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Firedamp: How the Creation of a Play about a Disaster Rekindled Community in Coalhurst

In the coal towns of the old country she'd be called the slag heap, in the Coalhurst of today she's the shale pile, but in 1935, when the last carload of waste coal, too full of shale to be marketed, was added to her prodigious and smouldering mass, she was irreverently known as just "The Dump." A brick-red mound of rubble, shrunken with age, she slumbers at the east end of the town on a five-acre bed, tugging her weedy green blanket up a tittle higher with each passing summer. Town mothers forbid their children to play within her barbed enclosure, but, of course, they scamper over her tired bulk every chance they get.

For the more than fifteen years that t have been a teacher at Coalhurst High School, the "Dump" has always been in view. This unique landmark is the only surviving remnant of the Coalhurst Imperial Mine where, over 60 years ago, in the most devastating mine disaster ever to strike the Lethbridge coalfields, 16 Albertans lost their lives.

Coalhurst, with a population of around 2,000, mostly commuters, lies five miles west of Lethbridge. An irrigation canal divides residential streets and cul-de-sacs of moderately priced homes, trailer courts, and a sprinkling of service businesses and small industries. The only reminders of the Coalhurst that once was are a few well-preserved older homes, a vacant brick building, once the office of the Standard Bank of Canada (the last bank Coalhurst ever had), the quaint white clapboard of St. Joseph's Church, and, of course, the looming shale pile. Like most suburban settlements located near large cities, the town struggles for a sense of identity and purpose as a community. The youth gaze longingly at the ready-made advantages of the nearby city and find their bedroom community lacking. A lot of teens-too old to play in the back yard and too young to drive-feel the town holds little for them. Coalhurst has a reputation as a "tough" town. Fear and a lack of understanding between the generations and perceptions of inferiority undermine the real achievements and efforts of young and old alike. The advantages of the small town with its opportunities for participation and leadership often go unrecognized, unappreciated, and unexplored.
Looking out at the "Dump" made me realize that her stories should be told to a new generation before she succumbed completely to the earth which was her first home. It was the story of the Coalhurst Mine Disaster, and of the people who lived it, that inspired Firedamp.

 

On December 9, 1935, while Coalhurst residents were busily preparing for Christmas, a tragedy occurred that echoed throughout the land. Late in the afternoon, during the shift change, an explosion of methane gas, "firedamp," blasted deep in the underground workings. The men making their way out escaped with injuries, but the 16 who had gone below to begin their shift were trapped. A heroic rescue operation began and continued through the night. The women, children, and neighbors gathered at the pithead to await the news-and to pray. The escaped miners ignored personal safety and went back into the ravaged and gaseous workings to search for their comrades. Rescue crews assembled from all the area mines. By the early hours of the morning all 16 men had been found. None had survived.

Author: Arlene Purcell has been a teacher for 21 years in Southern Alberta where she and her husband, Leighton, have raised two sons. She currently lives in Lethbridge and teaches language arts and drama at Coalhurst High School.

 

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