Hillcrest: Canada’s forgotten disaster – by Valerie Berenyi (Calgary Herald – June 13, 2014)


 100 years ago 189 died in the depths of an Alberta coal mine

They say you don’t go
Say you don’t go down in the Hillcrest Mine
‘Cause it’s one short step

You might leave this world behind
And they say you don’t go
Say you don’t go down in the Hillcrest Mine

—James Keelaghan’s ballad Hillcrest Mine

Coalminer Charles Elick may have thought himself a lucky man. He survived the Frank Slide in 1903 when a massive rockslide buried part of the little town of Frank in southwestern Alberta. He and co-workers at a nearby mine were trapped by the rubble, but managed to free themselves after digging for 13 frantic hours.

Charles then relocated his growing family to the nearby mining town of Hillcrest and went back underground. His luck ran out on the sunny morning of June 19, 1914, when he said goodbye to his wife Julia, pregnant with their fifth child, and went off to work at the Hillcrest Mine. Two hours after the morning shift began, a methane gas and coal dust explosion ripped through the mine, killing Charles and 188 other men.

The very next day, Julia gave birth to their son, joining the grim tally of 90 women widowed and 250 children left fatherless by the disaster in a town of 1,000. “That’s my dad, born on June 20, 1914,” says John Elick, 70, of Calgary. “My grandmother was left to raise five kids on her own, with no social welfare. Just think of the women.”

Next Friday, June 19, is the 100th anniversary of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster. The event will be mourned and celebrated June 18-21 throughout the Crowsnest Pass. But it’s not until you hear the stories of families indelibly marked by the tragedy that the term “Canada’s worst mining disaster” really comes to life.


Despite its tragic distinction, most Canadians are unaware of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster. It helps to know the town, much diminished since its mine closed in 1939, forms part of the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies, along with Bellevue, Blairmore, Coleman and Frank.

It’s a rough-and-tumble region legendary for its history of rum running and home of the last woman to hang in Alberta. The area is also notorious for the province’s three deadliest disasters, all of which happened within a few kilometres of one another. The Frank Slide killed 90 people in 1903.

Seven years later, an explosion at Bellevue Mine took 31 men. Seven years after that, in 1914, 237 men on the morning shift went underground in the Hillcrest Mine. Only 48 came out alive. “You wonder why, growing up in Calgary, why didn’t we hear about this,” says musician James Keelaghan, who released his crowd-rousing song, Hillcrest Mine, in 1990, and will perform at a concert in Hillcrest on June 19 as part of the centennial events.

“I’ve been doing my best to change that for the past 25 years, one concert at a time. When I’m out performing, I ask people where the largest mining disaster was in Canada. People think it was Springhill, Nova Scotia. They’re shocked when you say, ‘No, it was Hillcrest.’ ”

For the rest of this article, click here: http://www.calgaryherald.com/Hillcrest+Canada+forgotten+disaster/9935727/story.html

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