It doesn't take much to get spooked while walking around the remains of the historic Atlas Coal Mine.
Working here was scary. Climbing up into the huge, creaky wooden loader is scary. And when Mary McCarthy starts telling tales about the horrors of doing this dirty and dangerous job, the nasty mining accidents, and the tortured souls staff still see haunting the place, it's as if the rusting hulks of coal cars and derelict mining equipment are moaning their names in the stiff prairie breeze.
Set against the stark scenery of the Canadian Badlands, the Atlas mine was the last of the Drumheller-area coal mines, one of 139 that left a series of ghost towns in their wake as natural gas replaced coal for heating Canadian homes. Today, the mine is a national historic site, and interpreters offer a glimpse of what it might have been like to live and work here, with tours of the last remaining wooden tipple in the country, the miner's shacks, mining office and an eerie washhouse, where ghostly apparitions have apparently been glimpsed by both staff and local psychics.
It's all fodder for the ghost tours offered here. The spirits roaming the Atlas mine make it the perfect place for a Halloween excursion.
In the old mining office, McCarthy stops to tell the story of the mine's last manager, who kept his office door bolted. Even after the mine site was reopened as a historic site, it was only with the express agreement that the manager's office remain locked. After a break-in, McCarthy explains, the former mine owners agreed that the mine office could be opened for guided tours. Yet, as we stood in the close, roughly panelled space, the dusty smell of old ledgers hanging in the air, a door behind me creaked on its hinges and banged open while the wind howled its protests.
It's unclear what secrets the manager wanted to keep hidden in his office, but a large safe that sits in the corner remains impenetrable. "The mine manager doesn't want the past opened up," McCarthy says, darkly hinting at the disputes with miners and union organizers buried in the company's past.
Of course, there were lots of grisly accidents in the coal mine - miners beheaded by equipment or crushed between the loaded coal cars that snaked through the underground seam.
There's also the tale of a miner's wife who ran to the mine office after hearing an explosion. Her warning turned out to be a omen of a later methane gas blast, which is eerie enough, but even spookier when you learn that the mine manager died when he went underground to investigate. Apparently she's still seen - a woman in a brown dress - running into the clapboard office building or waving to a small boy upstairs.
The washhouse is another spooky spot on the old mine property, the place where miners began and ended their shifts. Next to a rudimentary concrete and tin shower room, with its low ceiling and rusty exposed overhead pipes, is a gloomy, vaulted space where miners hoisted their clothing aloft on "sky hook" baskets, their overcoats and hats hanging from the rafters like a collection of limp bodies.
Next door, where miners kept their equipment, Pretty Alice - one of the local "ladies of negotiable affections" - kept a big brass bed in the attic, ready for pay-day transactions.
Our guide describes seeing an "orb of light" streaking across the room after a psychic picked up Alice's presence here, and sky baskets "falling on my head" during a particularly violent prairie thunderstorm.
While that may not seem particularly unusual, considering the age and rickety nature of the place, there's enough local mining history that points to a difficult and violent lifestyle to give the dark tales credence. Men lived in squalid conditions - in tents, shacks and even caves - literally owing their souls to the company store. Small pit ponies carried them into the dark mines, often sensing imminent dangers and warning them before explosions or collapses occurred.
It's all spooky stuff, especially here in the badlands, a stark landscape where coal seams are often visible, like the bones of ancient dinosaurs, in the layers of sandstone, sculpted by time. From 1912 to 1970, this region was the second-largest coal-producing area in Canada, with nearly 57 million tons of coal produced by men who arrived to work in the remote camps from all over the world.
Today, the area is dotted with ghost towns, places like East Coulee, Wayne and Willow Creek that were practically deserted as jobs disappeared and miners left for other work. The old Rosedeer Hotel and Last Chance Saloon in Wayne is now a weekend gathering spot for car buffs, bikers and cyclists, who stop in for buffalo burgers and beer. But there's also the story of a union organizer who died here after "special constables," hired by the mining companies to force striking miners back to work, terrorized him.
And at the old East Coulee School - now a museum and tea house - McCarthy describes sightings of a "bright shining spectre" in the basement furnace room, along with the sounds of "footsteps clacking across the floor and children's voices singing."
"There's also a house in East Coulee, where up in the attic, people have seen a young boy and where toys and things have been moved about the house," she adds. "People couldn't live there too long."
No one knows exactly who haunts the Atlas Coal Mine, but McCarthy says they continue to see and sense restless spirits among the ruins. "We wonder who these ghosts are," she says, "but they are here."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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If you go HAUNTED ATLAS COAL MINE 403-822-2220; www.atlascoalmine.ab.ca. About 90 minutes east of Calgary on Highway 10. A "Little Boo" children's event runs today from 3 to 5 p.m.
OTHER GHOSTLY SITES
Hamilton There are two sets of ghost tours in town: choose from www.ghostwalks.com or www.hauntedhamilton.com. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Join spooky walks through historic Niagara-on-the-Lake ( www.ghostwalks.com).Weekends to Dec. 19.