Exploring Alberta’s Ghost Towns: Saunders, Alberta

Sunders Creek Mine Along the Canadian Northern Railway in 1914

Saunders, Alberta was a coal mining town found alongside the North Saskatchewan river between Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg. It is a popular place for hikers, adventurers, ghost town enthusiasts, and campers. It is found about 20km east of Kiska/Willson PLUZ.

We have guides on other Alberta Ghost Towns as well.

Table of Contents
The Creation of Saunders, Alberta

Saunders, Alberta was a coal mining town built to the north of the North Saskatchewan river. The town was founded in the early 1900s. Before the creation of the Canadian Northern railway’s Brazeau Branch line in 1913, the town was only accessible on horseback, or by boat VIA the North Saskatchewan River. The rail line was meant to connect Nordegg to coal markets across North America and towns such as Alexo and Saunders appeared alongside the tracks.

The town’s namesake is somewhat ironic in that it was named after H.E. Saunders who was a high-level Canadian Pacific Railway official – Canadian Northern Railway’s main competitor.

The Boom Times of Saunders, Alberta

With the arrival of the railway, the town experienced some growth in the years that followed. This growth was largely fueled by the abundance of sub-bitumous “C-Class” coal which was about half the energy content of the best coal – Anthracite. Nevertheless, this coal was popular in powering steam engines particularly for power generation due to its low cost.

Map of the Saunders Townsite (Image: Georgialh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Through the 1920s and 1930s, Saunders had developed quite the town around the mines – despite their population never exceeding 200. They constructed structures common in western towns such as a railway station, a school house, a hotel, a boarding house, a rooming house, a union hall, and several industrial mining buildings. There was about 35 homes is the town. Living in a coal mining town would be incredible boring with recreation facilities so they constructed some tennis courts, a skating rink, a baseball diamond, a pool hall, and even had their own sports teams (hockey and baseball).

Saunders was even able to build power stations and plumbing infrastructure making it one of the few coal mining towns with the luxury of water, sewage, and electricity.

The mines themselves used a standard – room and pillar method of mining in their early days but transitioned to the longwall method between 1926 and 1940 resulting in higher yields.

The Downfall of Saunders, Alberta

Like many resource dependent towns – the good times could not last forever. After World War II, the use of coal declined as oil became more available and the mines quickly became unprofitable with the lack of demand. In 1954, the mines closed for good and the residents left Saunders to find new opportunities. The townsite was eventually abandoned in its entirety.

Today, Saunders is a ghost town, and only a few buildings remain as a reminder of the town’s rich history.

Present Day Saunders, Alberta

Today, no buildings remain on the Saunders townsite however there is still evidence of the thriving coal mine town that once existed. The keen explorer can still find the massive waste piles common in coal mining towns. There is also a cemetery that can be found by hiking near the townsite. The mine is still visible, but it was collapsed when it was closed so visitors cannot go inside at all.

The coal piles leftover in Saunders, Alberta (Image: Georgialh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

There is also an abandoned railway trestle bridge near the Saunders Townsite that is a popular place for visitors. It is nearly directly north of the Provincial Recreation Area about 0.5km.

The Saunders Provincial Recreation Area is built near the original townsite and it is a popular place for campers looking to explore the ghost town.

How to Get to Saunders, Alberta

Starting at Rocky Mountain House

  1. Drive north on Highway 11 (David Thompson Highway) and follow it around the curve to the west
  2. After about 30km, you will see a sign on the road that marks the both the Saunders and Alexo Provincial Recreation Areas. The turn will be left.
    • Coordinates of entrance to Saunders/Alexo: 52°28’20.1″N 115°45’29.4″W
  3. For Saunders, you will want to turn left at the T-Intersection and for Alexo, turn right.

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Research References