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  • Death, Danger, and Disaster in the Crowsnest Pass Mines 1902-1928
  • John Douglas Belshaw
Death, Danger, and Disaster in the Crowsnest Pass Mines 1902-1928. Karen Buckley. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004. Pp. 204, illus., b&w, $34.95

Coal mines have long been sites of occupational and community terror, nowhere more so than in the Crowsnest Pass of British Columbia and Alberta during the early twentieth century. In the space of a quarter century – from 1902 to 1926 – more than 450 men died in 'disasters,' and this figure does not include the many who died singly in fatal accidents or from the lingering effects of mining injuries. Two disasters in particular loom over the record as a whole, one of which was hardly a mining event at all – at Frank in 1903 seventy-two people were killed when the top of Turtle Mountain slid into the valley, destroying half the town and killing almost incidentally two miners working the night shift; and at Hillcrest in June 1914, where a catastrophic explosion in the mine killed 187 men, widowed dozens of women, and effectively gutted the town. Karen Buckley, a records analyst in the University of Calgary Archives, follows the Grim Reaper throughout this little-studied region, describing the multifarious ways in which lives were lost, the consequences of those deaths, and the very meaning of disaster in industrial communities where workplace fatalities were commonplace.

By focusing on the hazards of the mine and the devastation that marked disasters, Buckley turns the usual narrative about coal-mining towns away from union struggles and toward instead the tragedies and anxieties that framed coal-field life. The purpose of the book is to show how the experience of workplace danger and death – sometimes large-scale death – connected the Crowsnest Pass communities to other colliery towns while recognizing the unique qualities of the Pass and its population. It succeeds in the former but not so much in the latter. Her closing lines are 'Men died and families grieved. Life continued' (145). Indeed. Historians of mining in general and coal-mining in particular will find little here that is surprising or new; one thinks immediately of June Nash's We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us, but also of Carol Giesen's Coal Miners' Wives: Portraits of Endurance. We do, however, benefit from the work of an assiduous researcher who ferrets out interesting snippets of life and death in the Pass. Having said that, evidence from the region is hard to come by, and the author is repeatedly forced back upon American and British studies for the sorts of accounts one assumes she wishes she could find at home. Photos of funeral finery from an uncertain location (66–68) and miners' songs plucked from Wallsend (83) may be illustrative of a shared experience associated with [End Page 157] producing the fuel needed by an industrializing world, but they do not necessarily pertain to the Crowsnest Pass. Even the provision of a map of the area would have grounded the study more firmly in the locale.

As a primer on the horrors of mining, this is nonetheless engaging in a harrowing sort of way, and it is one from which non-specialists and a popular audience will benefit. As a historical thanatology – a study of death in the past – it needs work. The literature is not sufficiently tapped, and the opportunity to flesh out the work of undertakers and to firmly connect death to the raison d'etre of fraternal societies and unions is squandered. As a final comment, the fissures and factions of race, ethnicity, and gender loom large in any history of mining in the West, but not here. If death and disaster in the Crowsnest Pass were sufficient to overcome community division and misunderstanding, that would constitute a significant finding on its own.

John Douglas Belshaw
Thompson Rivers University


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