Like so many mountain towns during the turn of the century, the little community of Pocahontas began thanks to the resources hidden inside the great mounds of earth that stretched into the sky.
Located near the present-day Jasper National Park east gate entrance, Pocahontas had a short history but an interesting one.
Pocahontas began as little more than a construction camp, one of 50 that lined the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Construction on the line, which ran from Winnipeg to Prince Albert, had begun in 1905 and it was from that Pocahontas was born.
On Oct. 3, 1908, two men named Frank Villeneuve and Alfred Lamoreau, staked a coal claim at the future Pocahontas site. Two years later, Jasper Park Collieries opened two coal mines. One of those was Pocahontas, whose name comes from Pocahontas, Virginia. In that community, a highly-successful coal mine was operating and it was the hope of WH Morris, the man who named the Alberta community, the same would be true for the new Pocahontas.
Unfortunately, mine production was slow at the beginning. Only 20 to 30 tons came out of the mine per day in 1911, but nonetheless Pocahontas continued to grow.
The following year, thousands of dollars were spent to improve the coal mine and upgrade the facilities. A permanent plant was also built. With those upgrades, production increased immensely and by 1913 there were 250 people living in the community.
Pocahontas was divided in two sections. Lower Pocahontas, located close to where Highway 16 currently runs through, is where the single men lived in 50 four-room houses. The conditions were cramped but the community had a lot to offer the men including a hotel, store, post office, hospital and railway station. The official buildings for the mine were also located in Lower Pocahontas. In Lower Pocahontas, many activities also took place, from the wholesome like baseball, to the terrible, like dog-fighting.
In Upper Pocahontas, families lived in 20 two-room houses that allowed for better conditions than what the single men were stuck with. Also in the upper part of town was the water tower, a school and a community hall.
Several residents would call the community home for a time, and these are just a few of them.
–Dr. A.E.W Snyder moved to the community in 1910 and was known for putting a bib on his dog and letting him eat at the table. For a time, the only doctor in the area could be found in Pocahontas and residents of Jasper had to travel to the community to be treated. The train that ran from Jasper to Pocahontas was also nicknamed the Bed Bug Express. Dr. Grey would also serve the community’s medical needs in later years.
–William Barclay, who had worked at the Bankhead Mine near Banff, moved to Pocahontas in 1914 and began mining there. Sadly, one year later he was killed in a mining accident and buried at the Pocahontas cemetery.
–Several Polish immigrants would come to Pocahontas during the 1910s as well. John Kwasney arrived from Bankhead in 1910. Nick and Katie Nikiforuk came from Poland and settled in Pocahontas in 1914. They remained there with their four children until moving to a homestead in 1921.
–Tracie Blackman and family moved to Pocahontas in 1912 and would remain for three years. In the community, John Blackman would be born on March 11, 1915.
With the outbreak of the First World War, it was good news and bad news for Pocahontas. Coal production was high for the war effort, but 100 kilometres of railway was torn up for the war effort. As such, Pocahontas would be stranded from the rail line, but the coal mine continued to be highly profitable. The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway would no longer be used at all after 1920.
Nearby to Pocahontas could be found Punchbowl Falls, which were often visited by miners and their families. Also nearby were hot springs, located just up the mountain. With the backbreaking work of mining taking its toll, many miners were happy to have a soak in the hot springs. In 1919, Ralph James was an outfitter working in Pocahontas and he began to take pack trips up to the hot springs. That same year, he and a group of miners built log barriers around the hot spring pools. The log barriers were sealed with mud and 12 men could go in a pool at a time. The pools would slowly drain their water through the night, but by morning would be full again.
Once the war was over, and with bad coal markets hitting the entire world, Pocahontas began to decline. Add in the lack of rail service for the community and things were not looking good. To make things even worse for Pocahontas, a thrust fault made it very difficult to get coal out, as did the growing lethal gas in the mine.
As a result, the mine ceased operation in 1921. Over the course of the mine’s life, it would pull 750,000 to 1 million tons of coal out of the mine, amounting to 40 cubic million feet.
Some mining still continued but everything officially stopped in 1930 when the Federal government passed the National Parks Act, which banned any resource development in National Parks.
Bob Stone would be the last member of the community, operating the post office until September 1937.
Today, Pocahontas is one of the most tourist friendly ghost towns in Alberta. Stopping by the Pocahontas Cabins, which themselves were built after the Second World War, you will find an interpretive trail and several buildings still standing both in Upper and Lower Pocahontas.
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