Nordegg today is in major contrast to the days when railroads used coal-burning steam locomotives, and the bustling town held 3,500 residents and 1,100 miners.
On Hwy 11, a little over 170 km west of Red Deer, the once energetic town of Nordegg is now a small hamlet with intriguing weathered buildings and an idle 79-acre coal mining site. It has a population of between 150 and 200.
In 1955, with locomotives fast shifting over to oil and diesel fuel, the mine ceased operations.
But the remnants of the era remain on the site.
Nordegg Historical Society manager Joe Baker says coal slag piles are in fact special.
These massive stockpilings of a black rock-like substance are in fact an impurity taken out of coal through a cleaning and pulverization process.
“This went on year after year and there are millions of tonnes of this stuff laying out there, easy, that is an understatement,” Baker said.
“Basically it is rock extracted from the coal process and it really has very little value from a fuel point of view.”
But, it turns out, it has huge historic value.
Over the years, the question has been what to do with the enormous stockpiles.
But what stagnate, useless black material has a purpose after all. It is one of the key factors in why the mine site received historical designation and was funded by the Alberta Historic Resources Foundation.
“One of the main things they designated was the mining landscape,” Baker said.
“It was one of the truest forms that we had in this country and those slag piles are a huge part of that.
“Those piles will probably sit there for 1,000 years.”
Baker said coal slag was once looked as having potential as an ice-melting substance for roads. In the end, it was judged too messy.
Around 1992, when Baker — who is also the West Country manager for Clearwater County — became involved with the historical society, the potential of coal slag was once again raised.
Lafarge Cement, a concrete, asphalt and aggregate company, looked at using the material.
“The society had this whole reclamation plan with Lafarge and there was this whole game plan on how to dismantle this site.
“But after further studies, Lafarge discovered that they did not have use for the material and did not want to be involved with the reclamation of the site.”
In 2001, a study with 250 test pits was done to ensure there were no environmental impacts from the piles, which are commonly mistaken as actual coal piles.
“Even if it was coal we couldn’t do anything with it because it falls under provincial domain,” Baker said.
The main problem with the stockpiles is erosion, Baker said.
“Every time it rained, the stuff washed down the hill and covered the train tracks below.”
The construction of water channels through the mine site seemed to help.
Underground is another memory of better times for the now-abandoned mine.
“An estimate that I read was that in the 44 years that the mine operated, they took 10 million tonne and it is calculated that that is less than one per cent of what is there,” Baker said.
The Nordegg mine site tour runs each day at 1 p.m., from mid-May until July 1. From July 1 until Labour Day, tours leave the Heritage Centre at both 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Contact Clearwater County at 403-845-4444 for more information.