Tuesday, June 5, 2018
On our way back from driving the hairpin turns of the Beartooth Highway yesterday, we took a side trip to Bearcreek, the site of the Smith Mine Disaster. It was the deadliest underground coal mine disaster in Montana’s history. Bearcreek, named for nearby Bear Creek, is roughly six miles from Red Lodge on Montana Highway 308. Bearcreek owes its existence to area coal mining, which began in the 1890s. The town grew rapidly when the spur connecting the Bearcreek mines to the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed in 1906. That same year the town was incorporated.
In November of 1942, the federal mine inspector drove from his office in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Bearcreek, to perform a long-overdue inspection of the Smith Mine. The mine had the dubious honor of being the first mine in the state to be inspected because it was purportedly the gassiest. After spending a week inspecting the mine, the inspector called a meeting with management, informing them there was too much gas in the mine. He told them they would have to get rid of everything that could ignite the gas, from cigarettes to open flame headlamps. They needed to order closed lights for every miner. Ventilation would have to be increased dramatically. And then there was the problem with coal dust, which is highly flammable. The best way to alleviate coal dust is to smother it with pulverized rock. This could be done by hand, but utilizing a rock-dusting machine was much more efficient. Given the fact that America was at war with Germany, the inspector knew that getting the new headlamps would take some time. In the meantime, he said, several times a day the foreman needed to examine every place the men who wore open helmets worked, to ensure the rooms were free from gas.
It would later be determined that the rock-dusting machine was never ordered, even though company officials claimed the order was placed in November. The electric helmets were not ordered until a few weeks before the disaster occurred, and had not yet arrived.
On Saturday, February 27, 1943, 74 miners died when an explosion ripped through Smith Mine #3. Poisonous, flammable gas had ignited in the mine, creating a series of powerful explosions. Smith Mine sloped for roughly three miles into a hillside on a gradual descent. The relatively small crew had descended at least 7,000 feet when the accident occurred. According to one newspaper report, many people around the vicinity of the mine did not even feel the massive explosion since it was so deep.
Smoke billowing from the mine entrance was the first indication of trouble. Shortly afterward, the whistle started wailing relentlessly, a very different sound from the brief whistle blast that signaled the start of each work shift. Everyone within hearing distance knew there had been an accident of some sort at the mine.
A hoisting engineer named Alec Hawthorne, one of only three men to survive the accident, stated he instantly felt the most powerful wind he’d ever experienced come up the slope, bringing flying debris with it. He ran to the nearest phone and called the office at the surface of the mine. He told them there was something seriously wrong down in the mine and that he was getting the hell out. He passed out as he started to flee.
Approximately 100 miners were pressed into service to help with the rescue operation. The first body was located that Saturday, along with three unconscious men. One of them was Alec Hawthorne. The rescuers breathed their air into the men’s lungs. All three miners regained consciousness. They were loaded onto stretchers and taken out of the mine.
Rescue crewman feared the deadly gas had penetrated the maze of tunnels and reached the entombed miners. Hundreds of men who volunteered for the rescue effort were force to wait impatiently at the mine tipple Sunday, after the poisonous air had driven other rescuers from the mine. Fans were installed to force the gas from the mine passages, but the battery of rescuers were not expected to reach the spot, 14,000 feet back in the slopping shaft where most of the victims were believed to be trapped, until late Monday night or Tuesday.
Since Saturday, two dead and three injured men had been removed from the mine, and the bodies of four other miners had been located. Women and children waited fearfully as rescue workers staggered through the warren of Montana’s largest coal mine in search of the missing miners.
Fourteen skilled rescue workers from the big copper mines in Butte flew to the scene by plane. The rescuers, equipped with oxygen masks, were able to stay down in the mine for as long as six hours, but they were hindered since they were unfamiliar with the Smith Mine. Additionally, six helmet men were rushed to Bearcreek from the copper mines in Butte Sunday afternoon by a highway patrol car.
Helmet men were trained to use bulky self-contained oxygen tanks. The huge pieces of headgear allowed the men to work for long periods in toxic conditions. The helmet men repaired the ventilation shaft and created new air routes so that toxic gas could be blown out and fresh air brought in. The local Bearcreek men had been entering the mine without any protection at all. Doctors at the nearby Red Lodge emergency hospital stated that 62 rescuers suffering from exposure to mine gas had been treated there.
By Wednesday, the mine had given up 20 of its 74 dead. The bodies were wrapped in canvas and tied to boards by rescue workers. Later, they would be brought out by the mine’s electric train. Victims were found as far as two miles from the mine’s entrance. Retrieving the bodies was a dangerous and gruesome task. One man was killed, putting the total of deaths at 75.
Bodies of all but two of the men had been found by the following Saturday. Dying messages, written in chalk on powder boxes by three of the 74 miners told a brief, grim story of waiting for the end they knew was coming. The messages were found in the last of the tunnels and passageways to be searched, along with seven bodies.
Emil Anderson’s poignant last words, which I’ve written verbatim, brought tears to my eyes when I read them: “It’s 5 min, Pass 11 o’clock. dear Agnes and children. I’m sorry we had to go this God Bless you all. Emil with lots Kiss.”
The two remaining victims were eventually found. A fifty-three-year-old bachelor had been overlooked the first time the rescuers searched the mine, but they found him on the second pass. The last man to be accounted for was the foreman, Elmer Price. His body was found the following day. Even in death, he had somehow managed to remain in the mine until all of his men were recovered.
A coroner’s inquest was held in April to determine how the men had died and if anyone was to be held liable for their deaths. The inquest was held like a trial, but instead of a judge, the county coroner presided over the hearing. Numerous witnesses were questioned and evidence examined. After all the testimony had been given, the jury deliberated for more than six hours. Their final conclusion was that the men had died due to concussion and gas poisoning caused by the gas and dust explosion, but they failed to blame anyone for the disaster. I am incredulous that the company was not held accountable for the accident, that they had in fact gotten off scot-free.
It was later determined that company officials never ordered the rock-dusting machine that would smother the coal dust, even though they claimed an order had been placed the previous November. The electric lamps were not ordered until a few weeks before the explosion occurred and had not yet arrived.
The Smith Mine, which reopened a few months after the disaster, closed two months later due to financial problems. In June of 1953, Montana Coal and Iron closed its doors for good. Not a single one of the women widowed by the Smith Mine Disaster ever received a dime from the company.
A granite monument that honors the victims of the Smith Mine Disaster stands in the Bearcreek Cemetery. The United Mine Workers of America erected the memorial in 1947. The cenotaph stands on a low, stepped concrete base and is etched with SMITH MINE DISASTER and the date of the disaster. The names of each of the 75 men who perished are carved on the monument.
The state of Montana razed most of the buildings from Smith Mine #3, but some still remain, the rusted derelicts a constant reminder of the horrific tragedy that occurred there.