Volume 22, Number 129, October/November 2019
Winner of the 2019 Poetry THE MARJORIE MCINTOSH Prize The Ballad of Ned Morgan by Anne Hopkinson
Ned Morgan was my grandfather, and the story in the ballad is one we have told many times in our family.
He might have stayed overnight in Frank if he hadn’t cared so much for his horses, one a mare who was soon
to foal. Ned and his family homesteaded on land just outside Burmis. Alberta, a town that no longer exists.
All that is left is the famous Burmis tree by the side of the highway.
The Morgans all lived in a log-built shack,
had a garden in front and a shed out back,
and a black iron stove and two big beds,
where the family of five lay down their heads.
The house sat high on a foothill ridge,
across the stream on a split-log bridge.
And the mountain wind blew fresh and strong,
and the mountain nights were cold and long.
Now Ned came west from the mines in Wales,
and Tilly from England, on the ocean sailed.
They crossed the prairie on a pioneer train,
past homestead farms and golden grain.
“No diggin’ for coal, I won’t go down,”
said Ned as he looked at the mining town.
“I’ll work my land in the light of day,
I’ll raise some cattle and make it pay.”
So he built the house and he cleared the land,
and he bought a horse from the local band.
He followed the wild herds over the hills,
roped and tamed them with his skills.
Tilly had children, three in a row,
born in the cabin covered in snow.
Thanks to the women of neighbouring farms,
born to the warmth of loving arms.
The town of Frank lay low at the base,
of Turtle Mountain, a spirited place.
Mountain Who Walks, the Kootenay’s dread.
“Coal is money,” the mine owners said.
Men cut in a tunnel, cut in a shaft,
they breathed in dust and longed for a draft.
The rich-seamed coal, and the back-breaking weight,
in a long day of labour, the smile of a mate.
The dark and the wet and the blowouts of gas,
the strain of the pickaxe, the dynamite blast.
A door boy stood in the dark and prayed,
“Bring us up, dear God, at the end of the day.”
More and more shafts, more and more seams,
supported by pillars of stone, not beams.
“The pressure’s too great,” the warning spread,
“Coal is money,” the mine owners said.
The night shift was working, digging a face,
blasters and muckers and drillers in place,
“We’ll have us a breakfast of bacon and beer,
then home to the wife!” the miners would cheer.
Ned rode into town with a horse for a friend,
stayed on for dinner and at the night’s end,
was invited to stay, for whiskey and song,
but he headed for home, the trail was long.
Up in the foothills in the cold spring night,
he saw that the streams had refrozen tight,
the valley in moonlight, the Old Man River,
the town and the mountain, sleeping in silver.
Then the face of the mountain, a limestone block,
broke free and slid, a wall of rock.
Air pushed before it, a powerful wave,
blew over the houses and turned them to graves.
He reined his horse as the thunder of death,
blasted his ears and sucked out his breath.
Boulders like steamships bounced down the hill,
covered the work camp, the bridge, and the mill.
Covered the main street, the hotels and shops,
covered the homes and the barns and the crops.
It dammed up the river and made a new lake,
it severed the rail line, dead like a snake.
The mine disappeared, the men trapped inside,
Ned spurred his horse, “God help them!” he cried.
Dust rose and blew, gas burst and flamed,
“It’s a natural disaster,” the mine owners claimed.
Ned rode to the jumble of massive debris,
called out for survivors, a desperate plea.
He scrambled and climbed on the towering stone,
Searched with a neighbour, no man went alone.
There came a small voice, “Help! I’m down here!”
and he pulled one up from the pile, free and clear.
Ned listened and followed the sound of a moan,
and rescued a young lad shocked to the bone.
They lit up their torches and searched round about,
praying for luck and an answering shout.
For hours he called and he dug and he carried:
the injured were cared for, the dead were buried.
And ninety-one souls lay beneath the great slide,
the song and the story were spread far and wide,
of a miracle baby found safe on the hay.
Ned rode slowly home at the end of the day.
The town was abandoned, with half of it gone,
miners and families packed up and moved on,
to the next little town, to the next working mine,
to the next disaster, graveyard, and shrine.
And the Morgans moved west to a home on the coast,
but the ranch and the slide came too, like a ghost.
And deep in the night in his safe city bed,
the mountain kept falling and smothering Ned.
He relived the night and the sad days after,
when ninety million tons took lives and laughter.
He heard the excuses as management fled.
“Natural disaster,” the mine owners said.
Now the silent stones are a graveyard chill,
and the first town of Frank lies beneath them still.
And the mountain wind blows fresh and strong,
and the mountain nights are cold and long.