Willoughby: Mining disasters always in the back of your mind | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Mining disasters always in the back of your mind

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Mourners waiting to see if anyone survived a 1913 coal-mine disaster in Pennsylvania where 97 perished.
Library of Congress/Courtesy photo

A mining disaster made the front pages of the Aspen Democrat in 1907 three days in a row. On Dec. 10, it reported that, 60 hours after an explosion in a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, 53 bodies had been found — only one-eighth of those working underground at the time. The disaster was described as a “scene of the most frightful catastrophe in the history of the coal-mining industry in America.”

The explosion, caused possibly by a miner’s lamp igniting coal dust, was a common one to coal mines, but it was an extraordinarily large one that also took out mine props, resulting in a collapse of the tunnels that were two miles in. There were smoldering fires that grew larger and thwarted rescue attempts.

The next day, the paper reported that by 10 a.m., 112 bodies had been brought out, and that, by the afternoon, the known bodies brought out would total 141.

On the third day of reporting, 175 bodies had been found. Twenty-three were unidentified. “These bodies were in such a state of decomposition that it was impossible to hold them for more than two hours — they were hurried to the graveyard.” There were funeral services all day.

The final tally was 362 dead, out of the 420 estimated to have been underground at the time — the largest American mine disaster of all time. Left behind were 216 widows with 475 children. That same year, 239 miners died in a coal-mine explosion in Pennsylvania.

Such a disaster must have given Aspen’s miners hours of nightmares. But, they would also have assured each other that it could never happen to them since that was a coal mine — not a hardrock one like theirs. Hardrock miners were more specialized, the top of the miner order. Coal mining was at the bottom, especially because it was so dangerous.

In addition to coal-dust explosions, coal miners faced blackdamp, fumes of carbon dioxide, and nitrogen devoid of oxygen that caused a miner to black out. The canary in the coalmine was not just a phrase; they were actually used to detect low-oxygen levels.

Contrast those coal miners’ deaths with all Aspen miners’ deaths for the entire year of 1907. At the age of only 36, George McCarley died but not from a mine accident. He died of pneumonia exacerbated by miner’s consumption.

George Peart also died of miner’s consumption. He came to Aspen in 1892, died at the age of 46. Frank Pugal also died of consumption, but it started when he was exposed to lead poisoning six months before his death at the age of 40. Two weeks before he expired, he lost sight in both eyes.

A miner who had worked in Aspen for many years, at age 38, died in Telluride where he worked on an aerial mine tram. Speculation was that the ore bucket he was riding dislodged and fell 175 feet. But, because he had run up a gambling debt of $1,500 (almost $40,000 in today’s dollars) in the week before he died, most thought it was a suicide.

E.H. Hopper was the only Aspen miner who died on the job. He was not underground. He was working the ore chute for the Spar Mine loading railroad cars with his brother-in-law. He had been cleaning the bins when his brother-in-law asked how much more ore could be added to a carload. Hopper tried to dislodge ore that was stuck to complete the load, and it suddenly dropped carrying him with it. He was crushed by three tons of ore.

The only underground miner death in the area, that of Stewart Smith, was not in Aspen but in a coal mine in Coal Basin. As you can see, hardrock mining shortened and claimed many miners’ lives causing consumption, but few died each year underground.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.