New History of Wyoming

 

Chapter 7: Minerals in Territorial Wyoming

 

Frontier Wyoming’s Most Dangerous Occupation:

The Quest for Mine Safety in Wyoming’s Coal Industry

By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming

From the beginning of Wyoming territory, coal miners worked in deep underground mines. Mining was the most dangerous occupation on the Western frontier—far more risky than rounding up cattle or working on the railroad—even more dangerous than driving Cheyenne and Black Hills stagecoaches or soldiering at old Fort Laramie.

The first coal mines in Wyoming, along the Union Pacific Railroad line across the southern part of the territory, lacked many of the safety features required in today’s mines.  Few mines had such rudimentary safety features as secondary airshafts for ventilation, auxiliary exits in case of cave-ins, or dependable support beams. Before 1886, mines were entirely unregulated.  As a result, mine tragedies occurred frequently in Wyoming coal mines.

From the beginning of mining near Carbon in 1868 until 1925, thirteen separate mine mishaps resulted in the deaths of five or more miners.  Of course, this number does not count the individual incidents were individual miners often were killed, lost limbs or were otherwise maimed by cave-ins, explosions, or equipment malfunctions within the mines. (According to the U. S. Bureau of Mines, the term “disaster” applies to any mine mishap in which five or more miners are killed).

The first mine disaster in territorial Wyoming leading to significant loss of life happened near Almy, north of Evanston, in March 1881. An explosion and fire killed 38 miners and destroyed several surface buildings.  Five years later, at the same mine, 13 miners (including two young boys) died in another explosion.

The Wyoming territorial legislature was about to convene just days after the second mine disaster at Almy. Consequently, legislators passed new mine safety laws. (Similar bills had been introduced in earlier legislatures, but no action had been taken on them). The new law created the office of state mine inspector with the duty of inspecting every coal mine in Wyoming no less frequently than every three months. Further, the act banned boys under 14 from working underground. Women were also “protected” from the hazards of mining when it was made unlawful for women to work in mines.

Albany County legislator Stephen Downey tried to get legislators to give compensation to the families of Almy disaster victims, but legislators voted against the measure, reasoning that it would set a bad precedent.

During the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention in 1889, the delegates adopted much of the territorial law as Article 9 of the new State Constitution. Included was the provision: “The legislature shall provide by law for proper development, ventilation, drainage, and operation of all mines in this state.” The delegates endorsed both the earlier territorial law giving women the right to vote, but also the earlier ban on their working in mines. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979 that the Constitution was changed and it became legal for women to work as miners in the state.

Many miners believed exhaustion led to many of careless mishaps. In a separate section of the Constitution, the drafters inserted the provision: “Eight hours actual work shall constitute a lawful days work in all mines…”

Even though these rudimentary measures were in place to protect miners from some of the safety issues, newly formed labor unions, particularly in southwestern Wyoming, constantly sought improved working conditions for their members.  Mining companies often complied. One common activity in mining towns early in the 20th century involved contests between mine safety teams in annual competition to see which team had the best response time or could better react to underground cave-ins. Winning teams were given trophies and pictured in the local newspaper.

Despite the new rules and better training, mishaps in the mines remained commonplace—stories of individuals being crushed by falling rock or rescued from cave-ins appear in many turn-of-the-century Wyoming newspapers. 

In March 1895, a mine at Red Canyon, near Evanston, exploded, killing 62 miners. It was the third greatest loss of life in any mine disaster in the state’s history. The explosion was heard clearly in downtown Evanston, seven miles from the mine site.

This disaster, along with individual mishaps, brought increasing attention to safety in mines. Labor unions gain membership by promising to seek greater safety. Occasionally, safety concerns were a primary reason for striking. In their annual contract negotiations with coal companies, unions often expressed greater concern for safety reform than for increased compensation. Companies themselves, and entire communities, encouraged adherence to safety principles.

In the wake of the Red Canyon disaster, the legislature continued to tighten up safety requirements in Wyoming mines. The state mine inspector was authorized to hire deputies to assist him in investigating mine accidents and submitting reports. The law required inspections even in non-fatal accidents.

Despite the new rules, during the first decade of the 20th century, multiple major disasters befell miners at Diamondville and at Hanna. The two Diamondville mishaps occurred in the same mine in February and in October 1901. Twenty-six miners died of suffocation in the first incident when a cave-in trapped them deep in the mine.

Barely eight months later, 22 more died in a similar cave-in.  At the same mine, four years later, 18 miners working on the night shift died when an explosion ripped through the Diamondville mine. Reports said that the Dec. 2, 1905, explosion “destroyed cement and stone stoppings 18-24 inches thick.”

The greatest loss of life in any mine disaster in Wyoming occurred at Hanna on June 30, 1903, when 169 miners died when coal gas ignited in Mine No. 1.  An additional 46 miners barely escaped from the mine.  The accident decimated the town’s male population, leaving hundreds of orphaned children and widows. The mining company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific, gained condemnation for refusing to compensate survivors beyond a meager amount for burial expenses. The explosion and ensuing publicity also brought national attention to dangers in Wyoming mines and increased state government concern for mine safety. Unions insisted on greater compensation for dependents of miners killed in such mishaps.

On March 28, 1908, the same Hanna mine that exploded in 1903 blew up again, trapping 18 miners deep underground.  At 10:30 that evening, the state mine inspector and 40 other men entered the mine to rescue the trapped miners.  Suddenly, a second explosion ripped through the shaft, shattering glass in houses in nearby Hanna and killing all of the would-be rescuers, including the mine inspector.  Bodies of only 32 of the 59 victims were recovered. The mine was sealed shut. In 1933, the town of Hanna erected a marker on the site memorializing those killed in both tragedies. (The marker is located just south of the present Hanna-Elk Mountain High School).

As a result of the second Hanna disaster, the legislature required inspectors to make more exhaustive examinations of mines, but also authorized them to stop work in “unlawful and dangerous mines.” It also substantially increased fines for mine owners who violated safety laws.

Despite the new safety rules, accidents continued to plague Wyoming coal mines. At Cumberland (now a ghost town between Evanston and Kemmerer), six men died in 1912 in a mine explosion caused by ignition of coal dust. Some 20 other miners suffered serious injuries. Just two years later, in the same mine, a coupling failed while miners were returning to the surface from a shift underground. Seven cars plummeted to the bottom of the shaft. Many miners jumped to safety as the cars careened downward, but five could not escape and died in the incident.

Following those mishaps, the legislature continued to pass mine safety rules. Mine accidents continued, however. In July 1920, a miner working at Sublet, in Lincoln County, slammed a mallet against a keg of blasting powder. Six men died in the ensuing explosion. At another mine at Sublet in 1923, 39 miners died when gas was ignited by an arc from a locomotive trolley. Succeeding legislatures continued to enact mine safety laws, at least one relating to proper storage of blasting powder. 

The second-worst coal mining tragedy in state history occurred in August 1923 near Kemmerer. Only 135 of the usual 250 miners were working that day because it was a holiday. Ninety-nine of them died when the mine suddenly exploded. Investigators found that, prior to the blast, a fire boss apparently attempted to relight his flame safety lamp with a match. A group of 23 men barricaded themselves within the mine away from the flames until they were rescued hours after the initial explosion.

In February 1938, five miners died in a cave-in at a remote mine, at 8,200 feet in elevation, some 75 miles from Afton on Deadman Creek.  The mine foreman’s wife skied through four feet of snow to a ranch to get help.  It was the last incident in a Wyoming mine in which as many as five people died.

In 1939, the mine inspector was authorized to inspect surface coal mines as well as the underground ones.  Reflecting the increasing diversity of minerals mined in the state, the legislature expanded the duties of the state mine inspector in 1957 to include more than coal mines, the inspector’s designated jurisdiction since 1886.

Finally, in 1990, more than a century after the mine inspector was established as a “constitutional office,” Wyoming voters repealed parts of Article 9. The office was shifted to the Wyoming Department of Employment. Despite the move, the state mine inspector still retains the authority to enter, inspect and examine any mining operation in the state, all in the name of safety and protecting workers in what has historically been the most dangerous occupation in the state.