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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Major Disasters

At 4:10 am, April 29th, 1903, a part of Turtle Mountain sheared away in a rockslide with more than 70 casualties. Frank was only three years old and a booming mining town established Henry Frank and Samuel Gebo. The slide claimed miners’ homes, tents, a construction camp, two ranches, livery stables, the surface workings of the mine, two kilometers of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Branch Line, and three kilometers of the Frank and Grassy Mountain Railway (the Lille line). Miners here are pictured as they began to clear the Mine entrance. On April 5, 1917, a series of events ended the lives of all 34 men working the No. 3 mine in Coal Creek. The air in the mine was thick with methane gas, a result of wrong assumptions determining the air was safe and well below the maximum safety level of 2.5%. In fact, the air was highly dangerous, with post-accident estimates of well over 4%. Prior to April 5, a local inspector determined the mine environment was dangerous, and recommended a major reduction of mine activity, and steps to improve working conditions at the mine. The company disagreed, counter-claiming the conditions were safe and blamed a faulty door for skewing the methane numbers and the inspector’s findings.

A broken safety lamp determined how wrong the company was. From the lone piece of safety-equipment came a spark that ignited air. From the flare, the carbon-rich coal in the mine exploded and roared down all the entryways of the mine. The fireball spared no miners life.

The single, sharp blast from the company whistle that day was a signal that prayers would need to made anew.

Most of these men, pictured at the entrance to No. 2 mine at Coal Creek, were killed in the disaster of 22 May 1902. Their names are amongst those below.W. R. Puckey was the fireboss, Hugh Melarkey the pumpman and Alex Barton the motorman. Along with them on the afternoon shift down in the mine that day was also a rope-rider, five drivers, and twenty-five diggers (miners). On April 5, 1917, 34 men in all were working in the Coal Creek No. 3 mine. None of those men came home that day.

That day, the No. 3 mine exploded and left no survivors. According to Chief Inspector or Mines, Thomas Gaham, Augustus Leonard’s broken safety lamp ignited methane gas 7,000 feet inside the mine. The resultant gas explosion travelled down a crosscut, augmented by suspeneded coal dust and ripped through the mine with such violence that it was a year later before the community could recover the last 12 of the 34 bodies.

To understand the force of the No. 3 mine explosion, magnify the power of a loaded shotgun. Leonards lamp (the gun’s hammer) ignited the gas (the bullet’s primer, the gas flared and caused the coal dust to explode (the gunpowder goes off) and the resultant explosion roared down the entryways (the guns barrel).

At the inquest, the testimony revealed that almost continuously for 30 days prior there had been from ½ inch to ¾-inch gas-cap present. The Wolfe safety lam shows a blue section on top of its flame whenever gas is present, and its variation determines the percentage of methane gas. In 1917, it was generally thought that a ½-inch gas-cap equaled 2 – 2 ½ % methane. However, with the introduction of the more accurate "Burrell" gas-detector that year, mining companies were now realizing their critical misconception. The Burrell demonstrated that ¼-inch and not ½-inch gas-caps represented 2 ½% methane and that ½-inch gas-cap equaled 3 ½ %.

Three funeral services were held at 9, 10 and 3 pm for Greek, Roman Catholic and Protestant deceased.  A funeral Mass was said at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Lethbridge, for the Catholic miners— Albina Simeoni, Angelo Ermacora, Evaristo Rota and Leo Gossul and they were later buried in the Catholic cemetery. The funeral procession was the largest the City had ever seen and the cortege, made up of hearses, pall-bearers, chief mourners and the general public, proceeded to the cemetery for the burials.  Miners from the region and the Crowsnest Pass marched with members of the RCMP and the Canadian Legion.  The Lethbridge Disabled Ex-Servicemen’s Band  and the Salvation Army Band, with drums covered in black cloth, also marched playing the funeral March by Mendelssohn.  The Last Post was played by the bugler as the sun set and the throngs returned home.  There would be no more mining at Coalhurst.2 weeks prior, Mine Inspector Williams measured a ¾-inch gas-cap in the air current of the main and counter levels of No. 3 Mine. He wrote to Mine Manager Caufield of this condition stating that gas levels were unacceptable and requested that steps be taken to improve ventilation. He further recommended that only one 8-hour shift should be worked, greatly reducing mine operations, until the situation improved.

The company explained away William’s findings, claiming that a controlling door was broken at the time and ventilation was deranged as a result. Yet miners at the end of the morning shift on April 5th reported a ¾-inch gas-cap. That meant there was well over 4% methane.

As a result of the accident, many improvements were inaugurated to ensure the safety of the coal miners. The most important introduction was the Edison electric mine lamp, which reduced the chances of errant sparks. In the Crowsnest Pass mines alone, 960 of the new lamps were installed that year alone. Other measures included the incorporation of the Burrell gas detector as the main instrument to detect methane gas. It was capable of measuring as low as 1/10 of 1% of methane, and all inspectors and Crowsnest Pass mines were equipped with them. Other issues given more attention that year were treatment of coal-dust and protection from electrical storms using lighting arrestors at mine mouths. It became a rule in force in Pass mines that the workmen must be withdrawn when the percentage of gas in the air is over 2 1/2%

This section explores incidents like the 1917 Coal Creek Disaster and the impacts they had on mining society.

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