In March 1910, James Burke, secretary to the UMWA local, complained to Mr. Stirling, the chief mine inspector, about the gas and the ventilation. Local Inspector Heathcoate confirmed the presence of methane and ordered the company to improve ventilation.
However, months later, the problems persisted.
On October 10, 1910 the main fan broke down for two hours and the company forced the men to remain underground at their workplaces. The union complained and Stirling angrily ordered the company to keep the mine well ventilated.
On the following weekend, Thanksgiving, the fans were shut down for two days for repairs. On the holiday Monday, a large methane explosion rocked the mine. Fortunately, the mine was vacant. It took until the end of November to clean up the mess and resume mining. Apparently, falling roof rocks had sparked, producing a gas explosion. Nothing substantial was done to improve air supply and the mine continued with record production.
December 9, 1910, 4:00 p.m. signalled the end of the dayshift and over 200 workers exited the mine and went home to rest. Forty-seven men walked into the mine for the afternoon shift. At 7:00 pm, three hours into their shift, a powerful explosion rocked the mine starting in the areas of 74 to 76 chutes. The exploding methane quickly consumed oxygen and pushed good air out of the mine. The outside fan was knocked out. Deadly afterdamp or CO filled the mine. The inevitable had begun to happen.
Most of the men survived the blast, suffering concussions and abrasions. Now they began to die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the foul atmosphere. Outside, the shrill blast of the mine whistle signalled a disaster. People rushed from their homes and rescue work began.
Alberta mines did not have mine rescue teams and equipment in 1910. Mine Manager Powell called Hosmer B.C., where he knew a rescue station existed. The wise B.C. government had established a provincial mine rescue system., with stations at Hosmer, Cumberland, Nanaimo and Middlesboro. A special train was quickly commissioned at Fernie by Crowsnest Industries and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Soon, it raced along the track towards Alberta, picking up personnel at Hosmer and Michel along the way. Thirteen trained Draegermen had boarded the train.
Prior to the train's arrival, rescue work was dreadful. Six men had been found alive and 22 were found dead or dying. Dr. MacKenzie of Bellevue, Inspector Heathcoate and Manager Powell worked feverishly. All three were overcome by afterdamp and nearly died. Other rescuers were very ill as well. Inside the mine at 84 chute, 19 men, desperate and barely conscious, had huddled at the air locomotive charging station. They had broken off a piece of pipe and were surviving on the escaping compressed air. Outside, a mine official, worried about fires and damage to property, shut down the main air compressor. All nineteen men died at the station. They were found expired in a close huddle.
Deep inside the mine at 124 chute another group of men were barely surviving in somewhat better air. They had built a "stopping" that they were able to huddle behind.
At 2:00 am, the rescue train arrived. The Draegermen found a state of panic and disorganization. They quickly took control of the situation. They entered the mine wearing two-hour breathing apparatus. Some of these men were also overcome by CO. Fred Alderson of Hosmer and Inspector Strachan of Fernie reached the survivors at 124 chute and started to bring men, one at a time, back to 84 chute where good air now existed. The air in-between was deadly. Fred overexerted himself, demanding much more air than his apparatus could purify. He and his distressed miner collapsed in the entry. Some of the men reached 84 chute - dizzy and almost unconscious. Outside, word was received that members of the rescue team were lost inside. A "forlorn hope" team was sent in, led by Evans and Huby of Hosmer. They were able to rescue the barely conscious men from 124 chute, but found Alderson and the miner he tried to rescue were dead.
Outside, the miners were revived by artificial respiration. Inspector Strachan was revived in the nick of time. In all, 17 miners survived the explosion. Two of these men were Varley and Ford, who was barely injured. (Ford later became the town policeman in Coleman.)
Altogether, 30 miners died, along with 1 Draegerman. The victims were buried in Passburg, Blairmore and Hosmer several days later. The mine was shut down immediately. An inquest found the company negligent but also blamed the miners for short cutting the provisions of the Mines' Act. No one was charged or fined, but the company was ordered to correct the ventilation system before the mine could reopen. Before this could be done, another explosion occurred in January, 1911. It was by far the worst blast. Fortunately, no one was in the mine. It was also blamed on falling roof rock, creating sparks.
By April, 1911, the company had drilled several rock tunnels to the surface from the gob areas where the methane was accumulating. Ventilation was greatly improved. The methane was allowed to escape to the outside instead of being trapped. However, repairs to the mine and a miners' strike in April kept the mine closed for almost a year after the explosion.
Soon mine rescue stations sprouted up in each of Alberta's mining districts. Crowsnest Pass Rescue Station #1 operated out of a converted rail passenger car. It was centered in Blairmore and could be rapidly transported to any mine in the Pass.
The stations and the mine rescue programs were co-funded by the mining companies and the provincial government. It is a sad tragedy that 31 men had to die in the Bellevue Mine before the Province of Alberta saw the need for mine rescue services. In all, 67 men were killed in Bellevue Mine during its operation from 1903 - 1961.
The Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass with its rich coal mining history did not go unnoticed by Lawrence. Many trips were made here and its part in Canada's coal mining story was thoroughly documented. Ultimately Mr. Chrismas released his remarkable documentation in a 1998 award-winning book entitled Coal Dust Grins and a music CD of original mining songs of the same name.
It is 312 pages of commemoration to the industry that includes 280 beautifully printed photographs from the 5 coal producing provinces. 85 communities and 50 coalmines are artfully represented. It has captured the very essence of a world that my family has been a part of for 3 generations.
Lawrence Chrismas didn't just point a 35mm camera in miner's faces and flick on a tape recorder. His methodology was much more respectful and qualitative than that. He used a full portrait (view) camera for his image capturing. That tripod mounted camera uses 8 by 10-inch black and white negatives loaded onto removable reversible plates. He is principally a landscape photographer and his marvelous compositional ability was revealed over and over again in the book where photo after photo of Canada's coal mining finest, past and present, stand in sharp context.
In the book's Crowsnest Pass segment he reaffirms this masterful ability to blend subject and surroundings. In it is a classic photo of Jack Marconi standing in his yard in Coleman. He was the definitive coal miner, a man who worked underground for 43 years and who's deep, authoritative voice made this college-bound coal miner jump to attention every time!
Alongside Jack, Lawrence documented wonderful characters like Ferucio Dececo who said: "If my father had been alive, he would have broken both my legs before he let me go underground. But I didn't mind it. Actually, there was a lot of friendship and fun down the mine. I think that's the one thing missing now in any job." Ferucio's dad came to the Pass from Italy in 1903, the year of the slide, and worked at Leitch Collieries as a stone mason.
There are also profiles of Pass miners like Bill Bisztal, Chic Roughead, Ernie Montalbetti, Joe Beilan, Victor Belik as well as a man who survived 43 years at Bellevue and Vicary Mines. He went on to become an interpreter at Leitch Collieries and his name was Albert Goodwin. Their entertaining biographies are not only enlightening, but also profound, because the philosophies and off-the- cuff comments of these veteran survivors surely have a message for all of us. The Pass segment also profiles lots of "more modern" coal miners, most of which can be found in the BC section where they work.
Since 1998 Lawrence Chrismas has pursued other avenues of artistic expression and research including photographic studies of the fast disappearing old-time small town musicians and of some of the communities and marvelous people who live along the might Fraser River. Lawrence has become an accomplished storyteller, which gives him the opportunity to share his stories in the aural tradition about mining people from across Canada. He is a member of Storytellers of Canada.
Recently Lawrence has begun a new project of photographing and interviewing "Mining Women" including the wives of coal miners and to women who have worked or are working in the mining industry.
Lawrence was in the Crowsnest Pass in early August to begin his research and interviewing process here, where women connected to the rich and diverse coal mining story of the Pass will be invited to share their experiences and observations with him. He was the premier speaker at the annual Bellevue Miners' Memorial at the Bellevue Underground Mine at 11:00 am on Sunday, August 6th.
1910 Bellevue Mine Explosion continued
Capturing the Miner's Image continued
Crowsnest Pass, Alberta