Underground Accidents Mar

Local Mining History

Underground mining accidents have plagued Utah's coal industry since the beginning of the 20th century.
Ten major accidents, each claiming four or more lives, have occurred in southeastern Utah's coal mines.
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Winter Quarters - A Lost Treasure

by Keri Karpowitz

Peak Laureate - Spring Project - 19 May 1998

   Located in a narrow remote canyon more than eight thousand feet above sea level and a mile west of Scofield in Utah's Carbon County lies the remains of the once flourishing town of Winter Quarters. The growth of this town almost completely stopped after a disaster in the spring of 1900, On May 1, 1900, an unfortunate mine explosion killed two hundred men. The town never fully recovered from this horrible tragedy, and it eventually dwindled out of existence around 1928. The name Winter Quarters brings to mind tragic images of death, but it once was full of life.
  In 1877, a group led by Peter Morgan discovered coal in this narrow canyon. However, since the exploration team had decided to travel in the early winter, they were caught in a blizzard and held there until the following February. Originally, the area was named Pleasant Valley, but because of the forced camp site the men decided to rename it Winter Quarters.
  Not long after the discovery, Winter Quarters became one of the most impressive cities in the state.  Houses dotted the valleys and canyons. The business district grew to be more than a mile long. The residents built many fine stone buildings which were just as impressive as some of those in Salt Lake City.
  Through the years, many different nationalities lived at Winter Quarters.  In the 1908 census, there were American-born citizens as well as German , Finnish , Swedish, Austrian, S1av, French, Italian, Creek, and Dutch immigrants listed as residents. There were 497 adults plus 338 others under the age of 21 (Sun Advocate 8).
    Not only was the town striking, but the scenery in which it was set was breath-taking.  Pine trees, quaking aspens, and wild vegetation surrounded the town.  Wild raspberries even grew along the creek which ran all year round (Donaldson 182). The spring and summers were mild, green, and very beautiful, However, the winters were not so pleasant with their deep snows and cold wind.
    Horses were a sign of summer's arrival because they were sent away every winter. The townspeople always celebrated the return of the horses to Winter Quarters.  The residents sometimes built bowers with quaking aspen boughs in the forest beyond the town boundaries.  Webster's New World Dictionary defines a bower as a place enclosed by overhanging boughs of trees or by vines on a trellis.  Lunches were packed,  ice cream was made,  and the townspeople escaped to their retreat in the woods for this special summer celebration .  Automobiles were another sign of summer because they, too, were only used in the "good weather" months.
    In the winter a horse-drawn snowplow cleared the road for the company bobsled, and when the snow was deep the railroad tracks were used to walk to school, the grocery store, and church.  The amusement hall played silent movies and hosted vaudeville shows for the residents to watch,  This amusement hall was also the local lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows.  They used the hall for balls and community dances.  It is ironic that one of the last dances planned for the hall was scheduled for May 1, 1900.  It was to be held in honor of Dewey Day, which was also called May Day.
    Winter Quarters mine Number One opened in 1878.  Mules had to transport the coal at first because the railroad had not been laid through that area yet.  In 1877-79, the Utah and Pleasant Valley Railroad replaced the mules' jobs in order to transport the coal more efficiently.  The railroad ran from Springville to Winter Quarters and Scofield.  Shortly afterwards,  in  1882,  Winter Quarters became a branch of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway.
    The coal from this area was the region's highest quality coal. As many as 1800 people worked in the mines in different shifts at the peak of coal production.  Winter Quarters mines Number One and Number Two were operated by the Pleasant Valley Coal Company. These two mines produced sixty percent of Utah's coal  (Milan, Disaster 15).  These mines also earned a reputation as being among the safest in the West.  People were proud of this reputation because many lives had been lost during mine explosions in other areas.
    The week preceding the explosion was a wonderful week for the residents.  An important contract was signed.  Two thousand tons of coal per day would need to be produced to meet the terms of the contract.  This meant that the miners had the opportunity to work more frequently, and this meant more money.  Not only were the families better off financially during that week, their health was on the rise.  A quarantine flag which had plagued the community for some time finally came down, and the town was no longer threatened by small pox or the measles.  The town's population was also on the rise and more buildings were constructed (Milan, Disaster 16).
    On the surface, everything looked wonderful.  However, a dark cloud loomed on the horizon, yet people chose to ignore signs of possible disaster.  Despite warnings that had come forty days earlier, 368 miners entered the mine early May 1, 1900.  Since they had a reputation for being the safest mine in the West, town residents did not place much stock in the warnings .  If the warnings of possible explosions would have been noted more seriously, many lives could have been saved that fatal morning.  A small fraction of the people in the mine that morning were sons of miners.  The boys had come to work as couplers and trap boys. These boys connected coal cars and opened and closed doors inside the mine.  Work preceded normally that morning and was well underway just minutes before the explosion.  Some miners who survived reported that they felt something was not right that morning, but they continued work instead of acting on their premonitions.
   At 10:28 a.m., a keg of powder was accidently ignited which caused a finely dispersed haze of coal dust to rise.  The coal dust was ignited by errant sparks which exploded throughout the mine from room to room.  The actual explosion promptly killed one hundred miners.  Men were mutilated.  One survivor described the scene as follows:  "When a man was caught by the full force of the explosion, he was hurled against the wall or floor with the same effect that would follow the throwing of a piece of dough against the wall" (Milan, Explosion 17).  Men were found with their hands raised to protect their faces.  "Their eyes were closed and turned away from their hands indicating, perhaps, that the men saw the flash of the explosion" (Powell 28).  All these men had apparently realized that death was coming.
    Afterdamp, which is a mixture of toxic gases including methane, immediately followed the explosion.  It spread through the mine fairly rapidly.  Some could have escaped death if they would not have encountered this deadly gas, but the gas was very toxic. It brought instant death as miners inhaled the toxic fumes.  They were frozen in time at the moment of death. One man was found filling his pipe. John James, a County Commissioner, was found with his son George "entwined in loving embrace in each other's arms" ("Most Appalling Mine Horror" Al).  Others were found with tools in their hands or eating food. There were even groups of men gathered looking as though they were discussing what to do.  Still others were overtaken as they tried to run ahead of the fumes, but they ran out of oxygen before they could escape.
    Amazingly some survived, but the majority of those in the mine died a terrible death.  Most of those who did survive sustained serious injuries.  John Wilson, who was working near the mine, was blown eight hundred and twenty feet by the force of the explosion. The back of his skull was completely crushed, and a stick pierced through his abdomen.  He recovered, but did not ever regain full strength.  James Naylor, another miner, was thrown two hundred feet  from the mine.  Miraculously, though, he was uninjured and was able to aid in the first rescue attempts.
    One of oddest stories was of Roderick Davis.  He managed to escape from the mine after the explosion, but while aiding the rescue effort, he was overcome by the afterdamp and passed out. Thought to be dead,  Davis was taken to a truck transporting corpses.  The truck took the bodies to a building where he was placed in a row to be washed.  "When the men began to wash him, he regained consciousness and walked out of the room" (Powell 29).
    The removal of the bodies began at twelve o'clock. This first rescue party was headed by Bishop Parmley.  They tried to enter mine Number Four through the Number One entrance, but as soon as they entered the mine afterdamp would overcome them. The rescue attempt could not continue until there was a clearing of the afterdamp and fresh air began to circulate through the mine.  "After clearing away the fallen and dead horses at the mouth of the mine, they entered about two hundred yards when they came upon the dead bodies of six of the men" (Most Appalling Mine Horror" Al).  The people in the rescue teams struggled to retrieve miners.  About ten people were initially recovered when the rescuers were finally able to enter the mine. The first man to be removed from the mine was John Kirton.  His whole scalp had been burned and his face was unrecognizable. Although he was in a fragile condition, he was still conscious and "cried out in agony for his fellow comrades to end his misery by killing him on the spot" ("Most Appalling Mine Horror" Al)  After that rescuers tried time and time again to retrieve more bodies, but the lack of oxygen and horrible stench of burnt bodies was overpowering.  As a result, many could no longer aid in rescue attempts.  Rescuers were also in a state of severe emotional shock because of the realization that the dead were friends and family.  Those who were able to act were concerned about the slow progress they were making and feared that bodies would be buried making total recovery very difficult.  After spending sixteen hours coming in and out of the mine, physical and emotional exhaustion became too hard to bear.  Finally, the first rescue team was able to rest when additional help arrived.  Miners from Clear Creek, Castle Gate, and Sunnyside divided into rescue parties.  As fast as one team was tired or worn out, others would hurry and take their places.
    Although there were many miracles,  the amount of death overwhelmed the town.  It was a scene that made many strong men turn away in tears. The Salt Lake Tribune published the following statement:  "The calamity was of such a size and so unprecedented in the history of the State, and even of the West, that the mind did not seem to be able to fully grasp it...for the families who would be deprived of husbands and brothers and other relatives, the blow came home with crushing force" (Al).  Indeed, this was a tragedy that would take the town years to even begin to recover from.  Some never recovered from their losses.
    As bodies were found, trucks transported them to the boarding house, church, school, and barns to be received and identified. Women and children had to take care of the dead.  A victim's  clothes were removed first.  Then the bodies were washed so they could more easily be identified.  Tags were placed on them.  A victim's family and friends would then more thoroughly wash the corpse, groom it, and dress the body.  Only 137 of the bodies were identified.  Suits were purchased for the victims by the Pleasant Valley Coal Company from Z.C.M.I.  The company donated these burial suits to the victims.  The L.D.S. church provided burial clothing for its members killed in the explosion.
    Every casket  in Salt Lake City was purchased,  and an additional seventy-five were ordered from Denver.  One hundred and fifty of those who died were buried in the Scofield Cemetery in the northwest corner on May 5, 1900.  The local sawmill operator J.H. Eccles made headboards for the identified bodies.  The names were each inscribed with a lead pencil.  However, fifty percent of the names were spelled wrong and had to be corrected by friends or family members. The bodies that were not identified were buried in a mass grave in the Scofield cemetery.
    Two burial services were held. One was performed by a Finnish Lutheran minister  in honor of the sixty-two Finnish miners. Another was performed under the direction of  Mormon apostles in memory of all those who had died.  Fifty bodies were not buried in the Scofield cemetery.  Instead, they were taken by two funeral trains to various places in Utah and the surrounding states (Powell 30).
    The town was in a state of shock.  The actual explosion had lasted less than a second, but it killed 199 miners leaving 105 widows and 270 fatherless children. This horrible tragedy changed the town forever.  Life did go on, but people could, not forget what had happened. The mines continued operating until 1928 despite the sorrow that lingered.  The quality coal from the mines declined until it eventually became suitable only for inexpensive locomotive fuel.  Finally, the underground transporting costs doomed the mines because the profit from the coal sales was insufficient to pay the bills.  People moved from Winter Quarters to Scofield.  By 1930, Winters Quarters was vacant.  Writer Morgan Donaldson wrote "Although the electricity was cut off and boards placed over the windows of the homes, our family continued to live there for several months.  We could not believe that Winter Quarters had come to an end."
    Now all that remains of this town are caved-in cellars and broken foundations.  The ruins of a large stone store built by Italians masons is one of the most intact historical markers.  The legend of Winter Quarters still lives on, though.  "Of interest to treasure hunters is the fact that many of those killed at Winter Quarters were bachelor miners.  No doubt many of them had secret post-hole banks near their cabins.  Over the years, others were killed or died there,  and many of them hid money they never recovered.  When the town was abandoned, who knows how many other caches were left behind, unknown, forgotten, lost or buried by someone no 1onger able to recover them?  They are the lost treasures of Winter Quarters today" (Thompson 96).

Works Cited

"Bower." Webster's New World Dictionary: Second College Edition.  1970.

Carr, Stephen L. Utah Ghost Towns. Salt Lake City, Utah:  Western Epics, 1972.

Cunningham, Frances. Driving Tour Guide: Selected Abandoned Coal Mine Sites. Price, Utah:  Peczuh Printing Company, 1990.

Carbon County Journal. Price, Utah: Carbon County Historical Society, 1980.

Dilley, J. W. Utah: History of the Scofield Mine Disaster. Knights of Pythias, 1900.

Donaldson, Waiter Morgan. "Winter Quarters." Legends of Carbon and Emery Counties. Price, Utah: Castle Country Chapter of the League of Utah Writers, 1996,

Milan, Noel. "Winter Quarters Disaster: The Day 200 Miners Died." Mine Safety and Health Oct. 1981: 15-19

"Winter Quarters Explosion - Part 2: The Disaster in 1900 that Killed 200." Mine Safety and Health Jan. 1982: 15-20.

"Most Appalling Mine Horror!" The Salt Lake Tribune 2 May 1900, morning ed. Al+.

Powell, Allan Kent. The Next Time We Strike

"Scofield Mine Disaster." Sun Advocate 27 June 1979:  1+.

Thompson, George A. Some Dreams Die: Utah's Ghost Towns and Lost Treasures. Salt Lake City:  Dream Garden Press, 1982.

Watt, Ronald G. A History of Carbon County. Salt Lake City, Utah:  Utah State Historical Society, 1997.

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