Come along with us as we wander the remains of the old surface plant connected to the Hillcrest Collieries Mine in the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta. Closed down some seventy five years ago, a couple concrete buildings can be found at the site, all well overgrown, along with some bits of metal and other junk and of course the obligatory coal slack scattered everywhere. It’s not the most extensive mine plant left standing in the region, but does have the darkest past.
Hillcrest is most famous as the location where Canada’s greatest mine disaster occurred, an event that took the lives close two hundred men near a century ago. For a time in 1914, it was tantamount to hell, an explosion or series of explosions, nasty toxic gases, collapsed workings, damaged buildings and so on. One can stand very near the mine entry (closed up but marked by a sulphurous stream), the same entry the doomed men entered for work and later still where their deceased bodies were carried out. Right at this very spot. Chilling! As bad as it was, the catastrophe that was World War One, a short few weeks later, would soon overshadow what happened here.
Looking around today, it’s had to imagine the scope of it all. The mine site is all quiet and still and peaceful (well, save for the occasional passing quad) belying the fact that it was witness to so much death and destruction. So many gone, so many widows, so many fatherless children, a community torn to shreds.
The Hillcrest Mine dates back to the mid-1900s operating under the name Hillcrest Coal and Coke. Changing hand early on, it was from then on known as Hillcrest Collieries. The mine closed in the late 1930s. In three and a half decades they extracted close to six million tonnes of coal from seams up to four metres thick. It was a big producer in its day but small by today’s standards. Modern strip mines just across the border in BC produce that may tonnes in just one year! Hillcrest coal was ranked as high volatile bituminous making it particularly suitable for industrial use. The CPR bought coal for its locomotives from the firm.
The site today only includes a small number of buildings that were once here. All those made of wood are long gone, leaving ones of concrete to remain. Only a few of the most important building would be of constructed of this material.
Let’s take a tour…
Where the main mine entry was is still obvious albeit heavily overgrown. It of course was closed up when they were done. This was typical given how dangerous these types of places could be. Right at the entrance is the hoist house. Inside a drum would have acted on a drive cable that would be used to pull loaded coal cars from the mine or send empty ones back in. Deeper in, horses or locomotives, depending on the era, would take over.
A photo from the day after disaster shows the front of the building badly damaged from the explosion, which no doubt exited the adit with incredible velocity – the workings would have acted like a gun barrel concentrating forces there. The big opening seen on the building today is not related to that event. They fixed the damage but demolished the front (oh no not again) when salvaging metal machinery inside when the operation closed.
Old photos show several other wood buildings in the immediate area, but all are long gone with no signs left.
To the west of the main opening, perhaps a couple hundred metres away, right above Drum Creek is the site of another. A good sized stream emerges from the collapsed entry. These working explored the flanks of Turtle Mountain where as the first opening does the same on Hillcrest Mountain. It’s said there are other closed adits in the area but we didn’t see them. Lots of metal junk all about here.
A little beyond and lower on the hill back towards the hoist house and like it made of concrete is the power plant building. All the machinery of course has long been removed (knocked and missing walls attest to that). Anything wood has long since rotted way, so the roof for example. Old photos show the building with smoke belching from its many stacks. Fuel of course was supplied by the mine itself.
Beside it, of concrete too, and also lost in the underbrush is the wash house, where miners cleaned up after a hard day underground. Coal mining is a dirty biz.
There would have been a maze of trains tracks in the area eventually leading to the processing area and tipple perhaps a click or so away. None of those building remains although much coal slack can be seen. From the tipple coal would then be loaded on full-sized trains for delivery to wherever. The old rail yard is now a trailer park.
We further explore the area looking for other buildings and such – there were a LOT at one time at the plant we understand – but found nothing of note. Then of course there had been a lot of growth since it closed.
The Hillcrest Mine Disaster happened on on the morning of June 19th, 1914, soon after shift change. A build up of methane gas (always a problem) triggered an explosion (some reports say multiples) which killed some men within the immediate area. But it was the deadly afterdamp, a toxic mixture of gases released after the blast that spread throughout the mine, that killed most however.
Rescuers got to work almost immediately. First task was to clear the entry which collapsed in the event. The scene inside must have been horrific, the bodies of dead miners being found everywhere. Some one hundred and eighty nine men perished inside. Only a four dozen or so survived.
The event devastated the community of Hillcrest (a company town, sometimes called Hillcrest Mines) where many of those who worked here lived. The deceased are mostly interned at the nearby Hillcrest Cemetery including many in huge mass graves. This was the biggest mining disaster in the country’s history by a margin. It’s not completely clear was triggered the event. Recall us speaking of methane earlier, common in all coal mines, a build up of which was likely a cause. Coal dust is explosive too. A spark from a tool or rock fall, and BOOM!
The mine was quickly cleaned up and put back to work, operating with relative safety for many decades after, save for another explosion which killed a couple men in the 1920s. The industry is rife with dangers.
There are many monuments to the disaster at the Hillcrest Cemetery and I’m sure elsewhere in the Pass. I’m surprised none has been erected something similar at the mine site itself where the event played out.
The Pass was built on coal mining. There used to be dozens and dozens of them there. The last closed in the 1980s.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: June, 2016.
Location: Crowsnest Pass, AB.
Article references and thanks: Correy Baldwin – Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, Crowsnest Heritage Initiative, Calgary Herald, Authors Jane Ross and William Tracy.
If you visit the site please show it complete respect.