As a person who has been involved in goldmining for the better part of his life, I don't often reflect on other commodities especially like coal. However in today's story we're going to take a venture into coal old coal country and look at some old mines and towns that are located in the Crowsnest. Even though these old towns produced millions of tons of coal and great wealth the local towns, These very same mines and towns also saw some of the worst mining and natural disasters the country had ever seen.
The Crowsnest coal mines were located in the Crowsnest Pass of the rocky Mountains in southern Alberta Canada. Each of these mines had their own little town even though they were only a few miles apart at the time. There were the towns of Coleman, Blairmore, Bellevue, Frank and Hillcrest.
It was in 1901 that Sam Gebo and Henry Frank developed the first of many coal mines in the Crowsnest Pass, at the base of Turtle Mountain. A town quickly built up and by 1903 there were over 1,000 people with more than a dozen businesses and services including a school, and a post office. Then on April 29, 1903 at 4 in the morning the a large section of 110 million tonnes of the rock slid down and wiped out most of the town. Between 70 and 90 of the towns residents died in that disaster. However dispite that disaster, the mine reopened within a month along with the reopening of the rail line. The town was eventually moved around 1911 but by 1917 the coal seams in the Frank area were exhausted and as the mine closed down, the town population dwindled.
One of the other earlier mines to open was located in Coleman. This mine was owned by the International Coal and Coke Company which needed coal for it's copper smelter located in British Columbia. By 1903 the mine needed more workers so a town site was surveyed out and in very short order the town of Coleman came into being. Coleman was a company town as the company owned pretty much everything so life was good for the workers of the mine. The mine provided free water and hydro electricity as an added bonus to the miners. Coleman was famous for it's 100 plus coke ovens on the outskirts of the town.
Then in 1905, prospector and entrepreneur Charles Hill came into the Crowsnest Pass area and started the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company. Charles was the prospector who also founded the town of Porthill, Idaho. Once mining got started in this new mine a town was quickly surveyed out and soon there were close to 1000 residents living in the new town of Hillcrest. The same year the mine opened, the rail company built a spur line to the mine so coal could be shipped out. The Hillcrest mine was considered the one of the safest and most efficient of all the mines in the pass. However on the morning of June 19, 1914 a blast ripped through the entire mine and would make this the worst mine disaster in history. A total of 189 workers died, about half of the mine's total workforce, which left 90 women widowed and about 250 children fatherless. Many of the victims were buried in a mass grave at the Hillcrest Cemetery. A further explosion in 1926 killed two more workers. The Hillcrest mine continued working until 1939.
The Hillcrest mine disaster wasn't the only mine explosion in the crowsnest. On December 9 1910, an explosion in the Bellevue Mine killed 30 miners. Then in 1917, a fire destroyed most of the towns business section, followed by smaller fires in 1921 and 1922. Then in 1923 a lower portion of Bellevue was flooded out. The Bellevue mine was owned by the West Canadian Collieries company. The Bellevue mines was some of the larger mines and worked until the mid 1950's.
Just because these were coal mining towns doesn't mean there wasn't any gun slinging action like the old west gold camps use to have. On August 2, 1920, three miners decided to rob the Canadian Pacific Railway's train No. 63 at gun point. While one of the miners was able to jump across the border into the United States, the other two were later found in a local cafe in the town of Bellevue. As three police officers entered the cafe a shoot out began with two officers getting killed and third officer also accidentally shot and killed by another officer. The gunman took off but was later arrested ina near by town and later convicted of murder and was hung. The second suspect fled but was captured in 1924 in Butte, Montana. He would die in prison in his second year of a seven year sentence.
If you ever get a chance to travel through the crowsnest pass in Alberta, by all means do so. The highway will take you right through all these small towns. Remains of the old Collieries still sit beside the roadways. There is a mine tour of the old Bellevue mine you can visit as well as the hillcrest mining memorial site. The old brick buildings in Blairmore now house eateries and gift shops and some of the mountain slopes have been turned into ski hills and hiking trails. There is also an information site for the Frank slide.