Essay by Marianne R. Williams in collaboration with Frederic Bigras-Burrogano
Driving into the Horseshoe Canyon is a majestic experience. The straight, flat prairie
highways give way to twisting roads that descend into an ancient valley . The layers of sand,
limestone and bentonite clay are easy to see, with black coal seams and Cretaceous ocean
beds rippled throughout. Composed of moonscape-like erosion formations, the canyon
features buttes, coulees, and gullies. Rock formations called hoodoos sprout from the ground.
They are natural yet transient vertical structures of soft sandstone differing in height and
shape. Eventually, the hoodoos will be destroyed. They will disintegrate into the landscape,
blown and washed away by millennia of wind and water. Horseshoe Canyon presents a
landscape unlike any other in Canada, its uniqueness amplified against the vibrant canola
and wheat of surrounding farmland. The viscosity of these valleys is misleading; solid
materials resemble liquids. Hardened mud looks like icing slipping off a cake, and the
ground turns to the consistency of thick yogurt after a brief rain, creating ephemeral caves
and unexpected sinkholes.
While I enjoy the unique beauty of the Horseshoe, I am even more intrigued by the
lore of its cousin canyon to the north, the Horsethief. It was created by a different tributary
of the Red Deer River, allegedly earning its name from a trade route that trafficked illegal
horses between Alberta and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For
the Indigenous peoples, both canyons were believed to be burial grounds of the bison
ancestors and the transitory hoodoos protectors of the ancient animals' spirits.
Drumheller, Alberta is a small rural town wedged in the middle of these canyon
landscapes, a headstone to a vast prehistoric graveyard. Although the land lacks the minerals
of the surrounding fertile loam, rendering it useless for farmland, it is flush with coal. The
Blackfoot peoples had been finding fossils (and telling European colonizers about them) for
centuries. However, it wasn’t until Joseph Burr Tyrrell, a mining geologist sent by the
Canadian Geological Survey in the late 1880s, accidently unearthed a dinosaur skull while
digging up a coal seam that the town became synonymous with paleontology.
White men were hardly the first to find fossils in Alberta. The Kainai Nation, whose
traditional territory is much farther south than Drumheller, has numerous spiritual and
cultural associations with ammonite, a fossilized mollusk named or buffalo stone
thought to ward off misfortune and bring protection from harm. Regardless, Tyrrell’s name
was chosen for the museum of paleontology established in Drumheller in 1985. It was later
conferred by the British monarch in 1990, an ineradicable reminder of Canadian colonial
settlement and the Western worldview of scientific progress. The Royal Tyrrell Museum
attracts over 380,000 visitors each year, more than 47 times the population of Drumheller,
creating a tourism infrastructure for the entire region.
In an economic boom cycle familiar to today’s Alberta, Drumheller and the
surrounding towns attracted thousands of coal miners, seemingly overnight, after the
discovery of coal in the late 19th century. Businesses, hotels and bars catering to coal miners
rapidly popped up. Only a few, such as the Rose Deer Hotel in Wayne, Alberta and the
Waldorf Hotel in downtown Drumheller, remain in operation today. Although the actual
mining operations have been shut down and abandoned for decades, remnants of the coal
mining history and culture are found throughout the region. Some areas were turned into
heritage sites and then into museums, like the Atlas Coal Mine located about 20 minutes
away from Drumheller.
The Waldorf Hotel, on the other hand, still functions as a bar and serves as an
organic site of living heritage. Rather than enshrine the history of an old coal mining hotel
under glass and interpretive panels, the Waldorf invites those truly interested in
Drumheller’s cultural history to visit the bar for a $3 can of beer. There’s no tour guide or
audio headset in this archive, simply a friendly bartender who told me about the ghosts of
old coal-mining tenants who haunt the hallways and play tricks on her when she’s alone.
The decor has evolved since the pinnacle of the coal mining days: glowing slot machines line
the walls of the pool room, and peeling polyurethane loveseats the shade of nicotine are
scattered under florescent lights. Inexplicably, a series of paintings of motorcycles and the
planet Jupiter hang on the walls in Gothic window frames. In order to comply with Albertan
liquor laws, the Waldorf must provide a selection of food suitable for a light snack in order to
serve alcohol, and so small bowls of assorted off-brand pretzels and cheese puffs can be
found around the bar or on top of the slot machines.
The hallways of the hotel are decorated with plastic flower vases and milk glass vases
on scratched china hutches filled with mismatched and threadbare towels. The distinctive
smell of decades of coal dust and tobacco hangs in the air and sticks to the carpet, creating an
olfactory experience both startling and familiar. The floor creaks and wheezes beneath your
feet. It’s a tired building, exhausted and barely breathing, but still alive. There are numerous
handwritten signs reminding guests and tenants not to smoke inside or on their fire escapes.
The architectural facade of the buildings in Drumheller appear as if taken out of an
old Western. Even in the middle of its frenetic summer tourist season, the streets are empty
at twilight. The props and backdrops of the town, dinosaur murals and sculptures, look like
the remains of a film set that halted production halfway through. The actors have all gone
home; the performances are all over. The landscape of the canyons, coated in taupes and
high contrast beiges that flicker and change throughout the day, in addition to the
surrounding ghost towns, reinforce this Wild West image. An eight-story fibreglass model of
a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the World’s Largest Dinosaur, overlooks the entire town and focalizes
the inescapable surrealness of Drumheller. Nowhere in Drumheller can you escape the
presence of a dinosaur.
As for its suburban neighbourhoods, you will see immaculately pruned hedges in the
shape of brontosauruses. All public art in Drumheller revolves around the prehistoric:
sabre-tooth tigers in front of a tractor dealership, triceratops outside the grocery store. One
dinosaur near the turnoff to the Royal Tyrrell Museum was painted and outfitted to appear
as a coal miner, complete with a cart and pickaxe. The impossible irony of a dinosaur mining
coal makes me pause. Its own organic body was compressed for millions of years and then
discovered as a non-renewable energy force that powers humanity’s most advanced
technology. I imagine what the strata of Drumheller will look like in another 45 million
years. Will our bodies, made of carbon, be compressed into a superfuel for some other
unimaginable life form in the future? Will this now dry and parched valley support a lush,
diverse rainforest garden as it once did in the Cretaceous period? Knowing there are no real
answers, I imagine a museum of plastic garbage, where a paleontologist in the very distant
future uncovers a bed of styrofoam coffee cups, and an exhibition of the fused minerals that
our cell phones will become.