Coal History is Sweetwater County History: A Dangerous Way to Live (Part 2)

Coal History is Sweetwater County History: A Dangerous Way to Live (Part 2)

This is a photo taken in 1906 of the B Mine in Superior, Wyo. It depicts a Korean blaster and one solid chunk of coal. Photo courtesy of the Rock Springs Historical Museum

Risky Way to Make a Living

Coal mining has always been dangerous work, according to Images of America: Rock Springs, Arcadia Publishing, copyright 2008 by authors Russell Tanner and Margie Fletcher Shanks, pp.36-37, as well as any number of other sources. 

“The early mining methods were laborious in the extreme,” History states. “This was a time when modern machinery existed only in the fertile brains of dreaming inventors or in the imperfect models resting on draftmen’s tables. The coal undercut with hand picks was sheared in the same way, either on one rib or in the center. Whenever explosives were used, the users were carefully supervised, so as to hold production of fines to the lowest point possible.”

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The article goes on to state that ventilation in coal mines was a matter only for “academic discussion” and that the dark, muggy air was thick with powder fumes. “…no wife could be certain that her man would return to her with his body intact.”

“Such were the pioneer days at Carbon, Rock Springs and Almy, with the time whistles each morning calling the men to 10 hours of heavy labor, and the paymaster at times handing out but $2 dollars and 10 cents for a day’s work” (History, pp. 158-159). Miners went to work wearing oil lamps that had cotton wicks and emitted plenty of smoke (p. 52).

Inside the mines, water sprayers were often used to keep the coal dust down, but they were of limited effectiveness. Coal dust in the mines was ever-present and highly explosive, and even when not, the dust got into the minders’ lungs, causing disease (Images of America, p. 26).

At least by the early 20th century mine rescue teams were well established. The Union Pacific Coal Company and other coal companies and the labor unions worked to assist in times of mine disasters (ibid, p. 23).

Training for miners, especially mine superintendents, became more thorough and demanding as time went on.

“Examination Questions for Certificates of Competency” for mine managers, copyright 1907 by the International Textbook Company, has, as one of its preparation questions (among many): “What indications are given by the lamp when gas is present as an explosive mixture?”

The answer, summarized, was that when gas in a coal mine assumes potentially explosive proportions, a miner’s lamp increases in volume and assumes a “spindle shape”, with small explosions occurring even within the lamp itself, explosions which might increase in volume and frequency.

But no matter how careful mine managers and miners tried to be, accidents were bound to happen, either to individual….

The Rock Springs Miner on July 26, 1894 reported the death of miner Martin Buh after being crushed by a fall of coal.

…or sometimes catastrophically…

Mine No. 1 in Hanna was the scene of 169 miners’ deaths on June 30, 1903, as the result of an explosion (History, pp. 117-118). “At ten o’clock in the morning people outside the mine heard an ear-splitting crash, which has been described as sounding like the explosion of a heavy charge of dynamite in rock,” the report said.

“Timber, masonry, and earth, coal and rock were catapulted from the two portals of the mine. Heavy smoke poured out into the air,” the report stated. “Rescue crews sped into the mine as quickly as they could be organized, but the inner workings had been caved badly and soon, with the pumps stopped, water began to rise in the lower reaches of the mine.”

It took until the following November before all of the dead bodies had been removed. The mine was reopened in early 1904.

Yet even when accidents were not fatal, there was always the possibility of being maimed because of carelessness or simply bad luck. The Union Pacific Coal Company Employees’ Magazine for March 1924 records an incident in which a driver was hauling loaded cars, but he fell on the rail. The loaded car ran over his foot, crushing it badly.

Another incident which the magazine recorded mentioned one miner who was capping a fuse. The miner held the cap in his left hand and the fuse and his pit lamp in his right hand. Unfortunately, the carbicle lamp flame detonated the cap causing the miner to lose the fingers and thumb on his left hand.

Coal Camp Life

Notwithstanding the uncertainties of life and limb within the mines, existence was not altogether unpleasant in coal mining communities. The Union Pacific Coal Company did its best to provide some compensatory amenities, while the surrounding communities contributed their share. Company stores provided groceries and clothing for 19th and early 20th century coal miners.

History mentions that the coal company constructed a school house close to its store at Mine No. 1. A new high school went up in 1927 and gymnasium in 1930.

Reliance shared in the prosperity, with a high school and a staff of seven teachers along with a grade school staff of five teachers (p. 153).

“The Roman Catholic Church has maintained services at Reliance for a number of years, and the Mormon Church and a Union Sunday School have also been quite active,” History goes on to state.

“Other denominations drive into Rock Springs for Sunday School and church services. Because of their general feeling of contentment, the people of the town cooperated from very first to make their community life as pleasant as possible,” History stated. “A town band was organized shortly after Reliance was established, and a local dance orchestra was also formed. Many home talent entertainments are given, which are supported by the many nationalities in the town.”

Germans, Japanese, Slavs, Serbians, Koreans, Croations, Italians, Finns and Swedes along with English and native-born Americans, made up the population of miners in Reliance.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the history of coal in Sweetwater County. Keep your eye out for the next installment. To read Part 1 click here.