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July 20th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 29
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Coal Mine Disaster
An International Perspective
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Commemorative statue unveiled at Senghenydd, Wales in 2013.
A special committee in Sparwood is now hard at work planning the commemoration of the last major mine disaster to occur in the Crowsnest Pass/Elk Valley area. Like Hillcrest, this will be a major effort next spring to permanently acknowledge the loss of those fifteen men at Balmer North on April 3, 1967 and also every coal miner ever lost in the Michel/Natal area. As far as disasters go the 1914 Hillcrest Disaster stands as the date in Canadian history when the worst loss of life in a coal mine occurred. But Canada is not alone in this regard; when it comes to tragic mining losses our numbers pale in comparison when one looks worldwide. This comparison was a painful one to research but will help the reader put our losses into an international perspective.
On April 26, 1942 the world’s worst underground mine disaster happened in Japanese-occupied Manchuria when 1,549 Chinese miners died at the Benxihu Colliery. It was later revealed that the Japanese occupiers, who were using Chinese prisoners to operate the mine, sealed it off after an explosion to shut down fires which effectively caused the deaths of most of the workers.

The worst European mine disaster and the second worst in the world happened in France at the Compagnie des mines de Courrières (Courrieres Mine) about 140 miles north of Paris. On March 10, 1906 the deadly combination of coal dust and methane combined once again to claim the lives of 1,099 men. Six hundred managed to escape and 13 men were eventually rescued some twenty days later.

The world’s sixth worst mining accident happened in Senghenydd Colliery in Glamorgan, Wales when 439 succumbed, mostly to carbon monoxide, on October 14, 1913. This tragedy occurred just eight months before Hillcrest and stands as the deadliest in the history of mining in the United Kingdom. Incredibly, just six months after Hillcrest, the Mitsubishi Hojyo Coal Mine in Japan blew up, sending the elevator cage fifty feet into the air and claiming an unfathomable 687 men. It ranks as the third worst in the world.

To put Hillcrest into perspective as far as major United States mining disasters go, it would rank as the seventh worst in their history if it had occurred there. In the thirteen years between 1900 and 1913 the United States lost 1323 men in five separate major coal mine catastrophes in West Virginia, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Utah. On December 6, 1907, seven years prior to Hillcrest, in Monongah, West Virginia the United States had marked its worst mining disaster ever. Once again the lethal coal dust/methane gas scenario unfolded at the Monongah Mine and claimed the lives of at least 362 men. Most of the victims were Italian immigrants; just nineteen days before Christmas, 250 women became widows and over 1,000 children were orphaned.
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According to Wikipedia: “In 2003, to commemorate the explosion, the Italian commune of San Giovanni in Fiore, from which many of the miners emigrated, erected a memorial with the inscription whose English translation reads: "Lest we forget the Calabrian miners dead in West Virginia (USA). The sacrifice of those strong men shall bolster new generations. Monongah, December 6, 1907, San Giovanni in Fiore, December 6, 2003". In 2007, to commemorate Monongah’s 100th anniversary the Italian region of Molise presented a bell to the town of Monongah which sits in the town square. Every year on December 6th at precisely 10:30 am it is rung.

In comparison, in Alberta, the total number of men lost underground in the sixty-one years between 1904 and 1963 in all coalmine accidents (including Hillcrest) is 1217, over a hundred less that the tragic thirteen year (1900 to 1913) US large disaster total. It is important also to note that Nova Scotia has a much longer history of underground coal mining than BC and Alberta. Between 1838 and 1992 the Nova Scotia government database indicates there were a stunning 2,584 coal mine fatalities.

While there had been several large losses of life in Canadian coal mine accidents prior to Hillcrest, there were only two major mining disasters that occurred involving more than fifty men in the years immediately after 1914. Those occurred in New Waterford, Nova Scotia in 1917 when 65 men were lost and again at Stellarton, NS in 1918 when 88 men died in the Allan Shaft. There were smaller but no less significant losses like 33 men in 1923 at Cumberland on Vancouver Island and 45 lost at Blakeburn, BC (near Princeton) in 1930. For the most part it seemed like more modern technology and better safety practices were beginning to help minimize the loss of life in underground coal mines. Then came Springhill in November of 1956 with 39 lost and two years later the big bump there that claimed a tragic 74 lives and left some men trapped for six days before they were rescued. Canada’s fourth worst mining disaster happened at Springhill in 1891 when 125 men and boys were lost to an explosion and fire at their Number 1 and 2 Collieries.
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British Columbia holds the unfortunate record for the second and third worst coal mine disasters in Canada, both of which predate Hillcrest. On May 3, 1887 Nanaimo Number 1 Mine on Vancouver Island was the site of an explosion that eventually claimed the lives of 148 men. Some of the miners trapped by the explosion wrote their final farewell messages in the coal dust on their shovels. Fifteen years later on May 22, 1902, Coal Creek Colliery just south of Fernie, BC, suffered the areas worst loss when 130 men died, mostly suffocated by deadly afterdamp, after an explosion deep in their Number 2 Mine. In most of these disasters it was the deadly mixture of methane gas and coal dust that combined to create violent explosions and lethal poisonous gases, known as afterdamp, which eventually overcame pairs of miners at the working faces.

The granite commemorative stone pillows that circle the Hillcrest Memorial Monument list the 96 separate mine accidents across Canada, of three men or more killed. The list starts with sixty men lost in Drummond Mine, Westville, Nova Scotia on May 13, 1873 and ends with the loss of twenty six men at the Westray Mine at Plymouth, Nova Scotia on May 9, 1992. The total of these 96 events is a heartbreaking 1884 miners. The period between Springhill 1958 and Westray 1992 were mercifully marked with only two substantial events, those being the fifteen men lost in the Balmer North explosion at Michel, BC in April 1967 and the Dominion #26 explosion at Glace Bay, Nova Scotia in February of 1979 in which twelve men died.

It is important to remember that every man lost in a coal mine was in itself a disaster, one that impacted his family, friends and community and that the potential of this happening always weighed heavily on the miners and their loved ones. In the year of the Hillcrest Disaster there were no less than twenty miners lost elsewhere in Alberta in places like Lethbridge, Jasper, Drumheller, Bankhead, Coalhurst, Vulcan and Brazeau. Here in the Crowsnest Pass in 1914 eight men were lost in separate incidents in Bellevue, McGillivray Mine (Coleman) and a further two in Hillcrest in one tragic event just five months after the unthinkable had happened there. Mine disasters were always a threat in the early days of coal mining everywhere in the world. International unionism eventually helped lead to improved safety practices which all but eliminated this type of heavy loss of men. Modern mechanized mining and the move to open pit coal mines have also helped reduce the loss of life, especially in North America, to the point where fatalities are mercifully a rare occurrence.

Author's Note: A modified version of this article was published in the Hillcrest Mine Disaster Commemorative Booklet in 2014.
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