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When Coal Was King
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Hillcrest Disaster—June 19, 1914
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Hillcrest: Legacy and Memorial
John Kinnear

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In one horrendous moment at Hillcrest, 189 men were stripped of their lives—taken from their families by what remains Canada's worst underground coal mine disaster. The methane/coal dust explosion that occurred on 19 June 1914 left a legacy of 130 widows and 400 fatherless children. Virtually every person in the community was affected in one way or another. Probably the most painful individual story to come out of this disaster was that of David Murray, who survived the blast but not the day. Climbing out of the mine after the explosion, he realized his three sons were still inside and ran back in to try to save them. Overcome by toxic gases, he died in the mine with his sons.

The cloud of black smoke and coal dust that burst from the Hillcrest mine that day cast a shadow of sadness and heartache over the peaceful little hamlet that took many decades to even begin to diminish. The three mass graves enclosed by white picket fences lie serenely in the midst of the Hillcrest cemetery on the eastern slope of another infamous killer, Turtle Mountain. One of the survivors of the Frank Slide disaster of 1903 was coal miner Charles Elick, who dug himself out of the buried Frank Mine only to die in the Hillcrest explosion eleven years later.

It is thought that a spark from a sudden rock fall and a pocket of methane gas were the lethal mix that triggered a series of underground explosions in the Hillcrest Mine on June 19th, 1914.The Legacy: Those who survived it never forgot. Mack Stigler, for example, had many friends who were lost at Hillcrest. On the occasion of his retirement in 1948, he delivered a speech reflecting upon his life as a miner and union member. He said to those assembled at a banquet in his honour: In 1909, I worked in Hillcrest for a short time; then in January 1910, the Yellow Head Coal Company took some men west to Wolf Creek by rail. That was the end of the Grand Trunk at that time. Then they took us by sleighs on to where they were to open up the Old Yellow Head Mine. I was in that bunch. Soon getting tired of that place, I walked eighty-five miles through muskeg to get out. I then worked at different places in District 18 until December 1912. I started in Hillcrest and was there when that never-to-be-forgotten day, June 19, 1914 passed, taking with it 189 lives of which the big majority were as great and big hearted men as ever wore a boot, and most of them were my good friends. Every year I go to Hillcrest and spend an hour or more walking amongst those graves of my old friends, talking to them. They were my friends and they were murdered.

Similar bitterness can be found in the words of those who have contemplated the disaster since 1914. Alberta musician James Keelaghan worked in the Crowsnest more than half a century later and wrote about the Hillcrest disaster. Part of the lyric of his "Hillcrest Mine" warns:

And in that mine, young man, you'll find A wealth of broken dreams As long and as dark and as black and as wide As the coal in the Hillcrest seam.

I've heard it whispered in the light of dawn That mountain sometimes moves. That bodes ill for the morning shift And you know what you're gonna lose. Don't go, my son, where the deep coal runs. Turn your back to the mine on the hill 'Cause if the dust and the dark and the gas don't get you, Then the goons and the bosses will.1

To listen to about the Hillcrest Mine Disaster from a miner's perspective listen to Enrico Butti's oral history excerpt.

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