Vernon & District Family History Society

SHARING GENEALOGY KNOWLEDGE SINCE 1982

James Gray - Hillcrest Mine Disaster by VDFHS Cemetery Committee

The Hillcrest Mine Disaster was the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history. It occurred in Hillcrest, Alberta in the Crowsnest Pass on Friday, June 19, 1914 at 9:30 in the morning. At the time it was the world`s third worst mine disaster.

A total of 189 workers died that day, about half of the mine`s total workforce. It left 90 woman widows and hundreds of children fatherless.

Of the 189 men, seventeen were born in Canada. The remainder were immigrants, the majority of whom arrived in Canada between 1910 and 1914. The men were from Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Austria-Hungarian Empire (Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Galicia and Bukovina), etc.

Operations at the Hillcrest Mine continued until 1939. In 1990, Canadian folk-singer James Keelaghan recorded Hillcrest Mine, one of his best known songs.

Down in the mines of the Crowsnest Pass
It's the men that die in labour
Sweating coal from the womb of the pit
It's the smell of life they savour
And in that mine, young man, you'll find
A wealth of broken dreams
As long and as dark and as black and as wide
As the coal in the Hillcrest seam.

And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine,
And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine
'Cause it's one short step, you might leave this world behind,
And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine.

I've heard it whispered in the light of dawn
That mountain sometimes moves.
That bodes ill for the morning shift
And you know what you're gonna lose.
Don't go, my son, where the deep coal runs.
Turn your back to the mine on the hill
'Cause if the dust and the dark and the gas don't getcha,
Then the goons and the bosses will.
And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine,
Say you don't go; say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine
'Cause it's one short step, you might leave this world behind,
Say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine.

And they say you don't go!

Well son, I'm gonna open up
I'm gonna have my sayv
You'll get no peace from the Hillcrest Mine
'Cept the peace of an early grave
Go out and work for the workers' rights
Go work for the workers' needs
Don't stay down here to toil for your buck
To be a tool for the owner's greed.

Say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine,
Say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine
'Cause it's one short step, you might leave this world behind,
Say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine.

And they say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine,
Say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine
'Cause it's one short step, you might leave this world behind,
Say you don't go, say you don't go down in the Hillcrest Mine.

This mining disaster has often been quoted as being "the disaster that Canada has forgotten". The reason is that nine days after the tragedy the series of events that predetermined World War I occurred and the news dropped the mine story in favour of bringing the public news of the war.

Many of the victims were buried in two mass graves in the Hillcrest Cemetery but one man, James Ferguson Gray, was brought to Vernon, British Columbia by train and buried in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery on Wednesday, June 24, 1914.

James was born about 1874 in Westville, Pictou, Nova Scotia, one of eleven children born to William and Elizabeth Gray. His siblings included, Annie, John, Janet, Robert, Thomas, Norman, Maggie, Willie and Lizzie. William immigrated to Canada from Scotland around 1855. He married Elizabeth Roy Ferguson in Westville on December 31, 1869.

The Gray family appears in the 1881 Census of Canada in Westville, Nova Scotia. In 1891, James is still in Westville working as a miner. In the 1901 Census of Canada, James is living in Lethbridge, Alberta and in 1911, he is back in Nova Scotia living in Inverness and working as a miner.

James married Bertha Garbutt on January 28, 1901 in Lethbridge. Bertha was born October 6, 1883 in Kimberly, Ontario to Robert and Martha (nee Hurlburt) Garbutt.

At the time of the disaster, Bertha was living in Vernon with her Garbutt family waiting for James to return to build them a home. They couple had six children - Elizabeth, age 13; Robert, age 10; Edna, age 8; William, age 6; Annie, age 4; and Earl, age 1.

Bertha did not remarry after James' death. She died on April 3, 1978 at the age of 94 in Vernon. She is also buried in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.

Elizabeth Ferguson Gray was born September 19, 1901 in Lethbridge, Alberta. She married Charles Edward Woods on May 16, 1921 in Vernon. She later married Sheldon Stonehouse. Elizabeth died in Vernon on March 1, 1959.

Robert Garbutt Gray was born June 23, 1904 on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. He married Gladys Mary Wilson in Vernon on June 23, 1926. He died on July 14, 1982 in Grand Forks, British Columbia.

Edna May Gray was born in Inverness, Nova Scotia on August 8, 1906. She married on August 26, 1924 in Vernon to George Henry Hood. Edna died on October 6, 1971 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

William Wilson Gray was born in Inverness on September 11, 1908. He married Annie Nesbitt Craig on July 28, 1930 in Kelowna, British Columbia. William died in Vernon on October 28, 1993.

James Earl Gray was born in 1913 and died in 1999. He is buried with his father in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery.