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Story
Mine Resuce photo submitted
Hillcrest rescue team that terrified Julia.
 
Helping out recently with the Hillcrest Centennial memorial committee’s planning process has brought back a couple of profound stories I’d like to share. They are stories that speak to the painful human element of this disaster.
Incredibly snow fell on June 21, 1914. It was a bizarre piece of aberrant weather that was like the proverbial last nail in the coffin for the Hillcrest Mine Disaster survivors. On that day 150 of the 189 men lost at their mine were laid to rest en masse. It is hard to imagine anything else going wrong in that town that weekend but there it was. Snow on the first day of summer.
I recall that I was there thirteen years ago when the residents of the Crowsnest Pass held a memorial service at Hillcrest to recognize the 85th anniversary of Canada's worst mining disaster. We marched in a cortege, wreaths in hand, from the old general store down to the mass grave that lies on that beautiful hill at the east edge of Turtle Mountain. West of the cemetery the monstrous grey blanket of limestone known as the Frank Slide lay spread out across the valley. It was also in plain view to the mourners that day 85 years earlier, having come to rest in the valley some 11 years before in 1903.
When all was said and done that day I returned to the grave site to collect my thoughts and try once again to embrace the enormity of this unprecedented event. The white-picketed mass grave had a rich green late spring cover to it and the scent of wild rose and lilac was present everywhere. It seemed almost impossible that such a beautiful spot could have been the scene of such unimaginable grief and heartache.
A familiar face from the past, sporting a new hip joint, stepped up beside me at the fence and said:"I've come to see grandpa. He's in this section somewhere but I can’t remember exactly where. His name was Mike Janego." I quickly cruised up and down the 75 sites in rows four and five and located Mike's marker. It lay right across from the wreath of 189 red carnations I had laid there earlier in the day on behalf of the Coal Association of Canada.
Claire Marconi, wife of a pit boss I had worked underground with many years before at Vicary Mine, said:"Grandma begged him not to go to work that day. She said the house is half painted and that why didn't he stay home and finish it instead." Grandpa's response was that the mine had been idle for 2 days and that they needed the money.
It was an all too familiar story back then, the see-saw mental argument as to whether to go or not to go to work on any given day. The miners knew the risks, the odds and the unpredictability of their lives underground. Most had little choice.
As I turned to leave later on I spotted off to one side the polished marble marker of Julia Makin which reads:"1906-1996 - Thy Will Be Done".
 

I remembered then parts of the transcript of an interview done with Julia in 1986 for an oral history program. She gave a poignant recounting of that day at Hillcrest and its impact on her family.
Julia Makin said her father Charles (Wasil) Elick was 42 years old when he died in the Hillcrest Mine on June 19, 1914. Incredibly, he had been one of the famous 17 miners that had survived being trapped in the Frank Mine after the 1903 Frank Slide. Those amazing men had fought off the panic brought on by being trapped underground with deadly gas slowly filtering through the workings and water pouring into the mine from the slide dammed Crowsnest River. In thirteen hours of continuous exhausting labor they dug their way out through a narrow seam of coal to the surface.
I have tried to imagine how Charles Elick must have felt when he emerged from that escape hole to find himself and the valley below him buried in 90 million tons of limestone. It must have been dumfounding.
Julia was only eight years old when she lost her father. She had just started her school day that morning when the whistle sounded for trouble at the mine. At recess most of the class headed for the mine site where they leaned against the restraining rope set up the mounted police in their red uniforms.
She said:"We were scared of the mine rescue men. They all had this equipment on them, gas masks and breathing apparatus and we didn't know who or what they were. We could see wagons at the wash house and the men wrapped in cheesecloth like mummies."
"They brought them into town and laid them out at the Halton-Moser store and the upstairs Union Hall. At the funeral they had all the caskets lined up. I kept running to see my dad but I never did."
Julia's little brother John was born the day after the explosion. No doubt the shock of losing her husband brought on Julia's mother's labor. John became one of over 400 children left fatherless that weekend. Julia's mother was numbered among the 130 widows that that methane/coal dust monster had created.
It seems the hand of fate had not quite been sated by the havoc it had wreaked on the Elick family that weekend. In one last cruel act it felled a huge Douglas fir tree onto their household that night virtually destroying it. Mercifully none of the family, which now numbered six, was hurt. Julia summed it up simply in her interview by saying:"My mother buried her husband, had a baby and lost her home all within two days. And it was snowing in June."
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