Tragedies of the Crowsnest Pass, Part II

For Part I, click here.

Crowsnest_pass

Crowsnest Lake, near the summit of Crowsnest Pass. Source: M. Rogers, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crowsnest_pass.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

In this 78 km (48 mi) corridor split between the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, over 400 people were killed in various explosions, fires, and landslides between 1902 and 1917, along with dozens more in the decades since.
Despite the disasters that befell the Crowsnest PassElk Valley corridor in 1902 and 1903, coal mining continued unabated in the region; there was simply too much money to be made. Sadly, 1904 would mark the third straight year of coal mine disasters in the region; this time at the wee burg of Morrissey, British Columbia, just south of Fernie. Morrissey Creek was one of the first coal-bearing creeks discovered in the region back in the 1870s, but the site would never live up to its promise. Only in 1901 did the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company (CNP, the coal monopoly on the British Columbia side of the border) begin mining operations there, and the coal proved to be of inconsistent quality and extremely difficult to coke. Lying on a border between bituminous and anthracitic deposits, the rock structure at Morrissey was unstable and riddled with methane gas pockets. The final straw for Morrissey came in November 1904. Already during 1903 and 1904, there had been two separate methane explosions that had not only filled tunnels with hundreds of tonnes of loose coal but also suffocated four miners due to gas leaks. On 18 November 1904, a methane outburst in the No. 1 shaft created an explosion that killed 14 miners. Some were suffocated by gas and dust, others were crushed under 3 500 tonnes of coal.

While CNP would move its operations in Morrissey a mile up the creek bed, the problems there were just as bad, and Morrissey would be abandoned by the company in 1909. There would be a shortlived ‘revival’ during World War I when the townsite and mine were used as internment and labour camps for hundreds of ‘enemy aliens’ of Austrian, Polish, Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Slovenian, and German descent. While some prisoners of war would have been present, most internees were Canadian residents who were guilty of nothing more than having the wrong last name during wartime.  107 internees would perish in the camp, mostly from tuberculosis and pneumonia.

When its residents weren’t being ravaged by mine explosions or a catastrophic landslide, the Crowsnest region was victimised by massive fires, specifically the city of Fernie. Like most other towns in the frontier West, Fernie’s buildings were largely constructed out of the most easily accessible material to be found, wood – the perfect fuel for flame. Between 1902 and 1908, five separate major fires gutted various portions of the city core. An April 1902 fire destroyed the core block of the central business district along with most of the city’s hotels. That exact same block would be ignited again two years later to the month when an early morning fire that broke out in a general store eventually swallowed six entire blocks and 65 separate businesses, just three months before Fernie was officially incorporated as a municipality with city status. One year to the day of that incorporation on 28 July 1905, another fire caused between CAN$80 000 and $120 000 (between $2 million and $3 million today) on that very same core block. Still, after all of these fires, all of the buildings in downtown Fernie kept being rebuilt with wood rather than brick-and-mortar. This failure to learn from previous disasters would prove to be not just destructive but fatal on 1 August 1908 when another fatal coal mine collapse would distract the townspeople long enough to allow a raging forest fire to sweep through the entire city.

The collapse would be inside the Coal Creek mine’s No. 2 shaft again, just as in 1902 (see Part I for that story). A seismic ‘bump’, or rock burst, had dislodged a large amount of coal in the shaft, killing three miners and trapping another 20 inside the shaft. The men of the city of rushed to the mine to free the miners. Meanwhile, a small fire burning in a lumber yard junk pile just south of Fernie that was expected to burn itself out was being ignored. With no one monitoring the fire, a wind blowing through the Elk Valley at about 2 am picked up the fire and blew it onto the neighbouring lumber piles. Tinder-dry from sitting exposed in the summer heat, 6 million board-feet (14 160 m3) of lumber went up in flames, and the massive fire that resulted blew into the surrounding forest and headed straight up the valley toward Fernie. By the time the populace awoke, the fire was well out-of-control, and fire prevention methods being what they were in 1908, the city was helpless against the size of the blaze (especially with most of the able-bodied men normally available to fight fire still up at Coal Creek). In just 90 minutes, the bulk of the city of 5 000 people was destroyed. The fire would go on further up the Elk Valley to destroy the brand-new townsite at Hosmer 13 km (8 mi) north and eventually almost touch the twin villages of Michel and Natal near the Alberta border before burning out.

The final toll was eight deaths (six in Fernie, two in Hosmer) and all but 23 houses in the city left standing. Around 1 000 buildings were destroyed, incurring a massive CAN$5 million (CAN$123 million in today’s money) worth of damages. When Fernie was rebuilt this final time, the townspeople were determined not to suffer the same fate. As such, the city legislated that all new buildings in the downtown core were to be rebuilt with concrete and bricks (from the local Fernie Brick Company) rather than wood. Over a century later, those concrete and brick buildings remain in place largely intact, forming the core of one of the more aesthetically-appealing central business districts in the province. Fernie would actually go on to experience another boom period immediately after the fire, as high coal and lumber prices combined with the fire-induced construction boom consolidated the city’s position as the main centre of commerce for the entire Crowsnest region. Of course, Mother Nature had to deliver another blow during the spring of 1916 in the form of a flood that damaged much of West Fernie and wiped out the local bank, taking many residents’ life savings with it.

IMG_4311

Downtown Fernie, British Columbia today. Source: T. Blackie, http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomblackie/418230482/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Generic 2.0 Generic licence.

Meanwhile, mine explosions would continue unabated throughout the 1910s, particularly on the Albertan side of the pass. At the eastern end of the pass on opposite side of the river lie the villages of Bellevue and Hillcrest (also known as Hillcrest Mines), both which were victimised by catastrophic mine disasters during that decade. 30 of the 47 workers in West Canadian Colleries’ Bellevue mine, opened in 1904, fell victim to an explosion in December 1910 likely caused by a spark igniting large amounts of coal dust in the mine that mixed with methane escaping from the coal seam. While some miners were crushed to death by coal in the explosion, most survived the blast, instead suffocating due to carbon monoxide after-damp asphyxiation while trapped in the mine. 19 men had actually found a small refuge area where they were able to break a piece of pipe open and survive on the compressed air, only for a mine official who was worried about fires damaging mine property to shut the air compressor off. Those 19 men soon died on the spot. Also dead along with the 30 miners was one of the rescue crew who became overcome by fumes inside the shaft.

It was found that the main fan at the entry point to the mine was only operating at 65 percent of capacity, not nearly enough to remove the gas. Two months earlier, the fan had broken down completely and the mine was shut down for two days for repairs, which in turn led to an explosion (fortunately, the mine was vacant during this period). As soon as the mine had been cleared of debris a month later, it was reopened despite no further improvements in ventilation, which in turn resulted in the fatal explosion. Despite the deaths and hazards, there was still profit to be had and West Canadian Colleries once again reopened the mine in November 1911 after repairs. The deadly conditions in Bellevue and other area mines were major sticking points in a seven-month-long strike called throughout the pass soon after. Later in 1911, the company would begin drilling vents from the surface down to the tunnels to improve ventilation, and a mobile mine rescue station was created out of a boxcar to travel up and down the Canadian Pacific line throughout the pass to quickly aid trapped miners in the event of an explosion.

All of the disasters mentioned both in this article and in part I, however, pale in comparison to the tragedy of 19 June 1914 at Hillcrest Mines. Of 235 miners in the mine, 189 perished; the largest mining disaster in Canadian history and the third-largest the world had ever seen to that point. Hillcrest, ironically, was considered the safest of all of the mines in the Crowsnest. Despite the disaster occurring on a Friday, the mine had actually been closed the previous two days not for safety reasons but due to overproduction of coal. During that work stoppage, a mine inspection had determined a small amount of methane gas along with minor cave-ins occurring in the mine, but the amount of moisture present was considered adequate to damped to the coal dust in the shafts and prevent it from igniting the methane and causing an explosion. That Friday morning when the 235 miners were at work, there were three explosions – an initial blast of gas stirred up the dust which then provoked two further explosions immediately. Like some many other mine explosions, most of the trapped miners who survived the initial blast perished due to carbon monoxide asphyxiation. The location they were mining in, by the way, was the east side of Turtle Mountain – the very same Turtle Mountain whose north slope had collapsed and partially buried the village of Frank eleven years earlier.

Back on the BC side of the pass, two more explosions would rock CNP mining operations. 8 August 1916 saw the village of Michel, the closest town to the pass on the west side of the border, lose 12 of its miners in a freak lightning accident. During a storm, a lightning bolt stuck the ground near a mineshaft entrance and electrical charge travelled along either a signal wire, a coal car cable, or the coal car tracks into the mine, igniting three explosions (a similar incident in 1938 would kill three more miners at Michel). April 1917 would see Fernie suffer yet another massive blow when 38 men would lose their lives in a blow out in Coal Creek’s No. 3 shaft.

The 1920s would see the beginning of the end of most coal mining on the Alberta side of the pass, as the various small collieries couldn’t compete with larger outfits such as CNP in a slowly declining market. Even this wind-up period saw two explosions within the span of nine weeks at the end of 1926. Another blast at Hillcrest took two lives in September, and a blast to the west at Coleman killed ten. Hillcrest Mines would continue operating until 1939, and the Bellevue mine would be the last one standing on the Alberta side, closing in 1961. Now dependent on activities such as tourism and logging, the many closely-knit villages on the Alberta side would eventually amalgamate into the modern municipality of Crowsnest Pass in 1979. The last major underground explosion in the pass occurred at Michel’s Balmer North mine on 3 April 1967. 15 miners were killed in the explosion and another 10 injured; one survivor was actually blown out through the mine entrance by the force of the blast over an embankment, saving his life.

Since the turn of the 1970s, all major coal mining activity in the Crowsnest Pass/Elk Valley region has been conducted on the BC side on a much larger scale by multinational powerhouses such as Kaiser and Teck. Here, the days of individual mine shafts have long been replaced by giant open-pit mines that measure in the hundreds of square kilometres, and older, coal-blackened company towns such as Michel, Middletown, and Natal were replaced in the 1960s and 1970s by the master-planned ‘instant towns’ of Sparwood and Elkford by order of the BC government due to the polluted living conditions in the villages, which lay directly adjacent to the mines (what was left of the Michel and Natal townsites was bulldozed away in 1978).

yup, it's big

The advent of open pit mining in the Elk Valley inadvertently gave Sparwood, British Columbia its main roadside tourist attraction:  this 350-tonne 1974 Terex Titan coal hauling truck, which greets visitors at the entrance to the town. Source: nicodeemus1, http://www.flickr.com/photos/petergc/246265064/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

The massive scar of an open-pit mine just north of Elkford, British Columbia.

Overall, at least 408 men were killed in underground mine explosions between Fernie and Bellevue between 1902 and 1917, not to mentions the dozens killed in the Frank Slide and the great Fernie fire of 1908, and the dozens more killed in other mining-related activity since. Fernie in particular had been hit with so many disasters that the city was believed to be cursed, which led to the myth of ‘The Ghostrider’.  Legend held that back in 1887, the city’s founder, local Gold Commissioner William Fernie, was courting a Ktunaxa princess in order to learn the location of the deposits from which her black coal necklace came.  Her father, the chief, agreed to tell Fernie in exchange for Fernie marrying the princess, but as soon as Fernie got the information he needed about the location of the Morrissey seams he quickly broke off the relationship.  Incensed, the chief supposedly placed a curse on the newborn city.  A rock formation on the face of nearby Mount Hosmer in the shape of a man on horseback called The Ghostrider is said to be the shadow of the chief on horseback in pursuit of Mr. Fernie.  In 1964, with local dignitaries on hand, a peace pipe ceremony was held with Fernie’s mayor and the modern chief to ceremonially remove the ‘curse’.  Indeed, no major disasters have occurred in Fernie since.

The fascination with the tragic past of the Crowsnest Pass area persists to this day.  Home to a massive tourist interpretative centre, the Frank Slide site remains the second-largest tourist attraction in the region behind the massive ski resort at Fernie, with the centre drawing 100 000 visitors each year (not to mention the untold volumes of people who travel through the slide scar each day along the Crowsnest Highway, stopping on the side of the road for a quick photo opportunity before heading on their way). The old mine at Bellevue also operates as a tourist attraction in which visitors are taken underground to travel through the mine first-hand and learn about the conditions miners worked in every day. The mass grave where most of the 1914 Hillcrest explosion victims were buried is now a historic site. These sites may be curiosities for tourists, but they serve as solemn reminders of the ultimate price paid by so many in the name of coal.

Further Reading

Anderson, F. and E. Turnbull (1983).  Tragedies of the Crowsnest Pass.  Surrey: Heritage House.

Bellevue Underground Mine Tours (2012). Bellevue Underground Mine Tour. Available at http://www.bellevueundergroundmine.org/. Accessed 15 November 2012.

Cranbrook Herald (1902). Fernie’s Horror: Explosion in the Coal Mines Kills from 100 to 150 Miners. 29 May 1902.  Available at http://www.crowsnest.bc.ca/fernie01.html. Accessed 14 November 2012.

Cranbrook Herald (1902). Coal Damp Explosion at Hillcrest Mine. 19 June 1914. Available at http://www.crowsnest.bc.ca/hillcrest.html. Accessed 15 November 2012.

Crowsnest Heritage Initiative (2010). Discover Crowsnest Heritage. Available at http://www.crowsnestheritage.ca/. Accessed 15 November 2012.

Fernie.com (2012).  The Ghostrider.  Available at http://fernie.com/about-fernie/fernie-legends/the-ghostrider/.  Accessed 28 October 2012.

Fernie Heritage Library (2012). Library History. Available at http://fernie.bclibrary.ca/about/library-history. Accessed 14 November 2012.

Foster, S. and J. Bachusky (2005). Michel/Natal. Ghost Towns of British Columbia. Available at http://www.ghosttownpix.com/bc/michelnatal.html. Accessed 15 November 2012.

Laycock, M. (1994). Morrissey Internment Camp: A dark part of Canada’s past. Fernie Free Press, 14 December 1994. Available at http://mundomichael.com/mm/nfblog/?page_id=26. Accessed 12 November 2012.

Turner, R.D. (2011).  The Crowsnest Pass Railway Route.  Cranbrook, BC: Canadian Museum of Rail Travel.  Available at http://www.crowsnest.bc.ca/.  Accessed 15 November 2012.

Venzi, R. (1999). The Hillcrest Mine Disaster. Coal Miners Memorial.  Available at http://coalminersmemorial.tripod.com/hillcrestminedisaster.html. Accessed 15 November 2012.

Venzi, R. (2009). Coal Miners Memorial: A Tribute to the Coal Miners of Michel, Natal & Sparwood, B.C.  8 August 2009. Available at http://coalminersmemorial.tripod.com/index.html. Accessed 15 November 2012.

Wilson, D. (ed.) (2005).  Triumph and Tragedy in the Crowsnest Pass.  Surrey: Heritage House.

Nearby Articles