What was it like to be a coal miner in 1901? What was it like to live in a frontier town? And what happens when a whole mountain falls down?
The Life of a Coal Miner
In the early 1900s, around the same time that Keeley and her father moved to Frank, coal was used across Canada and the United States to power the steam engines of locomotives and ships, heat homes, run sawmills and operate machinery in factories. To satisfy a growing demand for power, coal mining companies were constantly searching for new coal deposits. When they found one, they'd hire men like Keeley's father to come to the site of the mine to extract the coal. This meant a lot of moving around for coal miners, but it also meant steady work when a new coal deposit was discovered.
In the early twentieth century all coal miners were men, though some were as young as twelve years old. A typical day would start early and end late and most of it was spent underground in the dark doing hard physical labour. A young, inexperienced miner earned as little as one dollar for a full day's work—about the same amount someone would make in a factory—but more experienced men earned around five or six dollars!
Coal mining was (and still is) dangerous, dirty, hard work. Coal dust, which contains methane gas, is very explosive, and coal miners were often killed either by explosions, poisonous gases, water floods, or cave-ins. What's more, the black coal dust that covered their hands and faces would also get inside their lungs, causing chronic coughs and lung disease.
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Life in a Frontier Town
Coal mining towns like Frank were very much like the frontier towns that sprang up in the north when gold was discovered. At first, Frank was nothing more than wild, untamed land with a railroad running through it, but as more and more miners and their families moved to Frank, the town grew.
About eight hundred people lived in Frank when Keeley and her father arrived in 1901. Most of them lived in wooden houses built by coal mining companies. The houses were often identical and had few luxuries (no indoor plumbing!) and usually had only one or two bedrooms and a kitchen.
Like Frank, most established mining towns had schools, a post office, a town newspaper, churches, hotels and boarding houses like the one Keeley and her father lived in, and stores for food and clothing and other goods. Some even had theatres or opera houses.
Even still, Frank was a little bit wild. Most of the town's men were underground all day, which left the women to take care of things, and though many of them were strict like Miss Griffin, Keeley's school teacher, others, like Miss Greer, were just too busy to keep a close eye on children. This left kids like Keeley with a lot more freedom than they'd ever find in the city. Women were also free to do things they would normally be discouraged from doing in big cities. Some, like Cora Hind, were reporters. Others, like Ethel, were as strong as men and wielded axes like they'd been chopping wood their whole lives. It was the perfect place for an adventurous girl like Keeley!
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A Mountain on the Move
Overjoyed at being together with her father, Keeley ignores rumours that Turtle Mountain, the big mass of rock beside Old Man River, is on the move. A mountain can't move! Can it? Native Canadians at the time certainly thought so. They didn't go near Turtle Mountain, otherwise known to them as "the mountain that walked."
Inside Turtle Mountain, the miners for the Coal and Coke Company had created huge rooms called "stopes." By 1902, these rooms covered seven hundred metres (imagine seven football fields!) alongside the eastern vein of the coal deposit. Though the stopes were supported by huge pillars, the pillars didn't stop the mountain from trembling, especially in the early morning.
Spending all day in the mine, the miners got used to these tremors pretty quickly and many actually liked them because it made their work a lot easier. In fact, by 1903, miners simply had to shovel up the coal that fell from the ceiling after each tremor. But the tremors were a sign that something far more serious was about to happen.
On April 29, 1903 at 4:10 A.M. rocks began to fall and roll down the side of Turtle Mountain. Inside, the ceilings of the stopes began to collapse, trapping many miners inside. Outside the mine, the townspeople of Frank were dealing with an equally serious problem. The north-east face of the mountain was tumbling towards the town, pushing ahead of it a huge gust of wind.
People who survived the landslide said they heard a huge cracking noise and felt the earth shaking. Others were knocked down by the force of the wind. In less than a minute and a half, the slide ground to a stop. Seventy-six people had been killed. To this day, sixty-four bodies remain buried under one hundred million tons of rock.
Amazingly, Charley, Keeley's favourite mine horse survived. He survived underground by drinking seepage water and eating the wooden coal carts. When he was rescued thirty days after the slide, jubilant townspeople showered the lucky horse with oats and brandy—an ultimately disastrous gesture, for poor Charley survived the slide, but not the rescue.
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