- The Devil’s Breath: The Story of the Hillcrest Mine Disaster of 1914 by Steve Hanon
It is certainly about time that someone told in detail the story of the worst mining disaster in Canada’s history: the explosion on 19 June 1914 at the Hillcrest Coal and Coke Company mine on the Alberta side of the Crowsnest Pass that killed 189 miners. Unfortunately, Steve Hanon, while he has done intensive primary research, allows an ideological grudge against socialist workers and a poor grasp of economic principles to govern his analysis of the evidence. His thin bibliography also suggests a weak acquaintance with both Canadian and international mining literature. In the end, this is a confusing and contradictory work that provides some important information but is unreliable in its overall judgments.
Hanon is at his best when he is providing entrepreneurial history as opposed to labour history. He presents a vivid and favourable account of the efforts of Charles Plummer Hill, the risk-taking founder of Hillcrest Coal and Coke, to open the mine and to make it profitable, despite the allegedly overbearing efforts of the Department of Public Works and the mine inspectors to block his efforts. But Hanon’s partisanship to Hill often seems puzzling. This visionary entrepreneur, Hanon notes, hired six Ukrainian men to build a rail line through bush to the proposed mine, only to pay them with cheques that bounced. He firmly resisted the province’s efforts to require safety lamps for all miners, even though that requirement was imposed only after an explosion that severely burned two miners in 1908. Many of the safety requirements that the province introduced and that Hill ignored or fought strike the reader as sound safety rules rather than simply the bureaucratic power-tripping that Hanon implies.
Hanon suggests that Hillcrest, unlike other Crowsnest Pass mining towns, was a family community where miners owned their own [End Page 127] homes rather than renting company houses: “This ability to purchase and own their own homes gave the lives of Hillcrest miners stability absent from the lives of miners at other mining camps, and a sense of investment in the community” (42). But later he mentions in passing that a report prepared for a prospective buyer for the mine noted that the miners “mostly lived in shacks” (65). Then, discussing those who lost their lives in the 1914 explosion, Hanon notes, “Most of the estates of the men killed held a total value of less than $200, and in many cases much less than that” (190).
In any case, for Hanon, the investment that the miners might have felt in their community was constantly undermined by the socialist rhetoric of the leaders of District 18 of the United Mineworkers of America. “Coal miners in 1914 were, in general, not well educated or well read, which meant they were vulnerable to the demagoguery of Marxist union leaders” (35). Their limited education made mine managers and workers alike unfamiliar with the dangers in a mine and therefore resistant to the measures needed to protect workers from harm on mine sites. This blame-the-victim approach ignores the economics of mining from a worker’s perspective. Miners were paid by how much coal they dug up, and the poor wages that mine owners were willing to pay, in addition to the various check-offs applied against miners’ wages for equipment, left miners with impossible choices. They did want to work in a safe environment but, as the negligible estates of the dead miners revealed, they had no margin of manoeuvre within a system in which they had to choose between eating and having safe working conditions. By Hanon’s own account, the miners received no welfare benefits from either the company or the state, and it was only the willingness of community members to help one another that provided some degree of assurance for miners and their families that they would receive some help if they became destitute.
Hanon’s lack of understanding of the real choices that...