"History Is a Mystery": Steve Hanon on the Hillcrest Mine Disaster of 1914

Book Cover Devil's Breath

I have been fascinated by coal mines and mining since I was a boy. I grew up in Edmonton, and had the great good fortune, thanks to my parents’ choices, to grow up in the Bonnie Doon district on the south side, what used to be known as Strathcona. My parents’ house was a block from the Mill Creek ravine, a deep and wide ravine that cuts through a good stretch of south Edmonton, where my brother, neighborhood pals and I used to roam summer and winter, always looking for adventure which our imaginations supplied in spades if reality did not. Coal spills generously from the banks of Mill Creek. One place where a huge old cottonwood had fallen across the creek we named coal crossing thanks to the coal seam exposed on an eroded bank by the rushing spring water. I suspect that this personal discovery of coal is at least partly responsible for my interest in coal mining if not for the explicit idea for my book The Devil’s Breath: The Story of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster of 1914.

In the days before the wide usage of gasoline and automobiles, when horses provided most of the local transportation, coal was the fuel of choice for heating homes and businesses, and the coal of the Mill Creek ravine supplied the reason for the existence of the Twin Cities Coal Mine—“twin cities” being a reference to the cities of Edmonton and Strathcona before amalgamation in 1912S after construction of the High Level Bridge. We boyhood explorers found where the Twin Cities mine had been, a collection of shale piles and rotting timbers scattered on the ground, and a few rusting railway spikes. That was all that was left, and my father had supplied the information about what we had found. He had known as a boy growing up on the flats below Connors Hill, about the Twin Cities mine and about the Edmonton, Yukon and Pacific Railway that had run through the ravine to connect with the Low Level Bridge. He revealed to me that as a boy to avoid the walk to get downtown, he, his brothers, and his buddies had hitched rides on the slow moving trains that emerged from the ravine onto the flats. My father’s parents’ home on the flats was heated with coal, as were virtually all of the homes in Edmonton in the 1930s when he grew up.

I suppose that coal was to me, growing up in the 1950s, exotic. The only use for coal that I could see was by city work crews who burned it in winter to thaw out the ground enough to dig. Somehow coal had caught my imagination, and I read up a bit about it. I discovered that coal was the source for kerosene, coke for steel production, useful chemicals, and coal gas, and that if pulverized fine enough to create dust, would explode when a flame was supplied. Curious to test this information, I collected some coal from the ravine, and using a test tube from my chemistry set, heated a sample, and managed to produce enough coal gas to ignite. In another experiment, I pulverized a sample, and blew the dust over the gas flame on the kitchen stove to discover that indeed the dust does explode in a very small but satisfying (for a boy) manner. I also tried the experiment with some of my mother’s flour that she used to bake bread. It also exploded. My mother’s hot, fresh-baked bread spread with melted butter, by the way, was a treat that few kids today will ever know. Few can resist the call of the aroma of fresh-baked bread hot from the oven. We have many improvements in our lives but the loss of that experience, I suggest, is tragic, and also, now, exotic.

The past, to me, is exotic, but more than that, to me history is a mystery. At some point in the 1990s I read a popular account of the Hillcrest mine disaster. I had never heard of it, but was startled to discover that it was the worst mine disaster in Canadian history, that it had killed 189 men, and that it had happened right here in Alberta. In university I had studied history, yet had never come across this event. By this time I had worked in broadcasting for years, and was making films. I had just completed one documentary that had been screened on KSPS-TV in Spokane, and was looking for a subject for another when I had come across the Hillcrest story. As I conducted some preliminary research it seemed to me more and more that the story really had not been told as it should be. Initially I believed that the documentary would be all that was needed to tell the story, but once it was done, and as I began to think about the mountain of research that I had acquired, it began to nag at me: television requires truncation, ruthless cutting, condensation, and even simplification that simply did not do the events justice. There was much more to say, more to uncover, more mystery to solve than was possible in a made-for-television documentary. For the first time I contemplated writing a book, and the more thought I gave it, the more I realized that I wanted to write the book. 

When the opportunity arose I quit my job, and my wife and I moved to Bowen Island, British Columbia. There in the silence among the cedars and firs, in the rented house that sat fifty metres from Howe Sound I began to organize my research material, to write the first words, and to work to make the idea for The Devil’s Breath into reality.

Steve Hanon is a Calgary, Alberta writer, photographer, and filmmaker. The Gap, a short drama screened at the Local Heroes Film Festival in Edmonton was his first 16mm film. Hanon’s documentary, Steel Ghost, about the construction of Edmonton’s High Level Bridge between 1910 and 1913, premiered before members of the Edmonton and District Historical Society in January of 1999, and was broadcast on the PBS affiliate, KSPS-TV, Spokane, on Canada Day, July 1, 1999. The Devil’s Breath was Hanon’s third film, and second documentary. His third documentary, The Last of the River People, tells the story of four residents of Finn Slough, a tiny village on stilts which clings to the bank of the south arm of the Fraser River in Richmond, British Columbia. Settled as a fishing village by Finnish fishermen more than a hundred years ago, most of the Finns have gone along with the salmon fishery, leaving artists, photographers, and other creative people, or those who just want to live an alternative lifestyle. Hanon worked as a radio news broadcaster for 13 years in Edmonton and Calgary: at CKUA and CKRA in Edmonton, and CFAC, and CKRY in Calgary. His writing and photography have appeared in the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Lethbridge Herald, and Alberta Past.

June 27, 2013
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