July 24th, 2024

Hillcrest mine victims to be honoured

By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on June 22, 2024.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

On June 19, 1914, just two hours after they began their day shift at the Hillcrest mine in the Crowsnest Pas, 189 men – the oldest being 46 – died when a gas explosion ripped through it.
The disaster was the worst in Canadian history and it will be commemorated Sunday in a ceremony at 1 p.m. in the Hillcrest ceremony.
The disaster 110 years ago on the edge of the town of 1,000 left 90 women widowed and hundreds of children without their fathers.
Many of the killed are buried side by side in a special section of the cemetery.
Sunday’s service will be conducted by Chaplain Philip Costain and remarks will be made by Chelsea Petrovic, MLA, Livingstone-Macleod, as well as representatives from the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass and organizations including Coal Association of Canada, United Miner Workers of America, Sentinel Summit Lodge #26 and Crowsnest Pass Heritage organizations.
Jeanne Shafer, a descendant of the Petrie family which lost three miners in the disaster, will lay a wreath on behalf of families followed by others.
Alexander Petrie was only a teenager when he was killed in the mine along with brothers James and Robert. Their brother Andrew later married Kate Anderson, whose husband Robert was another victim.
A reception is planned for the Hillcrest Miner’s Club after the service. A tour of the cemetery will be conducted by staff of the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre from noon until 12:45 p.m.
Most of the men killed in the mine were immigrants with only 17 born in Canada, two of them in Alberta.
The miners came from a range of countries including Italy, Great Britain, Belgium, France as well as nations in eastern Europe including Ukraine, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Galicia.
Fred Bradley of the Crowsnest Heritage Initiative said the impact on the community had to be huge with such a large loss of life. While survivors were compensated, he believes that amounted to $25 per widow and $5 per child.
According to The Lethbridge Daily Herald on Feb. 13, 1915, Hillcrest Collieries agreed to pay miners’ dependents a total of $250,000 after the company signed an agreement with the United Mine Workers of of America.
While the disaster briefly made headlines, it was quickly ignored, if not forgotten, because the First World War broke out a mere nine days later.
King George V sent a a message of condolence, stating “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.”
The mine continued operating until its owner Hillcrest Collieries went into liquidation in 1938 and the mine closed in 1939. A second explosion at the mine on Sept. 19, 1926 resulted in the deaths of two men.
At 9:40 a.m. on the fateful day, residents were alerted that something had happened when they heard three blasts from the mine’s whistle.
“A spark that could have been set off in any number of ways—a rock fall, a lamp flare, an electric cable short, even a forbidden cigarette—ignited methane gas, stirring up coal dust and then triggering additional blasts all along the mine tunnels, says Alberta government website history.alberta.ca
“The initial explosions were not the only danger. The explosions would have consumed the oxygen, while poisonous carbon dioxide gas, called “blackdamp” or “afterdamp” would have risen to fatal concentrations. Not even those above ground escaped danger as the force of the blast destroyed the 20 centimetres (eight inches) thick concrete wall of the hoist house,” says the website.
Rescuers with, and without, gas masks searched during the day for survivors as families waited for word of their loved ones.
“Hillcrest was widely regarded as being a well-run mine, but no amount of educated and humane management could completely eliminate the dangers of removing a combustible material from beneath earth,” says the website.
Some miners lost other family members including siblings in the disaster such as Italy native Nicholas Albanese, a bucker, whose brother Dominic, a father of four children, also was killed.
Another Italian immigrant, Luigi Fortunato, died along with his brother Vincenzo.
George Demchuck, a native of Ukraine in his early 20s, also died along with his brother Nicholas.
Two members of the Porteous family, who came to Canada from Scotland, perished. But not only did brothers Alexander and James die in the mine, their brother-in-law Thomas Quigley was also killed while another brother George and their father Alex Sr. were also at work that day but not inside the mine.
Thomas Turner and his brother William were other siblings who perished that day.
Sidney Bainbridge, who immigrated to Canada from England in 1891, left behind a wife and four children, one a mere 15 months old.
John Foster, a native of England, who came at the age of 11 with his family to Lethbridge, arrived in Blairmore in 1911 and left behind as survivors his parents and three siblings. His father William enlisted in the armed forces in 1916 to fight in the war.
The names of all the dead and brief stories on them can be found online at http://www.hillcrestminedisaster.com/ thanks to research done by Belle Kovach and Mary Bole.
Commemoration efforts began when the Pass historical society was formed, said Bradley, with a push being made to pay tribute to the 60th anniversary of the disaster in 1974.
The tragedy was still fresh in the minds of many area residents, he said.
The history of mining in the Pass dates back to the 1890s when coal was discovered on the eastern slope of Turtle Mountain, according to website historicplaces.ca
American Charles Plummer Hill staked his claim to mineral rights and organized the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company, selling the company in 1907 to developers who changed the name to Hillcrest Collieries Limited.
The blast wasn’t the first mining tragedy to hit the Pass, though. In 1910, 30 miners lost their lives in the nearby Bellevue mine and three were killed in an explosion at Coleman in 1907. Seven died in an explosion at a Michel, B.C. mine in 1904. In 1916, another 12 miners died in an explosion in Michel while 34 died in 1917 at Coalcreek and 10 more in Coleman in 1926.

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