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Bellevue Underground Mine gives visitors a glimpse of what it's like to work underground
Imagine stepping back in time and entering a dark underground passage where only coal miners once dared to step foot.
The air is cold and still. The smell of sulfur lingers as an interpreter regales visitors of all ages with tales of the underground miners of the Crowsnest Pass.
Diane Peterson, executive director of the Bellevue Underground Mine, leads some of the hour-long tours herself.
"When you come in, you're going to have the same experience [the miners] did 100 years ago," she says.
The Bellevue Underground Mine, run by the Crowsnest Pass Ecomuseum Trust Society, is approximately a three-hour drive south of Calgary. Peterson says people who come to visit the former coal mine will put on the same equipment as the coal miners did, which was active from 1903 to 1961.
Although the mine is open to the public in the summer months, Peterson suggests visitors bring warm jackets.
"Even on the warmest days when you find it's 30 degrees outside, it's only seven degrees underground; cold enough to see your breath," she says.
Peterson also suggests wearing good walking footwear, although sandals are allowed. The mine floor is a very flat dirt surface with no rails, so there are very few tripping hazards, she says.
Visitors will be going through two different coal seams; the same seams the coal cars used to enter and leave the mine, she says.
There were 14 different coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass, she adds, and the Bellevue Underground Mine was the easiest mine to access at the time for restoration.
While public tours are also available at the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site in Drumheller, Peterson says the difference at the Bellevue Underground Mine is that they are able to open the actual mine and take people back along some of the same paths. This makes the Bellevue Underground Mine Tour the only such experience in Western Canada, Peterson says.
The restoration of the Bellevue Underground Mine took place in the late '80s, while the mine opened for tours in the early '90s.
One ex-miner's memories
Roy Lazzarotto Jr., 58, has ties with the Bellevue Underground Mine.
He says his father was on the restoration team with five other men, who went into the mine to clean it up.
The team fixed the ditch to keep the stream in the mine moving, fixed some of the raises and put up new timbers, explains Lazzarotto Jr.
An ex-underground miner himself, he started working at an underground mine when he was about 17 years old for about six years. When he started working, it was mechanical mining with continuous miners and shuttle cars.
Lazzarotto Jr. says that when he visits the Bellevue Underground Mine and sees some of the equipment, he has memories of working underground.
"Some of us young guys had no fear. Some of us, we'd turn our lamps off and hide behind a timber and scare everybody," he says, adding that there was always some horseplay mixed in with the coal mining work.
"That's one thing you learn about comradeship. You may not like a guy, but when you went to work Monday, you looked after his back because if he didn't look after yours, well, that could be the end there.... You looked after each other," he says.
Lazzarotto Jr. says he has donated some of his mining items to the small museum located outside the Bellevue Underground Mine.
Monica Field, area manager at the nearby Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, says coal mining is a large part of the Crowsnest Pass.
The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre and the Government of Alberta put a lot of time and effort into the survival of the Bellevue Underground Mine tours before the mine tours became operated independently about 12 years ago, she says.
Visitors are interested in the lives of coal miners and what it was like to be in an underground coal mine.
"Most of our visitors had someone in their family who was a coal miner, Field says. "It was something they could relate to. I think it was almost romantic, even though it was a very difficult life to think of underground miners."
She adds that the Bellevue Underground Mine complements the other historical resources in the Crowsnest Pass.
"You can tell the story of underground mining at the surface, but until you actually take people underground and turn all the lights off down there, [people] don't really get it," she says.
The mining experience
Today, the mine is extremely safe, says Peterson. Every'day, a mine inspector (a past underground miner) spends a great deal of time testing, measuring and looking at everything inside the mine before anyone else is allowed in, she explains.
As well, the interpreters have instruments and monitors they take in with them while leading tours, she adds.
"In all our years of operation, we've never ever had a problem in the mine, but that doesn't mean we don't still conduct the due diligence every day," Peterson says.
One of the research projects the Bellevue Underground Mine is working on involves numbers being given out to each visitor before the tour starts. After the tour, visitors will find that their number represents an actual coal miner.
"You'll learn his name, his fate – did he live to an old age or did he die young.... It's a wonderful way to be able to pass on history," she says.
Peterson tells a story of one ex-coal miner who told her he would pack an extra sandwich for his crew the night before work the next day. The crew would then share the extra sandwich before they went in the mine.
"He said every day you had to stop and realize you didn't know which of those days would be the last day you would share lunch with that man," Peterson says."Because he knew going underground every day, that could be the day they died."
She hopes the project will be up and running by the end of the summer.
The Bellevue Underground Mine is open for tours starting in mid-May to early September.