I took the photograph of the marsh 24 years ago. I was 17 at the time and spent most of my time outside with my first camera, a graduation present from my parents. Having grown up at the end of Mt. Peechee Place, not far from the Engine Bridge, I spent my childhood roaming the area on both sides of the bridge.
One of the places I would roam with my friends lay on the south side of the Engine Bridge between the power plant and the river itself. We waded in backwater channels of the river, chased large, silver sucker fish, climbed trees and building forts. A small marsh that lay along the base of the cliff that now delineates the edge of the Canmore Nordic Centre was one of the places that I returned to time and time again. And it was on one perfect fall afternoon with still air and a warm sun when I took this photograph. At the time, I was drawn by the light and the way it fell on the driftwood and the marsh grass growing in the river silt. What I didn’t realize is that I photographed the last remnants of a trestle that had once stood at that spot, sloping down from the mouth of a coal mine to a tipple that had stood nearby.
In the photo, what looks like three tree stumps are in fact posts from this trestle. There were more to the right out of the picture, as well. When I was at the site, I always found the symmetry of the ‘stumps’ strange. But it wasn’t until much later, when I was working on Walter Riva’s book, Survival in Paradise: A Century of the Coal Mining in the Bow Valley in 2008 that the penny dropped.
That trestle was built in about 1888 by Tom McCardell (McCardell, along with his brother, William, and their friend, Frank McCabe, found the sulphur hot springs at Banff in 1883), who, along with Pat Dailey and Andrew Hamilton staked a claim to an outcrop of coal located 200 feet above the Bow River in the face of the tall cliff that overlooks the river. McCardell, Dailey and Hamilton had been hired by a man named Brinkerhoff, who represented a group of a group of Minneapolis businessmen. These men had hoped to ride the coattails of the Canadian Anthracite Coal Company by finding the continuation of the seam worked at the No. 1 Mine with its high-quality semi-anthracite coal.
For whatever reason, the Minneapolis businessmen did not keep what had become known as the Brinkerhoff claim. Instead, they sold the claim for $50,000 to a group led by Admiral Sir Thomas B. Cochrane. This new group built a tipple to sort and load the coal, the trestle that extended up from the tipple to the mine and a bunkhouse. A handful of small houses were built on the north side of the river on either side of the spur line. Cochrane also moved to build a coking plant, but overextended financially, he sold the mine in 1890 to the Canadian North-West Coal and Lumber Syndicate.
The Cochrane Mine did not last long. It shut down in 1893, even though the Canadian Pacific Railway was buying the 100 tons of coal produced at the mine each day for railway operations in Alberta, even going as far as building a wooden trestle bridge over the Bow River and a short spur line to the mine. As Cochrane found, the coking plant, built by Canadian North-West company, coupled with severe faulting in the mine that increased production costs, ruined the company. To add insult to injury, a wind storm knocked the tipple over into the river.
Even though the Canadian North-West company called it quits, the bridge over the Bow River came to be used by the Canadian Anthracite Coal Company. The site itself was largely abandoned until the spur line that serviced the Cochrane Mine was extended north along the river to the Georgetown mine in 1913.
Today, the Cochrane site is nearly gone. The river course has changed since I was 17 and the southern edge of the river has gouged away a considerable amount of the bank, stripping away the marsh and the trestle posts. It’s now working away on a small heap of waste coal. While the Cochrane site is falling into the river, the erosion has been actively uncovering the odd treasure: a crushed barrel, two long pieces of track from the Cochrane spur line (it appears the Cochrane tracks were buried and the Georgetown tracks laid down over top), railway spikes and other unidentifiable pieces of metal.
And that is the wonderful thing about history, even when you live in one place for a long time, there’s always something to learn and discover. When I was 17 and younger, I loved that site for what it was in the 1980s. Today, I still love going to that spot, but more so for what it was more than 120 years ago.