July 12th, 2024

Hillcrest mine disaster victims will never be forgotten

By Lethbridge Herald on June 21, 2024.

Al Beeber – Managing Editor

When Vinc Vohradsky and his brother Josefu left their homes on the morning of June 19, 1914 to work in the Hillcrest Mine the day probably seemed like any other for them.

The 26 year-old Vinc may have bid his 25-year-old wife Francis and their two children, four-year-old Mary and three-year-old Vince goodbye, perhaps with a kiss and a hug before making the trek to the mine where the native of Kladno in the Czech Republic earned a living for his family.

With the miners starting work at 7 a.m., little Mary and Vince may have been asleep as their father said farewell if he stopped to see them before heading to what he perhaps assumed would be another day like every other before at the mine where he worked as a so-called company man.

Vinc and Francis had only been married since Jan. 22 1910 when they said their nuptials at Michel, just across the border in B.C.

Vinc had emigrated to Canada from his homeland, arriving in Canada in 1909 aboard the ship Prinz Adelbert to work as a machinist/engineer in a mine at Michel. 

 He may have even ventured to the mine with his younger brother who had just gotten married months earlier on Feb. 2 at Hillcrest Methodist Church to Rosa Poderasky of Michel.

The two brothers were just beginning their lives as married men and Canadians. 

Neither could have anticipated, that along with 187 others, they would never leave the mine alive that fateful day.

Shortly after 9 a.m. life changed forever for Hillcrest as a gas explosion ripped through the mine, killing Vinc, Josefu and so many of their coworkers, the majority of whom were immigrants such as Vinc and Josefu, who was a bucker at the mine.

The toll that their deaths took on the miners’s families, who supposedly received financial compensation after the disaster, is almost unimaginable.

Almost because I have an idea of the impact it had since Vinc was my great grandfather and his daughter Mary was my grandmother.

Did Vinc and Josefu die instantly in the blast? 

Did they have a brief chance to think of their families before taking their last breaths?

 Did they suffer? 

I’ve often asked that when I’ve visited their graves at the Hillcrest cemetery where they and the other victims will be honoured on Sunday. 

Mary’s mom remarried in 1917 to Vince Ruzek and had three more children with him and I have no doubt they did their best to provide a good life for their family.

 Mary, when she reached adulthood, wed John Hovan, which produced my mother and another daughter who died when she was a toddler.

 And in another relationship – since my grandfather being Roman Catholic wouldn’t divorce her, Mary gave birth to three sons.

Mary lived much of her life in a small home just blocks away from the Hillcrest Miners Club where she, a person named Frank Bolo who lived with her, my parents and others would often walk to while we visited, leaving my brother and I to our own devices. As a child, I remember an outhouse in the backyard, Lawrence Welk always on the television on Saturday nights, and her happiness when a son built a modern bathroom inside. 

I’d often visit her when I returned to Alberta and was in the Pass covering stories, stopping to see both her and my other grandmother Molly Beeber who lived in Bellevue.

I never asked Mary about how much her father’s death changed her family’s life and I didn’t need to. It was always in her eyes, the depth of loss still clear so many decades later even though she probably barely remembered her father.

I’ve always wondered how life would have been like for Mary, her brother,their mother and even my own mother had the mine not blown up on that fateful day. Would the family have stayed in Hillcrest or would they have moved on? 

What would life have been like if Vinc had been there to watch his children grow up, to watch his son play soccer or baseball or watch his daughter sing at a school concert? 

What stories of life in the mines and his homeland would he have told his grandchildren, knowledge that we never had because of the explosion that took his life.

What would life have been like for all the families whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons died on that fateful day? 

Would the community have grown more and prospered?

We’ll never know but none of the miners, whose names ranged from Ackers to Zaska will ever be forgotten.

This Wednesday at 9 a.m. I paid silent tribute to the great-grandfather and uncle I never knew and their families who truly never got a chance to know valuable members of their families  either. And I’ll be with them in spirit on Sunday. Rest in peace.

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