History in my Backyard: The Town of Bankhead

Well, not quite my backyard, exactly, but very close.

The Lamp House, where the miners picked up their lamps every day. A missing lamp at the end of the day meant a missing miner, and a search party would be sent out.

In Banff National Park, right near Lake Minnewanka, the ruins of an old coal-mining town are now a picturesque and short hiking trail.

The town of Bankhead existed for a mere 17 years, closing in 1922 when the CPR shut down their coal mine. (The price of coal had dropped, the miners were on strike, and the federal government had begun to consider a more conservation-based ideal in the national parks, as well as dealing with the reduction in royalties… the writing was on the wall.) At its peak in 1911, the mining operation processed 500K tons of coal. When the town closed, the mine entrances were sealed by blasting.

The parts of the town that could be moved were – houses went to Banff or Canmore, the church went to Calgary, and all useful parts of the mining operation taken away. The remaining concrete foundations are now overgrown with vegetation. The area itself is under monitoring due to environmental degradation from the coal. After all, in the early 1900s, no one had any concern (or much idea) of the ruin such operations would bring to the local environment.

A hardy rhubarb plant grows in the slag heap.

Plant life has survived and even flourished, but there are numerous signs warning visitors not to eat anything. The signs are necessary: rhubarb plants grow in many places, huge and flowering. If not for the signs, I would have been tempted to take a cutting; I love rhubarb. Planted by Chinese immigrant mining families that lived in shanties behind the operation, they are some of the hardiest plants around. The meadows are full of wildflowers and grasses; the forest has begun to overtake other buildings.

The Briquette building, where coal briquettes were made for use in home heating and locomotive engines.

The path is dotted with plaques and information, detailing the origins and functions of the various buildings. The transformer building includes photographs of some of the town residents and of their daily lives. The managers of the mine were British mostly and the workers were mainly immigrants (Polish, Irish, Italian, Chinese, etc.) They had a soccer team, kids played hockey, much like many towns today. They also had electricity, a modern sewage system. Their drinking water was supplied by a reservoir filled from the Cascade River. The town’s population was as high as 900 residents, so that’s quite a bit of water and sewage to deal with. The town was incredibly modern, even though it didn’t exist for very long.

And why did I come here?

My current novella features a town very much like Bankhead, and I wanted to get a feel for the area and its history before I started writing my second draft. There are bits of information that will make my story that much richer.

I’ll post some more photos of the hike this week; there were just so many to choose from.

“I have a painting I could sell you.”

The book I’m working on has an art theft as one of its subplots, and as part of my research, I’ve read several books and had google alerts on the subject. It happens far more often than one might expect, but yet isn’t as glamorous as movies and television (and sometimes books) like to imagine.

The first art theft I remember clearly was in 2004, when thieves broke into the Munch museum in Oslo, Norway and stole Edvard Munch’s famous paintings The Scream and Madonna. The paintings weren’t recovered until 2006 and both had sustained damage. I especially remember this theft as I had been to Oslo several times and had seen versions of the paintings at the Nasjonalgalleriet, but not at the Munch museum. (A version of The Scream displayed at the Nasjonalgalleriet had been stolen in 1994 around the time of the Olympics in Lille. Its theft and recovery are detailed in the book ‘The Rescue Artist’ by Edward Dolnick.)

Rarely are stolen artworks as famous as The Scream. If my regular google news alert bulletin is any indication, paintings, sculptures and various other forms of art are regularly stolen from galleries, education institutions and public areas.

Sculptures made of metal are often targeted, as they are a quick source of a few hundred dollars when sold for scrap. Paintings are stolen for any number of reasons: famous works can be targeted for activist/political reasons, or are often used as currency by drug dealers and gangs. It is unlikely, though romantic, to think that a lot of art is stolen to order, on the whim of someone rich. There’s too much at stake when a famous work of art goes missing.

My recommended reads:

  • The Rescue Artist (Edward Dolnick)
  • The Art of the Steal (Christopher Mason)
  • Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (Robert K. Wittman)

What would I do without Google StreetView?

Some of my first research for my novel started out as recreational travel. I traveled to Paris in June of 2003 for 10 days. The city enchanted me, and it seemed the perfect place to set a story. I did visit museums (the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre), and some of the other tourist areas, but I was mostly inspired by a visit to the well-known jazz club Le Bilboquet, just off the Blvd St. Germain. (Unfortunately it no longer exists at that location.) But, my memory isn’t photographic, much as I might wish it.

Google Maps, especially the Street View, is a godsend. In my original draft I had a character looking out over the Seine from the Left Bank. Rather than guess at what that view might be, I took a peek with Google. It turns out that where they were standing was right across from the Louvre. So instead of coming across as a complete idiot author who doesn’t know Paris, I was able to properly set the scene.

Sophie’s gaze was drawn to the Louvre, whose windows glittered in the orange light of the sun that was beginning to set.

“I love this city. Sometimes I wish that I never had to leave.” She leaned on the low stone wall, looking over the water. He leaned beside her, his eyes mostly on her, flicking occasionally to the museum and the river.

“Why don’t you stay?”

She turned to him. “What would I do here? I’d have to find a job.”

He shrugged. “Everything’s possible.”

“Is it?”

“Of course. How badly do you want it?”

Most of what I find out via Google Earth isn’t used in the actual writing, but gives me enough background information to write with confidence. If I know that walking from Saint-Sulpice church to Shakespeare & Co. is going to take an average of 15 minutes (20 for the laggards), then I know that I can put in a lot of conversation without the Parisian wondering how I was able to get almost half an hour’s worth of conversation into a five-minute walk.

Google Earth is also fantastic for wowing your non-computer-savvy relatives with the awesomeness of having them look at their own house online, or finding out how they can get from the middle of the prairies to London, England. (It involves a lot of swimming.) So, +1 internets to Google!