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      Lethbridge Region:  World War I and Interwar Period

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Early Years

World War I and
Interwar Period

World War II
and After

 Cultural Life


Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

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Funeral truck containing the bodies of Albina Simeoni, Angelo Ermacora, Evaristo Rota and Leo Gossul. Photo courtesy of the Coalhurst History Society as reproduced in our Treasured Heritage: A History of CoalHurst and District, 1984.The funeral was a significant event for the life of the region both because of the economic implications of a mine closure but also because of the impact of the deaths on the close-knit community. A telegram was sent to the Acting Premier, Ernest C. Manning, as follows:

At a special meeting of the Coalhurst Miners' Union held here, it was unanimously received that we request the government to order a public investigation into the Coalhurst mine explosion and the disaster which resulted in the loss of 16 miners' lives, and further that we have the right to appoint our representatives for this investigation work.6

The inquiry revealed inconclusive evidence. Miners testified that no mine officials were in the pit at the time of the explosion. As well, some noted that the air in the mine had not been good and had reported this to officials but not action had been taken. Samples of air taken 18 days after the explosion showed large quantities of methane gas.

Click on Coalhurst Mine Disaster Photo Album to view photos.  Photos courtesy of the Coalhurst History Society as reproduced in our Treasured Heritage: A History of CoalHurst and District, 1984.The funeral was a major event in the community with city merchants in Lethbridge closing their stores at the Mayor's request. Three services were held: 9 am for A. Prokop at the Greek Catholic Church in North Lethbridge; at 10 am at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church for A. Gresl, L. Gresl, F. Gresl, M. Kadilak, J. Sarog, L. Gossul, E. Rota, A. Simeone and A. Ermacora. At 3 pm Protestant miners were buried in the city cemetery. The funeral procession was the largest ever-held in the city with an estimated 5,000 people walking in the procession including virtually the entire population of Coalhurst. Fellow Italians were the pallbearers for their death comrades as follows: for A. Simeone-L. Celotti, P. Lazzarotto, G. Chiste, S. Bacedo, E. Basso and G. Lizzi; for E. Rota-C. Chiste, C. Bridorelli, A. Locatelli, G. Joevenazzo, C. Moser and M. Santoni; for A. Ermacora: Joe Pontarollo, M. Caron, Giov Pontarollo, A. Massaro, John Pontarollo and F. Sorbora. Miners representatives from the area mines including Lethbridge, Shaughnessy and the Crows Nest Pass marched as did members of the R.C.M.P, Canadian Legion, the Lethbridge Disabled Ex-Servicemen's Band and Salvation Army Band. The band played the Mendelssohn funeral march and a bugler sound the "Last Post." 7

Today, a small mountain of waste coal is all that remains of the Imperial Mine where sixteen miners were trapped and killed.   Seeing "The Dump" through her window at Coalhurst High School, language arts and drama teacher Arlene Purcell set out to "capture the essence of the town that had existed here [and] to appeal to the old, who remembered the past, and to the young, who needed to know their history." So began the staging of a student drama production based on the coal-mining heritage of the town. In researching and developing the play, Purcell and her students visited people in their homes and taped their recollections. Students saw photographs in family albums and read newspaper clippings. They studied artifacts from the Galt Museum in Lethbridge in order to recreate props and costumes for the production. At the Provincial Archives, Purcell studied the minutes of the inquiry into the disaster. In the process, she and her students steeped themselves in the national, international and labour politics of the day, as well as the chemistry and geology of coal mining and the history of immigration and popular trends in the region. 

The script turned into a production with 22 actors and drew on the rest of the school and entire community for help and support.  On opening night, the response was overwhelming. The production connected with all the different generations of  people in the audience. Purcell realized, "that we had done something more than just create a high school play. we had come together with a common vision and our audience had joined us." The production, Firedamp, ran for eight full house performances. But something else happened after each performance. The student cast came to a deeper understanding of the lives, events and times they were portraying. Students asked parents about grandparents and great grandparents. Many of the students discovered they had family connections with experiences similar to those brought to life on stage.  Arlene Purcell's article on the project can be found at the Heritage Community Foundation's dedicated youth site, www.albertasource.ca. This site features student heritage projects as well as teacher resources including the Purcell article.

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Copyright © 2002 Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D. and The Heritage Community Foundation

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