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June 11th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 23
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Inside the Devil’s Breath
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
As a mining historian I can tell you that there are not many books out there that dissect a particular mine disaster as comprehensively and as thoroughly as The Devil’s Breath. If ever you wanted to get your mind around the Hillcrest disaster this book is a must read.
Author Steve Hanon became fascinated by this story in the 1990’s when he was studying history in university and first learned what appeared to be an almost obscure fact: that Canada’s worst mining disaster had occurred here. For a time he worked at making film documentaries and eventually decided to focus on Hillcrest as he felt it was a story that needed to be told to the world.
As I mentioned in my last column after he completed this film in 2005 it began to nag him that there was much more to say than the film could ever tell because: “ television requires truncation, ruthless cutting, condensation, and even simplification that simply did not do the events justice.” So when he got the chance he moved to an isolated spot on Bowen Island in 2007 and there amongst the cedars and the silence immersed himself in his research, determined to get the whole story in all its complexities out there.
Sifting through conflicting newspaper articles, memoirs, inquiry and inquest documents and company and ministry reports he has patched together a clearer picture of what happened before, during and after that horrific explosion. This was no easy task as any researcher will tell you. Verification of numbers, names and the timeline of events can be a nightmare. It takes a lot of determined focus to pull an important story like Hillcrest together into a concise unfolding of events.
Probably the most important thing about Steve’s book is that he recognized that to tell the story properly one needs to understand: “the context within which these events unfolded” and that that context must include: “the temper of the times, the ideas, attitudes, personal connections, events and beliefs that shaped their behaviour.”
Hanon takes six chapters and 111 pages to lead you into the unfolding of June 19th. This lead-in includes a detailed profile of C.P. Hill the American founder of Hill Crest Coal and Coke Company and a fascinating and controversial man. (Notice Hillcrest was originally spelled as two words)! He also realized it was important to look back prior to Hillcrest at what he termed “The Lurking Threat” of mine disasters and poor practices that led to them. He reviews “Life and Ideas in the Pass” and included a chapter that is a serious overview of the Bellevue disaster of 1910 that took 31 lives.
For anyone who has ever studied old newspapers the book’s chapter entitled “The Reporters” is highly entertaining and at times disturbing as the liberties and out and out fabrications that emerged as the story first broke leave one questioning the credibility of a lot of early newspaper accounts. As Hanon puts it, reporters were not above some hack wordsmithing to entertain their readers. Case in point. A story has been perpetuated through the years about David Murray Sr., a 48 year old Scottish miner with no less than ten children, three of which were working in the Hillcrest Mine that day. The story is that Murray escaped from the mine after the explosion and then fought off a Mountie in order to go back into the mine to search for his sons and that he died along with them. The first mention of this occurred in the June 20th Lethbridge Herald and read: “Chas. Murray gave his life in an attempt to save his two boys, who were entombed in the mine. Hearing of this, he rushed in but never came out again.”
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Hanon points out that not only did they get his name wrong but that it was three sons, David Cannon, Robert and William who were lost that day. David Murray Senior’s body was found in the face where he and his partner had been working at the bottom of No. 2 slant. The writer suggests it is highly unlikely that he made it out of the mine from this slant when miners higher up barely made it out alive. For him to be found exactly where he had been working originally after this remarkable feat and for it to be reported as such constituted what Hanon described as the “most egregious fabrication” he had come across.
There are several occasions in the book where the author asks us to consider some observations of his that can be thought provoking at the least and disturbing at the most. He points out that the Hosmer Coal Mine (owned by CPR) was summarily shut down just two weeks after Hillcrest blew up and wonders that perhaps this may have occurred for reasons other than officially stated i.e. losing money, poor geology etc. The fact of the matter was that Hillcrest was an extremely important mine to CPR as a source of some of the finest most dependable steam coal around and that to lose this source was serious. It worked for all parties concerned including the union, the CPR, the provincial government and Hillcrest Collieries to stay open. He states: “Hillcrest wanted skilled employees to replace the dead miners. Hosmer miners wanted jobs. The CPR and Hillcrest Collieries wanted the mine in operation, the sooner the better. The UMWA wanted work for its members, assistance for the widows and their children, and to move on. The provincial government wanted order, peace, employment, a safe mine, and compensation to widows and their children.”
The most disturbing offering by Hanon in his conclusions chapter is that all the above listed factions appeared to have an unspoken agreement that Hillcrest Collieries should not be allowed to close. They all recognized the consequences of a bankrupt company and that if a direct cause was determined for the blast there would be law suits and Hillcrest would go under. He states that the fact that both inquiries failed to uncover the truth of what happened was underlain by a “failure of will to pursue the truth.”
With thirty-four archival photos, a timeline of events and a comprehensive glossary of mining terms, The Devil’s Breath: “fills a void in the published history of this country.”
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June 11th ~ Vol. 84 No. 23
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