June 18th, 2014 ~ Vol. 84 No. 24
Sisters pen comprehensive history of Hillcrest disaster
Crowsnest Pass Herald Front Page
Pass Herald Reporter
After four years of work, Belle Kovach and her sister Mary Bole are about to unveil Snowing in June, a remarkable book about the Hillcrest Mine Disaster.
“For my sister and I it was a learning experience,” says Kovach. “We researched 189 people and a lot of survivors.”
“Our telephone bills were exorbitant,” she adds.
Kovach and Bole were raised in the West end of the Pass but only learned about the Hillcrest disaster when they were almost adults.
“It was silent, it wasn’t talked about, says Kovach. “That’s why we decided to find out about each and every man, or at least try. So we researched and wrote a bit about every man that was killed.”
The start of World War I and the fact that many of the victims were recent immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which fought with Germany against the British during the Great War, might explain why coverage of this event dried up so quickly, says Kovach.
“One of the first people [Bole] interviewed was our grandfather who was an Italian miner,” says Kovach. “And he told her that his cousin took his place in the Bellevue mine the day of the explosion. We never knew that. We never knew our grandfather got to live when his cousin had died.”
The sisters have come to a number of conclusions and soon realized that few of the descendants of those involved remain in the Pass today because many of the victims were migrant workers from Europe, living rough and sending much of what they made back to their families. Few of them brought their wives.
Kovach says they were only able to identify about nine or ten mine disaster descendants still living in the Pass. She says many of the British widows only stayed long enough to settle with the company before returning overseas.
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One of the biggest conclusions they’ve drawn is that the Hillcrest widows remain the unsung heroes of this tragedy.
“I think their lives were difficult,” says Kovach. “Their husbands were making a fairly decent wage. And these ladies were given a quarter of what their husbands were bringing [as compensation] and they weren’t living well when their husbands were working.”
The widows sued the company and each of them was awarded $1,800, which was paid out in $20 installments. They were also paid an additional $5 per month for each of their children until they reached the age of 14, at which point it was understood they’d have to be out working, says Kovach.
When they couldn’t provide for their families, they had to remarry, says Kovach.
“They married people they hardly even knew. Some of them had really good lives but was also realized that many of them had married at least twice or even three times after losing their husbands to the explosion,” says Kovach.
“They were young mothers and they must have loved their first husbands, so it was an awkward and really bad time for the women,” she says.
Snowing in June will be officially released on June 18 at 7 p.m. at the Crowsnest Museum in Coleman. The authors will be reading selected passages from the book.
In conjunction with the book release, the Crowsnest Museum will be launching their Hillcrest 100 initiatives. Descendants of Hillcrest miners who lost their lives in the disaster will attend the event and candles will be lit to remember each of the miners who were killed underground.
June 18th ~ Vol. 84 No. 24
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