Hey, welcome to our last stop in the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass: Hillcrest & Bellevue! Both towns are very small, but they have a lot of history!
Hillcrest – or: Hillcrest Mines, if you prefer to use its proper name – is named after Charles “Chippy” Hill, who was one of the first people to see the profit and feasibility in mining coal from the Crowsnest Pass area. When this area was first being developed to house all of the mining workers that started coming in, the trees in the area were cleared in such a hurry that they left the stumps, leading many people in the region to refer to it as “Stump Town”, which should sound familiar to any Portland, Oregon, readers.
Chippy Hill and his mine started turning a pretty handsome profit soon after the operation was started in 1905, but he unfortunately wasn’t keen on sharing it with his employees. He locked out UMWA union workers while disputing with their Union, and paid sub-standard wages. In 1908, as he was feeling the pains of a recession, he tried to lower worker’s pay from $0.55 per ton to $0.35 per ton, which was ten cents less than what the Union was initially in dispute with him about. A 1909 union strike in the entire Pass forced him to pay higher wages and becomes a closed shop. Hill ended up selling his interest to a Montreal firm in 1910; this firm incorporated as Hillcrest Collieries and set about updating and improving the mines, which included better pay and benefits for the miners.
Despite the mine being considered one of the safest mines in the region, with relatively new material, coal-mining was still a dangerous job. The process of mining coal would choke the air with cal dust and methane, previously trapped in the rock, would pool in areas. On June 19th, 1914, a rock-fall triggered a spark that ignited the entirety of Hillcrest Mine. The blast was so strong that it collapsed the 8-inch thick concrete walls of the Engine House outside the mine.
Of the 245 workers on shift, 189 men perished – almost twenty percent of the population of Hillcrest. To date, it is the worst mining disaster to have happened in Canada. Hillcrest is a quiet residential community today, but standing in the town’s graveyard, over the mass graves of the victims, is a memorial to these workers and other victims of nearby mining disasters.
Our last stop is in Bellevue, a town that features an underground mine tour if, after reading the first half of this post, you should be so inclined. The name of Bellevue, you may have surmised, is French and means “good view”. The town is built on a bluff seventy feet above a valley, and does look picturesque.
Incidentally, the company that owned the Bellevue Mine was based out of Lille, France, (there is a nearby ghost town named Lille here) and preferred to import its workers from Western Europe. A lot of the population here is of French or Dutch descent.
Perhaps one of the most famous events in the history of Bellevue was a shootout that followed Canada’s last train robbery. In 1920, three Russian immigrants attacked a train moving through Crowsnest Pass, possibly expecting it to be carrying Emperor Pick. It turned out that the train that they had chosen had no special qualities, and they made out with the rather small amount of $300. The men escaped but were well-described, so it came as a shock to the patrons of the Bellevue Cafe when two of the men walked in to dine there a five day after the robbery. The authorities called, and three constables showed up at the cafe. A gun fight ensued, leaving two of the constables and one of the robbers dead. The fleeing robber escaped into the Frank Slide area and avoid capture for almost a week. The third robber had fled the area entirely after the train robbery, and was recognized later in Portland, Oregon, (!) when he tried to pawn a conductor’s unique pocket watch. He was later apprehended near Butte, Montana. In the above picture, I believe that the Belmont Cafe is the second two story from the left – the one with the arched peak on the roof – although I may be mistaken.
Well, it’s late, I’m tired, and that’s all I’ve got for you guys. I hope you enjoyed our little mini-tour of the Crowsnest Pass region. Tomorrow I’ll ut the polling up for our next direction and we’ll be back on the road! There’s a lot of Earth we haven’t covered yet…