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THE HILLCREST MINE DISASTER


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And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine,
And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine;
'Cause it's one short step, you might leave this world behind,
And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine.

From Hillcrest Mine by James Keelaghan
©1988 Tranquilla Music

THE DISASTER


The worst coal mining disaster in Canada occurred in Hillcrest, Alberta, on Friday June 19, 1914. A total of 189 men died. 130 women were widowed and 400 children left fatherless. The workers were members of the United Mine Workers of America and among the other mining communities in the Crowsnest Pass -- Burmis, Leitch Collieries, Maple Leaf and Bellevue -- Hillcrest was considered to be the safest, best run operation of them all. There were 377 men on the Hillcrest Mine payroll and the average wage was a respectable $125.00 a month. The Hillcrest catastrophe occurred just before the maelstrom of World War I, and perhaps as a consequence, was forgotten by the Canadian public. Fifty years later, author and historian Frank W. Anderson researched the story of what happened at Hillcrest, and in 1969 he wrote Canada's Worst Mine Disaster. Most of the information and photos used on this website has been taken from this book.

Soccer Team
Hillcrest Soccer Team

BACK-- F. Bostock (killed); M. Dickenson (killed); W. Rochester (killed); T. Dugdale ; W. Miller (killed);
unknown ; R. Dugdale ; H. Jepson ; Mr. Fisher ; J. Moorehouse (survived)
FRONT-- W.G. Miller (killed); J. Dugdale ; J. Varley (survived); W. Kyle ; Wm. Fines (killed)


On that Friday morning in June, the mine had been idle the previous two days due to overproduction of coal. Before 7:00 AM, the fireboss, William Adkin, had completed his mine inspection and posted a notice in the lamphouse warning of some low levels of methane gas along with some cave-ins in various parts of the mine. Methane gas was always present in the mine, but for it to explode it had to be above 5% and less than 14%. Coal dust itself was highly explosive, but it could be kept in check if there was enough moisture to dampen it. Moisture levels that day were considered adequate. The lamphouse was where the men would pick up their miner's lamp and deposit or pick up their "checks" -- the small brass numbered tags which the timekeeper used to keep track of time worked. There were two checks in the lamp house used to identify a miner. When the miner went in the mine, he picked up both and handed one to the timekeeper who placed it on a board. That told the timekeeper that the miner was in the mine. When the miner left the mine after his shift, he deposited his second check on the board in the lamphouse next to the other one. This system showed that the man who had entered the mine, had come out safely.

The sun was starting to rise that June morning as 228 men made their way to the mine to begin their underground shifts. At that time sixty-three year old William Dodd made one of the most fortuitous decisions of his life.
Group of Miners
Group of miners going on shift


John Ironmonger who survived, is at far left with his father Charles Eli Ironmonger who died, beside him.
He decided that since the mine had been idle the previous two days, there was no way that he was going to go back to work on a Friday. Dan Cullingham was scheduled for that day's afternoon shift, but, instead filled in for his friend, J.D. "Knicky Knack" Redmonson, who was sick. Tom Corkill, who had recently bought a homestead near Lethbridge, entered the mine expecting that shift to be his last shift as a miner. It proved to be tragically true. Steve Belopotosky had switched his morning shift with a friend who wanted to be off in time to meet his wife arriving on the afternoon train. The friend never did meet his wife. There were 5 Dugdale brothers working at the mine, 3 of whom -- John, Robert and Andrew -- were going on shift that morning. As Rod Wallis and William Neath arrived for their shifts, they were looking forward to heading back to Nova Scotia on the coming Monday to start farming once again. Charles Elick, 49, was a surviver of another Crowsnest Pass Disaster -- the Frank Slide of April 29, 1903. On that day he had been working underground in the Frank Mine when the slide struck, burying the mine entrance. Charles Elick spent thirteen arduous hours before he and seventeen others dug their way to safety. On this day, Charles Elick's luck ran out. In all, the men entering the Hillcrest Mine on June 19th, 1914 ranged in age from 17 to 54 with the majority in their late 20's to early 30's.

In the mine itself there were a variety of jobs to be done. One was to load and fire the charges which loosened the coal, and this dangerous, skilled work, was carried out by the fireboss. The coal was then shovelled, moved to chutes and loaded into mine cars which were pulled along rails by horses. A continuous cable system operated by hoists located above the ground, brought the coal the rest of the way to the surface. There the coal cars were unhooked and moved by donkey engines to the tipple where the coal was sized and its ash content reduced. The mining community was a well coordinated group, all of whom relied upon the other for survival. The group included bratticemen, who kept the air from two huge electric fans flowing in and out of the mine by a system of screens or brattices; carpenters and timbermen, who made sure that the roof would not collapse; rope-riders and hoistmen, who brought the coal out or ferried the miners in and out of the mine; the labourers, who did various odd jobs; and lastly, the miners themselves.

Work had started as normal that morning. At 9:00 a.m., eight more miners passed through the lamphouse to enter the mine. The timekeeper, Robert Hood, detected the smell of liquor on the breath of two of them and turned them away but, by mistake he put their checks on the board. This action later lead to confusion as to how many miners were in the mine. Meanwhile, fireboss Sam Charleton had laid charges near Old Level One (Hillcrest Mine actually consisted of two mines -- Mine Number One and Mine Number Two each with their separate entrances and linked together by tunnels -- see map below). At 9:30 a.m., it was later determined, Sam Charleton had been just about to fire the charges when there was a huge gas explosion very close to him. This initial explosion stirred up coal dust which then spontaneously triggered a second and maybe a third blast. The force of the multiple explosions travelling along the labyrinth of tunnels was horrific -- with anyone near the source, like Sam Charleton, being killed outright. Even men working on the surface were not spared: the young rope-riders -- Charles Ironmonger (the son of Charles Eli Ironmonger), who worked at Mine Number One and Fred Kurigatz, who worked at Mine Number Two, were both killed. The entrance to Mine Number One, which was closer to the source of the explosion than Mine Number Two's entrance, was jammed up so much debris that it was impassable. Three men -- George Wild, Antonio Stella and Arthur Crowther -- who had been working near the less-damaged entrance of Mine Number Two managed to escape from the mine within the first few minutes. A trickle of survivors followed them, but by time fifteen crucial minutes had passed, the total count of survivors was only 19 -- all the others were trapped down below.

For anyone who survived the initial explosions, the greatest danger then became the poisonous carbon dioxide gas which the miners called "black-damp" or "afterdamp". At a concentration of 13% it would cause unconsciousness, and after the explosions, the levelwas estimated to be at a deadly 50%. Realizing this, the first thought of the men on the surface was to suck out the deadly afterdamp with the exhaust fan located at the entrance of Mine Number One. Miraculously, the men found that the intake fan at the entrance of Mine Number Two had kept on working. At the same time, they realized that it was imperative that they get a hoist working to help with the rescue work. The hoist engine at Mine Number One was still operable, but the men had to use their bare hands to pry away the huge chunks of broken concrete which surrounded it. Somehow, they managed to quickly access the hoist engine, clear the track into the mine, and find a still serviceable mine cart to be used by a rescue team -- all accomplished within the first fifteen minutes.

Without delay, and at great risk to themselves from afterdamp, the first rescue crew entered the mine without any breathing apparatus. One of them was Engineeer Hutchinson, who had just barely managed, minutes before, to stumble out of the mine, alive. The group got as far as the junction of Level One North and Level One South where they found three men miraculously alive. They whisked them to the surface. Meanwhile, David Murray Sr., who had escaped the explosions, had overpowered Constable William Hancock and run back into the mine to look for his sons, Robert, William and David, Jr. Tragically, David Murray Sr.'s search proved not only futile, as his sons were dead, but fatal to himself, too. His body was later found some distance back in the mine.


MAP OF THE MINE


Map of Mine

At 10:00 a.m., more help and vital oxygen masks arrived from the nearby towns of Blairmore, Coleman and Frank , Alberta. Under the direction of Dr. William Dodd, an emergency hospital tent with oxygen and resusitation equipment was set up outside the mine entrance. The oxygen masks allowed the heroic rescue crews, their numbers now bolstered by the new arrivals, to push deeper into the mine. By now, workers had managed to clear a small hole in the totally blocked entrance of Mine Number One, and former fireboss Harry White, equipped with oxygen, squeezed through it and dropped into Slant Number One, the part of the mine where the explosion and destruction had been the worst. Harry Whitenhad the grisly job of exploring and examining the devastated area. Initially, it was commonly assumed that fireboss Sam Charleton might have set off the explosions, but Harry White's detailed observations put an end to that speculation -- Sam Charleton's body was found with the firing cable still wrapped around his waist. Harry White concluded that the initial explosion was due to methane gas ignited from a spark which could have been set off by a lamp flare, electric cable short, or even a rock fall.

Level One North had escaped most of the destruction and the fans were able to clear the smoke and gas from there first. Consequently, the rescue work progressed quickly in this area and within an hour the last of the miners in this section had been brought to the surface. The rescue crews then clawed their way past broken timbers and twisted metal into Level One South where they came upon the horrific scene of thirty dead miners lying face down in a pool of water, victims of afterdamp. Further on in Slant Two, rescuers found more survivors who had tried to get out, only to be driven back by the smoke and carbon dioxide. They had managed to soak their shirts in water and breath through them to filter out the afterdamp. By time rescuers found them, one man had drowned in a pool of water and the others were all unconscious. One of them, Joe Atkinson , whom it took three hours to revive, returned to the mine the next day as one of the rescue team.

Crowd at site of Hillcrest Mine Disaster
Crowd gathering
By 11:30 a.m., there were forty men who had gotten out of the mine alive -- many of them revived by immediate treatment of oxygen and pulmotors (an early type of resuscitator) in the hospital tent. At this time, the timekeeper's error concerning the two miners sent home for drinking, was discovered, reducing the casualty list to a possible 196. Time after time, the rescuers came across the bodies of miners who had survived the initial explosions only to succumb to afterdamp -- any hope of finding more survivors was rapidly dimming. Then, shortly after 11:30 a.m. the gallant rescuers forced their way into a blocked part of Level One South and found a group of men, seven of whom were still breathing. All seven were brought to the surface and revived. They were the last survivors. Forty-six of those rescued remained alive, some of them in very poor condition. There were still very many unaccounted for with only twenty-six of the 189 bodies brought to the surface.

Meanwhile, the scene outside the mine was one of absolute shock. There were women and children wandering about aimlessly, unable to believe the total destruction of the mine and its buildings. Smoke from the explosions continued to issue forth from the mine for hours. Although the danger from further explosions was high, the rescue teams continued to go into the mine to bring up the bodies, some of them mangled and unidentifiable except by their checks. RCMP officers Corporal Rant, Corporal Mead , and Constable William Hancock were given the grim job of identifying and washing the bodies before they were laid out for the families. As the hours passed, and the rescuers pushed deeper into the area of the mine where the devastation was the greatest, the work became slower and the number of bodies fewer. As well, work was slowed by fires which occasionally erupted and had to be brought under control by the exhausted rescuers. Yet, by Saturday afternoon 162 bodies had been viewed by the coroner and passed for burial and within a week of the explosion, only two bodies had not yet been found. One other was found in July, and the last body was never found.


In Memoriam
Ackers, Peter
Adlam, Herbert
Albanese, Dominic
Albanese, Nicholas
Anderson, Robert
Andreaschuk, Jacob
Androski, George
Armstrong, James
Bambridge, Sidney
Banlant, Andrew
Banyai, Steve
Barber, James
Bardsley, Thomas
Bennett, Fred C.
Bingham, Fred
Bodio, Virgilio
Bolinski, John
Botter, Etalleredo
Bostock, Frank M.
Bowie, John S.
Bozzer, Pietro
Bradshaw, James
Brown, John
Brown, Thomas W.
Brown, William
Buckman, Albert
Camarda, Joseph
Cantalline, Peter
Carelli, Antonio
Carr, Henry
Cassagrande, Carlo
Cataline, Sam
Catanio, Antonio
Caterino, Basso
Celli, Vito
Chabillon, Emil
Chabillon, Leonce
Charles, Charles S.
Charlton, Sam
Ciccone, Eugenio
Cimetta, Antonio
Clark, John
Clarke, Leonard
Coan, Charles
Corkill, Thomas
Coulter, Fred
Coulter, Robert
Court, Thompson
Cullinen, Dan
Daye, Prosper
Davison, John
Demchuk, George
Demchuk, Nicholas
Dickenson, Matthew
Dugdale, Andrew
Dugdale, Robert
Elick, Charles
Emery, David
Fveloir, Everard
Ewing, James
Fedoruk, Peter
Fines, William
Flourgere, August
Fogale, John G.
Fortunato, Luigi
Fortunato, Vincenzo
Foster, John
Fox, William
Francz, Gustat
Frech, Frank
Gallamore, William
Garine, Emil
Gasperion, Antonio
Gianoli, Carlo
Gramacci, Antonio
Gray, James F.
Guido, Ylio
Hansford, Ralph
Harris, David G.
Heber, John
Heusdens, Alphonse
Hicken, George
Hillman, William
Hnacnuk, Philip
Hood, John
Hunter, Hugh
Iluk, Wasyl
Ironmonger, Charles
Ironmonger, Sam
Janego, Mike
Johnson, Carl
Johnson, Fred
Johnson, William
Kane, Pat
Kinock, Peter
Kipryanchuk, Mike
Kohar, Petro
Kosmik, Chris
Kostynuk, Dan
Kurigatz, Fred
Kuzenko, Nick
Kwasnico, Fred
Kwasnico, Nasyi
Labonne, Frank
Legard, Antoine
Melanchuk, Steve
Marchetto, Ulderico
Marcolli, Guiseppi
Megency, Nicholas
Meiklejohn, Adam
Melok, John
Miller, William
Miller, William G.
Montelli, Dominic
Morley, William
Moore, William
Morrison, Alex
Morron, Nick
Mudrik, John
Muir, Robert
Muirhouse, Fred
Murray, David Sr.
Murray, David Jr.
Murray, William
Murray, Robert
Myrovich, Steve
McIssac, Rod
McKay, Angus H.
Mckinnon, John B.
Mckinnon, Steve
McNeil, Pius
McQuarrie, John A.
Neath, William
Oakley, Joseph
Pagnan, Eduardo
Padgett, Arthur
Painyk, Fred
Parnisari, Guiseppi
Payet, Leon
Pearson, John
Penn, James
Penn, Robert
Petrie, James
Petrie, Robert
Porteous, Alex
Porteous, James
Pounder, George
Quigley, James S.
Quigley, Thomas
Raitko, Steve
Rainyk, Bernard
Rainyk, Fred
Rees, Albert
Robertson, George
Rochester, Joseph H.
Rochester, William
Rossanese, Eugenio
Rosti, Luigi
Sands, John
Sandul, John
Sandulik, Daniel
Schroeder, Charles
Silva, Alfred
Skurhan, Mike
Smith, Robert
Smith, Thomas
Somotink, Peter
Southwell, Albert
Southwell, Albert
Stretton, Edward
Tamborini, Albert
Tamborini, Baldo
Taylor, Thomas
Thaczuk, John
Thomas, Deo
Trump, William
Turner, Thomas
Turner, William
Tyron, Mike
Vendrasco, Fred
Vohradsky, Joseph
Vohradsky, Vince
Walker, Donald J.
Wallis, Rod
Wilson, Thomas L.
Zahara, John
Zamis, Luis
Zapisocki, WasyI
Zaska, Michael


THE END





To view my photos of the new Miners' Memorial which was unveiled during a special Ceremony held at the Cemetery on September 2nd, 2000, please Click Here.

SOURCES: Frank W. Anderson's book Canada's Worst Mine Disaster was first published in 1969 by Frontier Pub. of Calgary, Alberta. A later edition of the book entitled Hillcrest: Canada's Worst Mine Disaster was published for Frontier Books by Heritage House Company of Surrey, B.C. in 1980. Both editions were designated as Number 18 in the "Frontier Books" series.

Harold Fryer's book Alberta: The Pioneer Years (Langley, B.C.: Stagecoach Pub. c1977) has a chapter on the Hillcrest disaster entitled "Disaster at the Hillcrest Mine" (pp. 68-71).

For further information on the Hillcrest Mine Disaster, I recommend a visit to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. The center, named after the great Turtle Mountain avalanche of April 29th, 1903, focuses the history of the Crowsnest Pass. It is an excellent source of information on area coal mining and the Hillcrest Mine Disaster.

The Crowsnest Historical Society and Museum which is located in the former Coleman High School in downtown Coleman is another good source of information.




My HOME PAGE Coal Miners Memorial is a tribute to the miners of the Natal-Michel and Sparwood area of British Columbia, Canada. It also has coal-mining Links.

My COMPANION PAGE The Balmer North Mine Explosion commemorates the 1967 coal mining disaster in Michel, B.C., Canada.

Written by:-
Ron Venzi
Calgary, Alberta
Canada

Email: ronvenzi@hotmail.com