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Hillcrest Disaster—June 19, 1914

Hillcrest: Legacy and Memorial
John Kinnear

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Rescue party at Hillcrest Explosion.The Memorial The concept of installing a permanent monument dedicated to the disaster at Hillcrest has always been on the minds of the survivors. However, it was not until 1978 that a society known as the Hillcrest Citizens' Cemetery Fund was formed for that specific purpose. The society, the Crowsnest Ecomuseum Trust, and Alberta Historic Sites Services combined their efforts to plan the erection of a monument at the cemetery site. In 1998, the Eighty-fifth Hillcrest Anniversary Committee picked up the torch and began a more serious and comprehensive planning process.

At an extensive series of meetings, committee members considered the details of the monument's shape and layout, an itemized budget and sources of funding, a programme for sod turning, and the construction of the monument. The committee realized that its undertaking was a serious and nationally important effort. It was a long and complex road for coordinator Cathy Pisony and her hard-working committee. Essential financial support was received from many sources, and governments, private companies, unions, and individuals provided labour. Without that financial support, labour, and hundreds of volunteer hours, this very important national monument would never have been possible.

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.  Of the 189 miners killed on June 19th, 1914, at least 29 were Italians.  Before the explosion, the mine had been rated one of the safest in the Crowsnest Pass.  Overproduction had required a shutdown so that a committee from the Union could look for gas pockets.  The committee had declared the Mine safe.  The Chabillon brothers Emile and Leonce with cousin Alfred Salva all lost their lives.  Only 46  miners survived.During the planning stages, the committee recognized it had an opportunity to acknowledge not only the 189 men killed at Hillcrest, but all Canadian underground coal miners who had been killed on the job—from Glace Bay in Nova Scotia to Cumberland on Vancouver Island. The result is the chilling record engraved on the twelve pillows that surround the granite monument to those killed at Hillcrest. Space constraints forced the committee to restrict the listings to incidents in which three or more had been killed. It was a difficult decision, as they all agreed that every man lost to the mines in this country deserves to be acknowledged and remembered. The compilation of the list was a long and painful exercise as the death toll from each province was revealed. A typical example from this list, which includes disasters from 1873 to 1991, reads: JAN. 20, 1953—MCGILLVARY MINE, COLEMAN, AB.—3 DEAD — BUMP. That bump, 2,000 feet underground, took the lives of three men. The widow of one of those men donated significantly to the Hillcrest memorial.

Those who gathered at Hillcrest for the dedication of the memorial on 3 September 2000 heard songs and speeches during an emotionally charged ceremony that they will likely never forget. Carlo Tarley, international secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America, traveled from Washington, D.C. to be present. He reminded his listeners how family members waited as rescuers recovered body after body. He said:

I know the loss of those men is still felt by many standing here today. That is why we are here, to remember the men lost at Hillcrest in 1914, and to say once again, we will not forget. We will not forget because we owe it to the 189 miners who lost their lives, and to the grieving families they left behind, because every mining law that protects today's miners is stained with the blood of men like those who died in the Hillcrest mine.

The imposing granite pillar at the entrance to the Hillcrest cemetery is a sombre reminder that the tragic loss of life in Canadian mining history in general—and at Hillcrest in particular—must be remembered.

Sources and Acknowledgements James Keelaghan's song "Hillcrest Mine" is found on the album Small Rebellions (1990 Tranquilla TMCD-002), available from Festival Distribution at 1-800-633-8882 (toll free) or email mailorder@festival.bc.caA World Apart The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia

This article titled "Hillcrest: Legacy and Memorial" by John Kinnear is reprinted from A World Apart: The Crowsnest Communities of Alberta and British Columbia, edited by Wayne Norton and Tom Langford (Kamloops, BC: Plateau Press, 2002). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium thank the author and publisher for permission to reprint the material.

Heritage Trails No. 358—Coal Mining: The Hillcrest Mining Disaster, Worst Mine Accident In Canada

In 1914 Hillcrest became home to one of the worst mining accidents in Canadian history. Listen as historian Pat Myers talks about the town, the disaster and how it affected the community.

Click here to listen!

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