., in 1949 as he finished his mining engineering degree at the University of Alberta. Growing up in Canmore, he had worked for Canmore Mines as a labourer.
The young engineer brought new ideas home to Canmore, helping the company adapt to the changing market. Soon, he was general manager.
Riva introduced new technology—including a high-temperature coking plant in 1962—which enabled the company to expand exports to Asia and the United States. He also improved safety and productivity at the mine by adding mechanized shuttle cars.
The industry continued to reinvent itself in the following decades. Surface mining operations grew, with increased demands from coal-fired power plants. When the 1970s rolled around, thermal electric power generation in Alberta was the coal industry’s biggest market.
Eleven mining operations continue to produce metallurgical and thermal coal in Alberta–about 20 million tonnes a year–for power generation and export.
Did You Know?
Quarry Lake in Canmore is a popular fishing and swimming hole today. But in the early 1970s it was an open-pit coal mine and part of Canmore Mines operations. After mining ended, engineering efforts began to reclaim the land. The site was officially named Quarry Lake in 1982.
Canmore Mines engineer Walter Riva (left) and company vice-president William Wilson – also an engineer – in 1951.