Index for Alberta Coal Branch collection, A C Lynn Zelmer. 
Copyright © 1910-1997 A C Lynn Zelmer and other copyright holders

Alberta Coal Branch
Making the Collection

I was born and raised in Calgary and visited the Alberta Coal Branch as a young adult (1966) with another model railroader, returning on a number of other occasions with other friends and colleagues. The Coal Branch was in transition at that point. The old mines (underground and open pit) had essentially closed, their towns were mostly deserted, and only a few carloads of coal a month were being loaded, often using semi-manual technologies. The need for coal had not ceased, however, and leases were being reopened as open pit mines using modern drag lines, heavy haul trucks, and the single commodity predecessors of unit trains.

This project started in the early 1970s as a labour of love. Schools in Alberta were beginning to use resource-based teaching techniques and the Coal Branch seemed an ideal topic to showcase the skills of my fledgling multimedia production company. Through the kind cooperation of the Secretary Luscar Limited I obtained access to their of photographic collection (a mixture of professional images and snapshots) and newspaper scrapbooks, revealing a treasure trove of historical information. Additional information was provided by academic papers, written as new strip mines began to revitalise the area, as well as visits to provincial and national Archives, . To this information I added colour slides and several hundred feet of original black and white 16mm film footage, shot with the assistance of work colleagues.

Unfortunately for the project, I became involved in fee-paying activities and the work languished. When I immigrated to Australia in the late 1980s the 16mm film stock was donated to the Alberta Government Archives, although I retained the slides and other materials. The project was resurrected again in 1996 as I became more involved in model railroading and a video copy of the film in the archives was obtained. This NTSC video, likely reproduced from the work print rather than the original film stock, was then converted to PAL format for digitising and editing using an Avid Cinema card. Almost 100 slides were digitised for the project using Kodak Photo CD technology and other materials (black and white negatives, still photographs, and copies of newspaper clippings) were scanned using flatbed and transparency scanners

Making the Video

Identifying and digitising the relevant sections of the roughly 80 minutes of raw film/video took approximately two working days, plus another day making backup copies, etc.. Editing the video images, that is trimming the digital clips, sorting them into topic and order, preparing titles, and adding effects, took another three working days. The lack of a sound track greatly simplified this process and undoubtedly saved an additional four or more days of work.

From that point on much of the work, another roughly 5 working days, was done overnight. Preparing the final "movies" using Avid Cinema (version 1.1 for the Macintosh) took time and significant computer resources. An individual movie as a 1/16th of a screen image (160 x 120 pixels, up to 4 MB per minute of video) world wide web format, for example, requires at least 8 times the length of the movie to process. The quarter screen format (320 x 240 pixels, up to 60 MB of disk space per minute of video) requires at least 100 times the length of the final video (never less than 15-30 minutes) for compression and conversion but provides the most versatile presentation format. The video was prepared in both formats. Exporting ("printing") back to NTSC full screen video would likely take an additional two working days.

Developing the Still Images and Graphics

The Kodak Photo CD images were enhanced and converted to JPEG using PhotoShop. The 384 by 256 pixel resolution was used for most images to provide a reasonable screen image for large group presentation while holding file sizes to an acceptable level for minimising loading times and storage requirements. Matching (and recording) slide descriptions to Photo CD images required a full day in itself, with the selection and conversion process taking two full working days.

Incidentally, Photo CD images are simply numbered 001 through whatever (maximum 100 or 101) and their order on the disk may not have any relationship to the order in which they were originally submitted. The number of images on the CD also may not agree with the number of slides or negative sent for conversion nor the number returned. In this project 100 slides were sent for processing and returned, but only 97 had been scanned, with two of them flipped back to front and one only partially scanned (obviously a faulty feed in the scanner, the slide only partially passed by the scanning array). Matching images from original to digital CD is a challenge in such circumstances.

Some of the historical photographs were scanned using a flatbed scanner; others were digitised from black and white negatives using a transparency scanner. Most were scanned at roughly the same size as the colour images (larger for the "zoomed" images). They were then enhanced and converted to JPEG or GIF format using PhotoShop (PhotoShop 4, purchased during the course of the project, supports batch processing, making some aspects of the task easier).

As mentioned, some of the photographs were scanned so that they could be viewed as a small image and in a larger format for closer study ("zoomed" view). A number of other images provide the equivalent of a panoramic view. Unfortunately, since they were not composed and photographed with an adequate overlap between images for creating "virtual reality" images, they must be viewed as a sequence of individual photos.

The photographic originals ranged greatly in size and quality. Most of the purchased images (Geological Survey of Canada, Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta, Glenbow Archives (not used for copyright reasons) and Canadian National Railways) were original prints from professional photographers. The Luscar images, on the other hand, were reproduced from copy negatives shot from prints which ranged from public relations photos to amateur snapshots. Similarly, the quality of my own photographs varied. The variability slowed down the scanning process, resulting in roughly three days of intensive scanning, followed by two days of matching images to originals and preparing captions.

The variety of photographic sources was both a blessing and a curse. Some images came from more than one source, making identification somewhat easier, except when the identification was contradictory. For the most part, however, the exact location and date of the scenes is unknown. Among other things, the two decades plus delay in using the materials means that I no longer know what my notes on the Luscar Ltd scrapbooks and photo albums mean, particularly since Luscar Ltd operated at several locations in the Coal Branch.

Some drawings were prepared using Canvas, others using Freehand or Expression. Canvas works well for manipulating bitmap images resulting from scanning paper-based drawings (maps, etc.). Freehand works much better for preparing maps, track plans and other drawings while Expression allows more creativity in image manipulation.

The background images and icons were prepared from photographs using PhotoShop.

Making the Final Presentation

Developing the final presentation was relatively quick once the still and video images had been digitised. Since the package contains both specific materials for the NMRA presentation (the tour) and data on other times and localities within the Coal Branch, there are two ways to access the collection. First, the "guided tour" of Coalspur c 1970, then the "reference" approach using the index to select general topic areas or specific images.

The display format is frameless html so that it can be easily viewed on a variety of platforms. Client side mapping and an in-depth tour through one community (Coalspur) was used for some links but most of the materials were included in an indexed resource format so that the collection can be used as a reference tool. Ideally, it would be possible to search the whole collection for specific items using a simple "find" command, however, this will have to await installation on a web server with scripting capability.

The basic page design is intended to provide a consistent size and layout of pages. While the first priority was a projected image for the group presentation, the design also seems quite acceptable for a single user. Fortunately, most of the visuals have a horizontal (landscape) format, fitting well to the computer screen.

Most tour pages have "back", "next", and "tour" buttons, the latter providing access to a linked list of all the tour pages in presentation order. Some have a "+2" button which allows the viewer to skip the next page, a larger version of the current page. The single video in the tour is available from the Coalspur panorama with its image map for access to photos of specific building and other features.

Most of the reference pages, like the video pages, display without navigation tools. It is, therefore, necessary to use the browser's "back" button to return to the calling index page.

Computer Hardware and Software

A number of products were identified above; a more complete list of resources used (as far as can be remembered) included:


My sincere thanks to all those individuals and organisations which provided resource materials for this project, begun so many years ago. This includes, but is not limited to:

The video resources have been digitised from 16mm film located in the Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta, deposits number 88.634/5, 88.634/7, and 88.634/8, and shot by A C Lynn Zelmer with the assistance of Amy Elliott Zelmer and Robert N Christie.

The Alberta Coal Branch collection and its constituent resource materials copyright © 1910-1997 A C Lynn Zelmer and other copyright holders. Contact A Zelmer, Box 1414 Rockhampton Qld 4700 Australia; E-mail: . home page. Last updated 20/7/97.