The Hillcrest Mine Disaster

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The community of Hillcrest, located near the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta, was founded and fueled by coal. Charles Plummer Hill was a coal prospector who came north and created the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company on Jan. 31, 1905, with construction beginning on the community and mine starting that same year. Hill would work the mine on a small scale for seven years before he sold it to several interests including the Canadian Pacific Railway. The new owners were men from Montreal, and it was estimated that the mine was pulling out 1,200 to 1,300 tons of coal per day.

Seeing the potential for the coal mines of the area, the Canadian Pacific Railway soon built a spur line towards the new Hillcrest Mine. Before long, hundreds of people started to migrate to the area and by 1907, there were 1,000 people living in Hillcrest.

The workers in the mine enjoyed steady employment and many considered the mine to be one of the safest in the entire region. Perhaps that was the case for a few years, but everything would change on June 19, 1914, at 9:30 a.m.

Two-and-a-half hours earlier, the mine had started operations and 237 miners streamed into the mine ready for another day of work beneath the ground. Around that same time, William Adkin, the fire boss, completed his mine inspection and posted a notice stating there were low levels of methane gas and some cave ins at various parts of the mine.

Suddenly, an explosion tore through the tunnels, up the slopes and out the entrance of the mine. With the explosions consuming all of the oxygen, carbon dioxide gas, called blackdamp or after damp, would then rise to fatal levels. Levels of 13 per cent was enough to cause someone to lose consciousness and after the explosions it was believed the carbon dioxide levels were as high as 50 per cent, more than enough to kill everyone in the mine. The explosion was large enough that it was reported the concrete building located 20 feet from the mouth of the mine had its roof blown clean off.

As soon as the explosion happened, John Brown, who was the general manager and above ground, ran to the fan room to reverse the suction of air, which would push oxygen into the mine in the hopes that it would save miners who were trapped underneath. This action likely saved dozens of lives near the mouth of the mine.

Rescue efforts were attempted but the destruction of the entrance caused complications. By 11:30 a.m., about 40 men had escaped from the mine and most were given immediate treatment with early types of respirators and oxygen.

Smoke from the fires underground billowed into the air, and coal cars began to come to the surface with charred, disfigured and suffocated bodies of miners. Police were on hand to control the crowd as loved ones surged forward to see if they had lost a relative or friend in the disaster. Even some people on the surface were killed, including two rope riders and Sam Charleton, another fire boss who was preparing to lay charges at Old Level Mine One

The Calgary Herald would report quote:

“The scenes around the mine tell a terrible tale of the havoc wrought at the fearful force of the explosion. It is only with the greatest difficulty the gangs of rescuers, armed as they are with the latest scientific devices for saving life in such cases, can make any headway. Men, horses, timber and rails and wagons are jumbled in chaotic mass and the path is strewn at every step with the debris, so that only those men who were fortunate enough to have been working near the pit mouth have any chance of being brought out alive.”

Men who had mining experience would state that there was no way anyone working in the innermost pit of the mine could have come out alive.

Rescue trains were immediately dispatched from Calgary, Lethbridge and Fernie, with another special car rushing in from Blairmore. Six gangs of men were working using pull-motors and wearing special gear to protect them from dangerous fumes, to clear the mine entrance and rescue anyone they could.

George Vicars would state quote:

“The mine was still heavily impregnated with gas, and it was with difficulty that the rescuers worked their way to places where men had been working. Three of the rescuing party were overcome by gas and had to be carried out. When we reached the death trap, we saw bodies strewn in every direction and lying in every conceivable position.”

Vicars would state that one man was found in a kneeling position with the pick in his hand ready to strike. Most of the bodies were rigid in their places and the legs and arms had to be broken to get them into what was called quote:

“Presentable condition.”

As bodies came to the surface, they were taken to the washhouse where they were cleaned and identified if possible. They were then taken to the Miner’s Hall in the village, 800 feet below the main slopes.

At the hall was a sad state of affairs, full of people who were identifying their loved ones. The Winnipeg Tribune would state quote:

“Wives and children wept together, and even strong men broke down and bowed their heads to the inevitable. Widows were led away from the last fond gaze of all that is mortal of their husbands, and the moist eyes of onlookers were not a few. It was not infrequent that the lids of caskets were opened, and kisses imprinted on the cold lips of loved ones.”

Often, identification was not easy due to the state of the bodies.

The Saskatoon Daily Star would report quote:

“Many of the bodies were almost unrecognizable. Arms were torn out and one man’s head was completely blown off, while nearly everybody was charred to a crisp.”

It was stated that not a man who did not escape the mine within the first five minutes lived.

The directors of the mine would release a statement saying quote:

“In planning our mine we constructed two distinct entries about a half mile apart, which are connected underground, and great precaution has always been taken in the ventilating of the mine. Our engineer’s weekly report just received states the ventilation was good in all parts. We are at an utter loss to understand how such a tremendous catastrophe could have happened.”

The youngest person to die in the explosion was Alexander Petrie, who was only 17. His family would deal with a great deal of tragedy that day, as Alexander’s two brothers also lost their lives. Alexander had only worked in the mine for three weeks, and as the miners were paid monthly, he had not even received his first paycheque when he died.

Charles Elick had survived the Frank Slide of 1903 when part of Turtle Mountain collapsed and fell on the town of Frank, killing 100 people. He had been trapped in the mine when the collapse happened, but he and his co-workers dug themselves out after 13 hours. Elick then moved to Hillcrest with his family but unfortunately, he would not survive a second mine disaster. The day after he died in the mine disaster at Hillcrest, his wife Julia gave birth to their son. Julia was left to raise five children on her own, in a time before social welfare programs existed.

Edgar Johnson had lost his wife to a heart attack in 1912, leaving him to raise his five children alone. He would take his three youngest children east to be cared for by relatives, while he planned to go back to Hillcrest to work with his sons Alfred and William. Unfortunately, he was kicked in the stomach by a horse and died from complications. A few months later, his son Alfred married Florence, the daughter of a coal miner. On the day of the disaster, Alfred and William went underground and would be killed in the disaster. For Florence, the disaster was heartbreaking as she would lose not only her husband and brother-in-law, but Alfred’s best man at the wedding, her own father and many friends and neighbours.

Dan Cullingham was not supposed to work until the afternoon, but he filled in for his friend J.D. Redmonson, who was sick.

Tom Corkill had just bought a farm near Lethbridge, and he planned for this trip into the mine to be his last ever journey underground. As it turned out, this was tragically the case for him.

Some people turned out to be very lucky. William Dodd decided that since the mine had been closed the previous two days, and since it was a Friday, he was not going to go to work. That decision would save his life.

H. Yeaden would survive the disaster and he would state quote:

“I can remember hearing the explosion and that is about all I know, with the exception of dropping down to the floor of the drift near some water…Next thing I knew after that was when I was told the physicians had been using a pulmotor on me for 45 minutes. They said they feared I would never come to, but I am here to tell the tale.”

As soon as Yeaden was brought back to consciousness, he immediately got down to working to rescue other miners, staying at the site until 2 a.m. He would add quote:

“You know it must be an easy death to be suffocated with gas for I felt no pain and would never have known the difference had I never been brought to. I am glad to know the poor fellows down there now suffered no pain.”

William Guthro was rushing with others to the mouth of the mine when he suddenly found his mining boot had been caught in the mining rail track. He quickly took out his pocket knife and cut his boot off his foot and then proceeded to safety wearing just one boot.

Malcolm Link and Charles Jones were in the No. 15 chute when they heard what they thought was a cannon. They dropped to their hands and feet and crawled to safety.

Arnold Valley was another person who survived the blast. He would say quote:

‘I just heard the report and then I rushed to safety. There were a number of others around me, and I can remember stumbling over a dead horse on the way out.”

Steve Belopotosky was supposed to work the morning shift, but he switched with a friend who wanted to meet his wife at the train station in the afternoon. The decision proved tragic for his friend and his friend’s wife, but it would save the life of Belopotosky.

Joe Atchison was the first man to be rescued from the mine unconscious after the explosion. He would finally awake three hours later. Afterwards, he would state quote:

“I was working some distance in slant No. 2 and did not hear the report of the explosion. It was just as if I had suddenly gone deaf or as if two four-inch nails had been driven in my ears. That is how it felt. I was bowled over by the shock and scrambled to my feet. Almost instantly black smoke began to come around the slant.

Pete Dujay was working 50 feet from the entrance when he felt the explosion. He would walk through the smoke, falling over two dead horses and three dead men, before he reached the open air.

Of the 237 men who went down into the mine that day, only 48 came out. It remains, the worst mining disaster in Canadian history. The death of 189 people amounted to 20 per cent of the population of the town and half the population of its mine workforce. The disaster left 90 women widowed and 250 children lost their fathers. On one street alone there were now 13 widows. All the bodies had been collected from the mine within a week, except for two, which was found in July. The last body was never found. Many of those who died were buried in two mass graves at the Hillcrest Cemetery.

The Winnipeg Tribune would describe the funeral as one of the saddest in Canada’s history, adding quote:

“The funeral was an impressive one all the more on account of the number of internments, and the little town of Hillcrest for many a day will date its time from this tragic Sunday.”

Of the victims, 43 were from Austria, 30 were Ukrainian immigrants, including six from the same village in the Ukraine. Of those who died, only 17 were born in Canada, with only two from Alberta, and the rest were all immigrants who had come to the country looking for a better life. For any miner from Austria, their families received no compensation until peace was declared between Austria and Great Britain, which would not come until Nov. 11, 1918.

The disaster made worldwide news before it faded from the front pages as the world moved towards the First World War. King George V would even give a brief message about the disaster, he stated quote:

“I am grieved to hear through the press of the terrible disaster at Hillcrest coal mine by which it is feared hundreds have lost their lives. Please express my deepest sympathy with the sufferers and also with the families of those who have perished.”

Prime Minister Robert Borden would also express his sympathy for the lives lost in the disaster and pledged financial assistance for those left behind. The government would announce on June 23 that $50,000 was being provided for a Hillcrest Mine Relief Fund, amounting to about $1.2 million today.

The Alberta government would pledge $20,000, while Alberta Premier Clifford Sifton gave $500. Several other prominent individuals, including Timothy Eaton, would donate between $150 and $1,000. The City of Calgary gave $2,500 and the City of Lethbridge pledged $2,000. In all, by July 6, $82,875 had been raised, amounting to nearly $2 million today.

The government would also send out an expert to determine the cause of the mine disaster.

The world was hungry for news of the disaster as well, leading to some people showing images of the devastation at movie theatres across Canada. On June 23, only days after the explosion, one person was putting on a Hillcrest Mine Disaster showing at the Empress Theatre in Calgary, with an advertisement that stated quote:

“This is positively no fake but genuine scenes of the world’s most terrible mining catastrophe taken on the spot by the Empress theatre camera man.”

By July 6, mining operations would start up again, albeit on a small scale, at Hillcrest.

The disaster had happened on payday, and the cheques of the miners went into a trust fund, leaving the widows who had to raise children alone without money to live on or feed their children. Relief programs would be initiated around Canada, and many people would begin to donate money. Initiatives would be launched by several newspapers and even the mayor of nearby Lethbridge would come to Hillcrest with a large order of groceries and flour to help families out.

In order to get any compensation from the mining company, families of victims were forced to sue and only some received money. It would not be until February of 1915 that it was announced, with several newspapers calling it a generous agreement, that widows and orphans at Hillcrest would get $250,000 collectively.

Most only received $1,800 per victim, about $43,000 today, and it took as much as a year to get the money.

A Royal Commission was launched quickly to determine the cause of the disaster, along with police investigations and a coroner’s inquest. What was found was that there had been a methane gas explosion, which caused a flare up of coal dust, which then resulted in a coal dust explosion. Some reported a third explosion as well. Even today though, it is not known what ignited the methane gas. It could have been any number of things including a rock fall, a lamp flare, an electric cable short or even someone disobeying the rules and lighting a cigarette. One mine pit boss would state that he believed the first explosion was caused by gunpowder used in blasting, the second explosion was then set off by the first explosion, followed by a third explosion.

The disaster would prompt improvements in the province to workers compensation, and mine safety legislation. One such change was that every mine had to have its own rescue team trained and ready with self-contained breathing apparatus to get in right away to begin rescuing miners.

The mine would suffer another explosion in 1926, when two miners died. By 1939, the mine had closed down and Hillcrest experienced a downturn in its economy.

A monument was placed at the site to honour the victims.

In 1990, James Keelaghan recorded the song Hillcrest Mine.

Information from CBC, Calgary Herald, Alberta Culture and Tourism, Wikipedia, Hillcrest Mine Disaster, Coal Miners Memorial, Calgary Herald, The Montreal Gazette,

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