Photography by Royce Howland


Valet Parking No Longer Available

Various derelict vehicles lie scattered around the property at the abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine operation. These three old cars were thoughtfully parked together as if by a forgotten valet, who departed the scene after the drivers didn’t return to claim their wheels. These days you have to park your own vehicle in the visitor parking lot; the valet service is no longer available. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Abandoned Cars & Scattered Nuggets

The abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site is the resting place of many discarded things. Between buildings, a train of coal cars slowly weathers through the seasons. Behind them on this spring day, a spray of bright dandelions looks like a scattering of gold nuggets shining in the sun… but that would be a different kind of mine. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Well-tuned Set of Pipes

The Brazeau Collieries cleaning plant is where crushed coal was washed to reduce impurities, producing what was called cleaned coal as opposed to raw coal. Clean coal burned more efficiently and produced less ash. This wet-cleaning process involved a lot of water. Quite a few controls helped the team manage the water which was carefully balanced in volume, density and pulsation. Flowing through special jigs, in addition to cleaning the coal, the water separated usable material from reject material, without damaging the desirable coal or getting overloaded with sludge. For a seemingly low-tech industrial operation, this set of pipes and many other things were pretty well tuned on a continuous basis. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Light On the Old Steel Machine

The cleaning plant at the abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site would have washed much of the mined coal to reduce impurities, before the coal was processed into briquettes. Now, the machinery in the large space stands motionless and silent, interacting only as steel lines and surfaces in the light. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Leveraged Acquisition

Coal produced by mining operations at the Brazeau Collieries was crushed into small pieces, and then fed into a large storage bin building. Storing a certain volume of crushed coal helped balance the processes of initial coal production, vs. processing into finished briquettes. The storage bin had a capacity of hundreds of tons of crushed coal, but it could be filled completely to capacity in just over 3 hours of operation. Crushed coal was released from storage through a series of 14 gravity-fed dump gates. Each gate had a manual lever that could be raised or lowered to regulate the volume of coal flowing by conveyor belt into the briquette production process. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Gleaming Shell, Coal Heart

A key part of the building conservation efforts at the abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine operation involves repairing the outer shell of the structures so they can better withstand the weather and not further degrade on the interior. This is one side of the briquette plant, where everything at the operation came together. Hot liquid petroleum asphalt was combined with cleaned, crushed coal, then gravity-fed through rotating steel presses to form the briquettes. During peak demand, 4 separate lines ran 24 hours a day making briquettes for shipping out by rail. Today, new corrugated metal siding gleams over the darkened heart of the coal operation and distant clouds billow above the silenced stacks. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Nobody At the Wheel

Near the end of the processing line in the Brazeau Collieries briquette plant, heated petroleum asphalt was combined with crushed coal, to form a dough-like mixture. The mixing and volume of flow of the material was controlled at various points, including this station just above one of the 4 gravity-fed presses. The right amount of hot mix would be agitated and fed down, where it was compressed into solid, polished briquettes by the rotating stainless steel forms. If the demand was up, each of these 4 presses ran 24x7, but today there is nobody at the wheel. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Conveyor of History

The briquette processing building at the abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine operation processed crushed coal and tar into briquettes. These were run over 4 huge conveyors into a storage building, awaiting loading onto rail cars. Not a lot of folks now remember the days of coal furnaces in the home, or coal-fired locomotives. The conversion of the latter to diesel spelled the rapid end of a phase of the coal mining industry that included the shutdown of this mine. Coal was instrumental in opening the West, but this setting conveys for most a piece of history that we’re now removed from. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Stock Is Running Low

The Brazeau Collieries maintained a substantial on-site maintenance operation, including a warehouse building full of tools and parts needed to keep things running. Ranks of shelves and bins kept everything organized, but now they’re mostly organizing empty space and rodent droppings. A few bits and pieces are still left, though, so stock is low but not completely run out. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Boneyard of Wheels

In the “artefact garden” at the abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site, a myriad of industrial objects lie under the morning sun. Aside from slow decay, jumbles of iron-rimmed wooden wheels and geared cast iron wheels haven’t experienced motion in decades. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Gearing Down From Some Hot Work

Giant iron gears spinning around axles damped by huge coil springs were used to rotate the 4 heavy presses in the briquette processing building at the Brazeau Collieries coal mining operation. The massive machines stand still and silent today, coated in a combination of tar and coal dust, collecting rust under the grime. But in its day there would have been a steady flow of hot, loud work in this plant, where a small complement of workers oversaw the final steps of creating a once-key power source for homes and businesses of the expanding West. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Breath of Dust, Memory of Waves

Summer heat beats down on the coal briquette processing plant at the old Brazeau Collieries mining operation. Looking at the layers of tar, rust and coal dust on the corrugated tin walls and steel structures, it's hard to imagine how it might have been to work in the plant when it was running at full tilt. The pattern of light playing over the wall brings to mind waves lapping against a shore countless years ago, now a distant memory captured in layers of sandstone visible in locations not far from here. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Spin Up Spin Down

Giant iron gears spinning around axles damped by huge coil springs were used to rotate the 4 heavy presses in the briquette processing building at the Brazeau Collieries coal mining operation. It's now only possible to dimly imagine the rumble and thunderous noise of these iron machines when they were spun up and running at full tilt during their brief hey-day. Now, the massive gears are permanently spun down, the only apparent motion coming as the angle of light moves across the stilled surfaces each day. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Working the Angles

The Brazeau Collieries site is quite large and spread out over a significant area. Deserted, it feels spacious. But viewed from certain angles, the briquette processing plant and other nearby buildings appear stacked and compressed together, perhaps delivering some of the feel of the place when it was full of bustle and operating at capacity. The geometry of the processing plant area also illustrates the economy of design of many of the facilities, which were constructed with form very much supporting function, in many cases using the gravity of multi-stories and the hillside itself to minimize the power required to move the intermediate stages of the briquette products around. The heights now mainly provide a vantage point for the occasional pigeon or raven. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Frozen Air Conditioning

Ventilation below-ground was essential at Brazeau Collieries, as it is for all subterranean mining operations. Not only was it necessary to bring fresh air down and vent stale air out, it was also critical to prevent the buildup of methane and other gases released during mining work along the coal seams. Huge fans impelled air down a series of shafts and cross-cut tunnels, while extensive works including additional fans under the surface were designed to ensure proper circulation. Now the fans are still, perhaps shifting on their axles only by small, random degrees when the above-ground wind joins the afternoon sunlight in pushing against the scooped blades. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Slow Reclamation

Standing on an aging concrete embankment near the blocked-in entrance to one of the abandoned Greenhill Mine shafts, the slight elevation gives me a view across the metal snow shed coverings over the rails on which coal cars would have run in years past, extracting coal from seams in the earth below. (In the upper left, Turtle Mountain can be seen, a storied peak in the Crowsnest Pass.) For all their simple construction, the snow sheds stand some 60 years after the last coal was brought out of the mine. Still, the forest is gradually but clearly retaking the location. A generation of trees has grown, intermingled with the buildings, and some in their turn have already died. Together with the forces of weather, and completely absent any budgets, press releases, regulations or consultations, the forest is silently reclaiming the once-busy industrial operation that humans left more or less as it was on the day the coal cars stopping rolling. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Mind the Teeth

At the abandoned Greenhill Mine in Crowsnest Pass, four large air compressors stand in the ramshackle remains of a building, part of which had completely collapsed at one point and has none been removed from the site. Each pair of compressors was driven by a single electric motor, with a large stator / rotor assembly on a drive shaft midway between the two compressors. Originally their intended purpose was to drive air belowground for use by the coal miners. They are now partly dismantled by the removal of the copper windings and other parts; the motors have been silent since the 1950's. But for someone interested in studies of line and light aboveground, these abandoned devices can still exert a powerful magnetic attraction for hours on end. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Need a New Engine

The Greenhill Mine in Crowsnest Pass has been abandoned for decades. In one semi-collapsed building, there still remain four large Sullivan air compressors. As industry, technology, economics and social concerns such as environmental sustainability move forward, these heavy iron relics stand as a mute testament that the old way of doing business can carry on forever. Recent graffiti taggers who left their mark, offer a few conflicted key words that show we could use a new engine for social growth, too. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Tipping the Scales

A large, galvanized metal smoke stack once stood above a heavy iron boiler in an out-building at the Greenhill mine in Crowsnest Pass. Abandoned in the 1950's, the structures at the mining operation were left to decay. After standing for around 60 years, the boiler building recently was taken down, likely for safety reasons. The smoke stack now lies discarded to one side. It's a microcosm of the situation in many historical coal mining areas. Time and neglect, brought on initially by shifting economics and more recently by shifting priorities for ecological sustainability, have tipped the scales against the coal industry. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Watching the Paint Peel

At the Greenhill mine in Crowsnest Pass, the abandoned wash house was still standing until the past couple of years. For a long time it was full of thousands of core samples drilled decades before, made to sample the sub-surface geology that was later developed by the mine. Why the samples were left here when the mine shut down, I can't say. Within the past few years, prolonged neglect caused the main part of the wash house to start collapsing, and the majority of the building was taken down and removed. During that time, the core samples were removed as well. One of the few remaining parts of the wash house that's still semi-intact is this back room of stalls. The light coming through smashed, boarded-up windows shines on little more than peeling paint, a few pipes, broken porcelain fixtures, and shattered scraps of cylindrical core samples. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Mesmerizing Lines

At the abandoned coal mining operation in Nordegg, Alberta, one can find all kinds of industrial subjects to look at and photograph. But without doubt, some of the most interesting details for me are found in a small handful of old, rusting passenger vehicles that are parked in their final resting place out behind one of the buildings. I often think about who owned these cars, where they went, what life events were wrapped around the simple matters of moving from point A to point B. But on some days, I'm more absorbed by simply drinking in small details of design, mesmerized by the play of light over graceful lines. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Chaining Gears

At the old abandoned mine works in Nordegg, the drive system of the coal briquette presses offers up an array of geometric forms and repeating patterns. Both are things that appeal to me, visually. The power that once drove this collection of gears has been gone for decades, but what remains still has the power to enchain me with fascination. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Upward Trend

A few aging passenger vehicles sit at the long-abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site in Nordegg. As the weather works on them, they are slowly returning to their constituent elements. There is something even more elemental than the weather, steel, wood and glass: the play of light over decaying but still-elegant forms. Looking closely enough I can find something with which to create, and that's always uplifting. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Upward Trend

A few aging passenger vehicles sit at the long-abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site in Nordegg. As the weather works on them, they are slowly returning to their constituent elements. There is something even more elemental than the weather, steel, wood and glass: the play of light over decaying but still-elegant forms. Looking closely enough I can find something with which to create, and that's always uplifting.

Coming Unhinged

A few aging passenger vehicles sit at the long-abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site in Nordegg. As the weather works on them, they are slowly returning to their constituent elements. There is something even more elemental than the weather, steel, wood and glass, and that's the play of light over decaying but still-elegant forms. For now, the bodies of the vehicles are still hanging together, but it's only a matter of time before they become completely unhinged. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Coming Unhinged

A few aging passenger vehicles sit at the long-abandoned Brazeau Collieries mine site in Nordegg. As the weather works on them, they are slowly returning to their constituent elements. There is something even more elemental than the weather, steel, wood and glass, and that's the play of light over decaying but still-elegant forms. For now, the bodies of the vehicles are still hanging together, but it's only a matter of time before they become completely unhinged. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.

Grinding the Nest Egg

The processing system at the abandoned coal mine at Nordegg, Alberta may seem low-tech in comparison to today's highly automated, computer-controlled production lines. But for its time it was fairly sophisticated and provided a lot of control over the creation of the mine's primary end product: coal briquettes. This is the top of one of 4 "vertical fluxers", a mechanism near the end of the production line, where the combination of ground coal and asphalt "dough" was mixed to a known temperature and consistency before being fed downwards into the briquette presses two floors below. With the production line frozen in time for decades, and the large nest egg of remaining coal deposits no longer being produced, this machinery now collects cast-off sticks from a large crow's nest high in the ceiling above. Copyright © Royce Howland. All rights reserved.