The summer of 1891 in Rock Springs witnessed one of the most explosive and foolish tragedies that has been recorded.
The blast, which shook the small mining town, was recorded in the Rock Springs Miner newspaper report on July 18, 1891.
According to the report, around 3 pm, a “loud, long and deep” explosion occurred, which sent a cloud of smoke “well to the heavens.”
What appeared to be the entire town at the scene, the crowd of citizens rushed to mine No. 6 with little hope for the survival of nearly 24 families in the neighborhood.
“But happily and miraculously all escaped; only one of the many children, some of whom were playing within two hundred yards of the place, was injured,” the report read.
Although the injuries were few, the devastation left behind was significant and deadly.
Upon further examination and witness testimony, the explosion was the result of Jacob Santala and Jacob Hilli, who were out to resolve an argument over who was the better marksman with the pistol.
Santala ran a Finnish saloon located around the new bridge outside of city limits. He had been in a meeting with Hilli earlier that day at the saloon. The two had been talking about future business ventures. However, after a few sips of Santala’s best, the conversation took a turn for who was a more accurate marksman. Each made their case, but ultimately the two decided the only way to prove who was better was to have a shooting challenge.
Santala loaded up his pistol and the two took his horse and buggy seeking an acceptable target to solidify each’s claim as the best.
Along the way the two realized they had forgotten a drinking glass for the beer and whiskey they had brought along with them. Stopping at the home of Richard Johnson to borrow a glass, Johnson noticed the pistol in the buggy and questioned the two what they were doing to which they replied they were going out shooting.
Santala and Hilli drove towards the Union Pacific’s (UP) powder house, which at the time was storing 1213 kegs of black powder and 550 pounds of giant powder. With the intention to prove himself the better shooter, Santala took a shot at the door of the powder house, but missed miserably.
Missing his first shot, Santala took another shot on the other side of the powder house, just 12 feet away. The shot had been successfully placed and equally devastating. A massive crater replaced the powder house and Santala and Hilli had been blown to smithereens.
The railroad tracks were mangled and twisted. Robert Gibson’s stable and henhouse were destroyed along with his home. The Crofts’ newly remodeled home had been devastated. The Johnson’s, Lewis’, Walters’, Irvine’s, Chilton’s and Goss’ homes had all been damaged as well. The explosion miles away had the effect of an earthquake to the center of town leaving many businesses with broken windows.
The site was truly horrible to see. Blackened flesh scattered across the desert was all that remained of the Santala and Hilli. The two’s remains were collected by Marshall Young who put what he could find of them into a casket.
“Pieces of their limbs were picked up 300 yards away from the place,” the report read.
Santala’s horse was also blown into nothingness, with the largest part of the animal found 175 yards away from the scene.
The explosion cost a loss of $12,000 – $15,000, which is equivalent to around $350,000 in present day.
A similar explosion took place 48 years later in Rock Springs, when five young boys were killed in the explosion caused by pistol fire.
“Few tragedies in the history of Rock Springs caused more sorrow than that in which the five little fellows were destroyed, and the whole city and surrounding district mourned with the bereaved families of the five children.”
This article was brought to you in partnership with the Rock Springs Historical Museum. Special thanks to Richelle Rawlings and Jennifer Messer.
Rock Springs Historical Museum
Rock Springs Miner, July 18, 1891
The History of Union Pacific Coal Mines 1868-1940