Learn more about Leitch Collieries: its history, how it was named, and what working there was like.

What is a colliery?

A coal mine. A coal miner is a collier. These are British mining terms carried over into Canada.

How did Leitch Collieries get its name?

A family by the name of Leitch invested in the company, contributing both land and money.

What did Leitch Collieries do?

Leitch Collieries produced coal by mining it, cleaning and sorting it, and sending it off to market.

What is coal?

Coal is made of plant material. When a plant dies, bacteria quickly rot the sugary parts, but the lignin framework that strengthens the plant is left intact and can survive further bacterial attack if it is buried under water and sediment. Over time, heat and pressure from overlying sediments turn the material into coal.

What is coke?

Coke is produced in an oven by cooking coal for two days at a temperature of 1,050 degrees Celsius in a low oxygen environment. The volatile organic compounds (methane, ammonia, hydrogen, tar) are burned off, leaving a substance that is almost pure carbon.

Where was the coal mine?

The mine was up the creek valley about 1.5 km north of the processing plant where the ruins are today.

How did they get the coal from the mine to the plant?

Originally they used a rope haulage system. Starting in 1912, a gas-powered locomotive (a unique feature in the Crowsnest Pass at that time) pulled “trips” of coal cars, as many as 50 4.5-tonne mine cars, from the mine mouth to the tipple.

How high were the wooden trestle bridges on the railway from the mine to the tipple?

One was 27.5 metres and the other was 33.5 metres.

Were the trestle bridges dangerous?

No, but it was dangerous to jump off before crossing them.

In May of 1913, Tom Wright, while riding the train, felt it was travelling too fast and he jumped before crossing the first trestle. He broke his jaw. The train took the runaway switch at the tipple head.

How did they mine the coal?

Miners used the room and pillar method.

An entry tunnel was driven into the coal seam and another tunnel, a counter entry, was dug parallel to the first tunnel. Miners dug raises (shafts) up through the seam to the surface from the counter entry and other miners dug crosscut tunnels intersecting the raises. Large blocks or pillars of coal at least 12 metres by 12 metres were left between the tunnels.

Who found the coal seams that Leitch Collieries mined?

William and John Kerr, who had prospected William Hamilton’s coal mine at Taber, came to the Crowsnest Pass to look for coal. They lived in the old North-West Mounted Police barracks while they were exploring, and later worked for Leitch Collieries once the coal seams were developed. Hamilton joined them as the mine manager at Leitch Collieries.

Was Leitch Collieries coal “dirty?”

Coal with too much rock in it doesn't burn properly and is known as "dirty." If there were problems with the coal in one part of the seam, the company had extensive holdings and they could have concentrated on their best openings and seams. Removal of rock that would reduce the quality of the finished product, coke, was supposed to be adequately handled by the washery plant (where the small pieces of coal that would become coke were separated from rock).

It’s a mystery why so many loaded rail cars were rejected by the main buyer, the Canadian Pacific Railway, because of an unacceptably high percentage of rock mixed in with the coal or coke.

Was the mine manager's house elegant?

There were stained glass windows, mahogany mantelpieces on three huge fireplaces, a dumbwaiter to carry food from the kitchen up to the dining room, electricity, and indoor plumbing (very rare at that time). 

Why did Leitch Collieries only last eight years?

The First World War disrupted coal and coke markets. The company had spent too much on development and not enough on production, and it was in debt to the banks, which foreclosed. Most investment went to the war effort and it was difficult to raise the funds necessary to keep in operation.

A last-ditch attempt to sell ended when the buyer died. The land was sold, and another mine worked the company's coal seams. Later, the site was abandoned and much of the metal was sold for scrap metal during the Second World War. The buildings fell into the graceful ruins that we see today.