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Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Three cottages built in 1911.At the turn of the 20th century, Hillcrest was a model settlement for mining towns in the Crowsnest Pass. Admired for its well-organized streets, planned waterways, and safe mines, the town flourished, between the years of 1905 and 1914. In the early years, the town prospered as the markets continued to demand the commodities produced in the town.

Hillcrest was born from the strength of the coalfields in the vicinity. In 1898, Charles Plummer ‘Chippy’ Hill of Port Hill, Idaho, came to the Crowsnest Pass and chanced upon a rich coal outcropping. Four years later, he staked out a claim on the land, purchased the mineral rights, and created the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company.

Life stood still as families, community members and mine officials waited to see the extent of the injuries and deaths. The stillness and order of the scene above ground masks the chaos below and the carnageó189 dead. The company built a town that would become a model of forward thinking. Town-planners looked well into the future by mapping its main streets to be 24 metres wide to account for future growth. Laying tracks was the first task when the town was built in 1905, and by 1910, workers constructed the Hillcrest Station, completing the sidetracks for Hillcrest cars.

The company chose its townsite well. Fresh water was drawn from nearby Drum Creek, the Chinook winds created a lovely climate, and the coal was of high quality. The Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company built one of the fastest growing towns in the Pass. By 1914, the population of Hillcrest had reached 1,000 people.

Apart from the town, the mine was also well organized. When the town was first constructed, the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company moved quickly to draw a population by building cottages and homes for its workers. Early on, the company aimed high, and believed that it was possible to draw 2,000 tonnes of coal per day. By 1914, the company built a mine considered one of the safest and best run in the Pass, could boast 344 men on the payroll, and were fast approaching their lofty goal.

Rescue party at Hillcrest Explosion.That was before tragedy struck. On 19 June 1914, when the 237 miners trundled off to work in the morning, no one knew some of them would not return home. At 9:30 a.m., a massive explosion tore through the mine, collapsing the roof, burying miners and horses alike. The magnitude of the blast destroyed any structure nearby. The engine house that stood 30 metres from the mouth of the pit was completely destroyed, the roof blown 12 metres back and its 20 centimetre concrete wall smashed.

Although rescuers acted quickly to find survivors, it became apparent that few lived through the explosion. In total, 48 men came out alive, while the rest remained buried 30 centimetres apart in a mass grave. Almost every family in the area lost a family member, leaving 400 children fatherless.

Since the mine closed in 1939, the coal industry in the area has since shut down. Today, Hillcrest is a quiet town marked with three large gravesites surrounded by a picket fence. The cemetery was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in February 1985.

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