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Atlas Coal Mine Hits Pay Dirt bringing History to Life

For decades they donned cap lamps, hoisted picks and shovels, and descended down, down, down into dark, narrow tunnels, the scent of burning sulphur clinging to their clothes.

This is the fascinating story of Alberta’s coal miners in the days when “coal was king” in our province. It is told with stunning authenticity at the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site in East Coulee, 20 minutes southeast of Drumheller.

Featuring tours of original mine buildings, interpretive talks, rides on a mantrip locomotive and a hike through an underground conveyer tunnel set high in the Canadian Badlands, this attraction has seen visitor revenue increase 680 per cent since 2001.

Their secret? “We tell real stories; it’s our bread and butter,” says Julia Fielding, executive director and “pitboss” of Atlas Coal Mine. “Our visitors walk the path the miners walked to and from work; they stand where the miners stood sorting coal.”

Bringing History to Life

When the Atlas Coal Mine shipped its last load of coal in 1979, it signalled the end of an era in the Drumheller Valley. Seven years later, the Patrick family ceded ownership of the 31-hectare site to the Atlas Coal Mine Historical Society whose volunteers fought to keep the historic buildings from being torn down.

In 1994, the mine’s tipple – Canada’s last standing wooden coal processing plant – was opened for tours. Since then new attractions have been steadily added, including an underground tunnel tour, mine train tour and a dynamic interpretive program.

Today, Atlas Coal Mine is both a National Historic Site and a Provincial Historic Resource that preserves the last of the 139 coal mines that operated in the area. Operated locally by the historical society and funded entirely by visitor fees and donations, Atlas is the most complete coal mining museum in Canada.

In 2015, the site had 38,000 visitors, including over 100 group tours, mostly from schools.

Engaged Storytelling

Atlas’s dramatic growth is rooted in a culture of creative risk-taking and a serious commitment to staff training, explains Fielding.

“We create an atmosphere where staff love to be. Work is hard, but it is fun,” she says. “And we have a common vision. Everyone gets why we are here and what we are doing.”

That translates into nimble decision-making and creative ideas on how to do more with scarce resources. A recent foray into crowdfunding helped raise awareness and provided valuable learning. “We always want to improve and never sit on our laurels,” says Fielding.

Perhaps most important to Atlas’s success is the talent of its interpretive guides who bring the coal mining story to life. Staff have a full week of intensive training on what makes a good interpreter, followed by ongoing mentoring.

“We try to connect them with real people who have worked underground so that they can build a relationship with history and the stories they are telling,” says Fielding. “We encourage them to develop their own style so that they can be comfortable and confident.”

Fielding says the organization also taps into industry resources whenever possible, such as webinars, Travel Alberta’s Cooperative Marketing Investment Program and the Alberta Tourism Information Service (ATIS) to promote events and packages.

Meeting Challenges Head On

The success of Atlas Coal Mine has also brought some challenges. With more visitors and increased expectations, there is pressure to upgrade services like the gift shop and washrooms.

Add to that the tremendous cost of preserving historic buildings – the tipple alone needs $300,000 in maintenance – and the result is a constant search for more revenue.

“I’m very proud of how much we achieve with what little that we have,” says Fielding. “We stay motivated with the messages that our miners left us: ‘Keep digging when the roof falls in; don’t be afraid of the dark; look out for each other and even a small house can hold a lot of happiness,’”

This is the third in a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.

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