The Real Price of Coal, by Rick Morgan

The Crowsnest Pass, the most southerly of the passes across the Rockies on the Canadian side of the border, straddles the BC Alberta border at the height of land near the historic settlement of Crowsnest. At its westerly limit, at Elko, BC, the Pass is only 20 miles north of the Montana border. From Elko, the route stretches approximately 75 miles to Lundbreck, Alberta, its easterly limit.

The Pass, replete with numerous ghost towns and mine ruins has a colorful past with tales of fugitives, bootleggers, railway feuds, bitter strikes and mine closures. Above all else though, it is known for its tragedies. Since the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway southern route from Lethbridge to Nelson in 1899, there have been over 500 coal mine fatalities along this brief stretch of highway. In 1903 almost 90 million tons of limestone slid down Turtle Mountain burying the mine and a part of the town of Frank killing 89 people. In 1908 a forest fire raged through the Elk Valley levelling the town of Fernie killing up to 22 people. The area is the site of both the worst coal mine disaster in Canada which occurred at Hillcrest Mines on the Alberta side on 19 June 1914 (189 fatalities) and the third worst coal mine disaster in the country which occurred at Coal Creek on the BC side on 22 May, 1902 (130 fatalities)

The second worst coal mining disaster in the country happened right here on Vancouver Island on the 3 May, 1887 at the Esplanade No. 1 pit in Nanaimo (148 fatalities). The fourth worst disaster occurred in Springhill, Nova Scotia, not the better known 1956 and 1958 disasters which killed 39 and 74 miners respectively but the 21 February, 1891 explosion which took 125 lives. Nova Scotia has a much longer history of underground coal mining than BC and Alberta. Between 1838 and 1992 the Nova Scotia government database indicates there were 2,426 coal mine fatalities.

The lists of disasters donít tell the whole story. Most coal mine accidents involved one or two workers and were usually due to falls of rock or coal or haulage accidents and sad to say were too numerous to record accurately. For immediate families and friends every death was a disaster but multiple deaths, usually attributed to explosions of methane and coal dust or underground flooding were more apt to make headlines. Explosions of methane and coal dust were usually followed by deadly "Afterdamp" a mixture of gases which would snuff out the lives of those who did not immediately succumb to the initial blast.

As devastating as these figures are, they pale in comparison to those in the homelands from which the mostly immigrant miners of this country came.

Benxihue, ChinaApril 26, 19421,549 killedWorst in the world
Courrieres, FranceMarch 10, 19061,099 killedWorst in Europe
Senghenydd, WalesOct. 14, 1913439 killedWorst in the U.K.
Monongah, W.VirginiaDec. 06, 1907362 killedWorst in the USA

This is by no means meant to be a contest as to which region had the worst disaster. Far from it; the various coal regions across the country and the communities founded on early coal mining which were established within them share a common heritage. For those interested in heritage preservation, what is needed is for these communities to "come together" not compete with each other.

In reference to the rapid rise in coal mining in the latter part of the 19th century it has been said that

  • While expansion became rapid the coal industry ultimately had only a limited impact on Canadian development as a whole.
  • Instead of having a major national impact the industry had a series of regional impacts.

The author, William Wylie(1), attributes this to the fact that the different coal regions in Canada didnít compete with each other for markets due to the distances involved and that the coal industry in Canada has been largely a series of discreet regional operations.

This is very true but heritage and its impact on Canadian society is much more than markets and profit and loss statements. Heritage concerns people and it was the people, whether they were the entrepreneurs who provided the funding and leadership or the mostly immigrant miners who actually produced the resource, that fueled the industrial revolution which would define this country as we know it today. The same financiers who created the mine mergers in Nova Scotia were involved in the mergers of coal companies in Western Canada such as Pacific Coast Coal Mines. The workers moved from camp to camp wherever they could find work. This could be the result of mine closures, a whim of the owners or a worker being blacklisted and having to move elsewhere in order to survive. Evidence of the profits of the coal barons can be found in the Heritage home registers of places like the Golden Square mile in Montreal or the Rockland/Oak Bay district in Victoria. Evidence of the losses can be found in the various fatality lists for the different coal mining regions. This is the real price of coal and it impacted all mining families whether they lived on Vancouver Island or as far east as Pictou county and Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.

This year, June 19th, 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster, Canadaís worst, and an event which will capture national attention is being planned. In 2000 local organizers in the area erected a memorial to the 189 miners who died at Hillcrest but they also wanted to commemorate all the early miners across the country that perished. Surrounding the monument are cement pillars on which are inscribed all coal mining disasters across Canada involving 3 or more workers. Vancouver Island with its rich coal mining past is well represented here. In preparation for the centenary, John Kinnear2, writer historian from the Pass, has been hard at work the past couple of years correcting errors and omissions on the pillars in preparation for the June event.

In addition to acknowledging our common heritage, the Friends of the Morden Mine have another reason for recognizing this event. Hillcrest Colliery and the community are named after its founder, Charles Plummer Hill, an American prospector and mine promoter who had discovered the property and formed the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company which began operations in 1905. . In December, 1908 after a series of altercations with government inspectors Hill wrote to the head of CPRís Mining and Metallurgical Department and managing director of the CPR smelter in Trail, W.H. Aldridge telling him that he intended to sell for health reasons and was giving him first option to buy.

Following the sale of Hillcrest in 1909, Hill remained a director and was still heavily invested in the company. However the new group of owners comprised of Montreal financiers made it very clear they did not want Hill involved in the day to day operations of the mine. Hill moved to Montreal establishing his residence at 1 Macgregor Road in the Golden Square and became involved with other mining ventures including a group centred in Montreal and Toronto who would become the new owners of Pacific Coast Coal Mines here on the island following its merger into Pacific Coast Collieries in 1912. In 1921 Hill and his wife moved to Victoria to retire taking up residence in a palatial home named "Hillhaven" at 724 Esquimalt Rd. Enid Hill passed away at home on October 26, 1932 and Charles died in Pasadena on November 29, 1940 at the age of 78. His body was shipped back to Victoria for burial at Royal Oak cemetery next to his wife. Effective March 31, 1940, the same year Hill passed away, Hillcrest Collieries was abandoned for good and the underground workings were sealed. Hillhaven on Esquimalt Road with its view over West Bay, the strait and the Olympic Range behind it was demolished in 1971.

The Hillcrest Mine Disaster

On the morning of June 19th 1914, Fireboss, William Adlam stepped from the No. 1 entrance of the Hillcrest Mine at 6:20 having just completed his inspection in preparation for the arrival of the morning shift at 7:00 am. He posted notices in the lamphouse indicating he had found two new cave-ins and indications of gas in seven rooms but no more than usual. In six of the rooms there was enough gas to put out his light and these he fenced off. The mine had been idle for two days prior to the explosion due to an over-production of coal which could result in a greater risk of accumulated gas. Inspections continued during the shutdown and on the morning of June 18th, fire boss Dan Briscoe reported a small quantity of gas in No. 3 south entry but ventilation was as usual, coal dust normal and there was lots of moisture in the mine which would mitigate the chances of a coal dust explosion. That same day, the pit committee composed of workmen appointed by the UMWA union had toured the three major workings of the mine. They found gas in two rooms but ventilation and general conditions were good.

The original mine entrance, No. 1 slope, entered the mine through a rock tunnel about 200 feet long then dipped down Slant No. 1 for another 1200 feet from where a series of tunnels radiated out. A second mine opened 500 feet south of here, known as No. 2. It descended into the side of the mountain along Slant No. 2 for 2400 feet where it joined Slant No. 1 by two main intersecting tunnels, Level 1 and Level 2 South. A series of tunnels ran out from these levels again giving access to the coal seams. A 3rd major tunnel, Level 1 North, swept in a large semi circle from a point 900 feet down Slant No. 2 but this was the only entrance to this section of the mine.

Around 7:00 am 228 men stopped at the Lamphouse to pick up their lamps and tags. All lamps had been checked and found to be in good shape. At 9:00 am 7 more workers entered the mine bringing the total in the mine to 235. Somewhere between 9:15 am and 9:30 the Hillcrest Mine exploded.

The force of the explosion was of such magnitude that it tore the roof off the engine house situated 125 feet outside the entrance to No. 1 mine and demolished the 8 inch concrete wall of this building facing the mine entrance. The engineer inside the building miraculously survived the blast but was injured. 19 year old rope rider, Charles Ironmonger who was at the entrance to No. 1 was picked up and hurled against the hoist house. He died on being admitted to hospital. Of the 235 men who entered the mine that morning only 46 who were working nearer the No. 2 entrance would survive.

News reached Coleman by telephone and a few minutes later Dr. Ross and Chief of Police Ford rushed to the scene by automobile followed by Dr. Conolly and most of the nurses in town. The first few miners who succeeded in escaping by way of No. 2 slope had just emerged from the mine. Some of them as well as others on the scene attempted to rush back into the mine to assist their co-workers but were held back by Chief Ford assisted by Constable Paynter of the Bellevue Mounted Police until an organized rescue squad could be sent into the mine. Chief Ford, a survivor of the 1910 Bellevue mine disaster just across the valley was well aware of the effects of the deadly "afterdamp" which invariably follows an explosion such as this. The repetitive blasts of the steam whistle alerted the residents in Hillcrest and wives and off-shift workers immediately headed up the hill to the mine.

Initial rescue attempts were made by those who survived the blast but they had no breathing apparatus. The Alberta Mine Rescue car containing breathing apparatus and resuscitation equipment parked on a side track near Blairmore was brought to the site followed by special trains from Lethbridge, Fernie and Calgary containing rescue equipment, supplies and trained mine rescue crews but by 3 pm on the afternoon of June 19 it became apparent there would be no further survivors found. At the time of the disaster the community of Hillcrest had a population of about 1000 people. The disaster wiped out almost the entire adult male population leaving 130 widows and 400 children without a father.

Current view of engine house outside No. 1 Mine entrance.

Courtesy J. Kinnear personal collection.

Details concerning events leading up to the disaster, rescue attempts and subsequent formal investigations are provided in the well documented book provided by Steve Hanon entitled "The Devils Breath, the story of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster of 1914." There is also a 48 minute video done by the author using the same title. Reporters who arrived at the scene had a difficult time getting interviews amid the chaos and carnage. In many cases to make news, they resorted to gross embellishments and even complete fabrications of what happened.

Another excellent source of information on the Hillcrest disaster is the website by Mary Bole and Belle Kovach. In addition to providing a list of names, the authors provide information on the nationalities, compensation schedules for the survivors, genealogical information on each worker. It is interesting to note the breakdown of nationalities. Of the 17 miners born in Canada only two were native Albertans, 1 was American and 14 were born in Nova Scotia.

The ethnic origins of the victims were as follows:

American 5Belgian 2English 45German 1Scottish 26Welsh 7
Austrian* 43Canadian 17French 7Italian 35Swedish 1

*These miners were from the following countries or areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Bohemia, Bukovina, Czechoslovakia, Galicia, Hungary, Poland, Slovak, Ukraine

In spite of a coronerís inquest and a special enquiry into the disaster presided over by an independent judge, the exact cause which set off the explosion was never determined. Nine days after the Hillcrest Explosion, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in far off Europe and the miners of Hillcrest were forgotten in the ensuing world war that followed.

Today coal is a dirty word, immediately evoking negative connotations but then so does the word "War." Where former governments had the foresight to assign park status to former mines from this era such as Morden and provide some means of protection from the developerís bulldozer blade, the park has now taken on more importance than the reason it was first established. Do we ignore the sacrifices made by our war veterans? In the case of coal mining heritage the prevalent attitude changes from "Less We Forget" to "Best We Forget." Coal mining communities need to unite and provide a common front against this apparent obliteration of our shared heritage.

1 William Wylie, King Coal: Coal Mining in Canadian History, Historical Services Branch 1995
2 John Kinnear writes a regular article for the Crowsnest Pass Herald entitled "Looking Back"