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May 1, 1900 – The Winter Quarters Coal Mine Disaster

Posted May 01, 2008 12:01 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, over 200 coal miners died in one of the worst mining accidents in American history. Around 10:30 AM, a blast echoed through the mining town of Scofield, Utah. At first, citizens of the hard-working community believed that the explosion marked the start of the day's celebrations. After all, May 1, 1900 was more than just a spring holiday or a celebration of workers' rights. This "May Day" was also "Dewey Day", a commemoration of Admiral George Dewey's May 1, 1898 triumph at the Battle of Manila Bay during the recently-concluded Spanish-American War. Before the day's end, however, the families of Carbon County, Utah would lose far more men than Admiral Dewey lost in his Philippines campaign.

For the miners of Utah's Pleasant Valley, May 1, 1900 was a day which began like many others. Although the Greek, Italian, Scandinavian, and Welsh immigrants who worked in the mines looked forward to a night of holiday festivities, their daytime labors loomed large. Deep underground, a cloud of coal dust gathered, probably along the floor of the mine. Blasting powder, used to loosen chunks of coal from the seams, ignited the dust in the No. 4 mine, sparking an explosion. Toxic fumes or afterdamp soon spread to the No. 1 mine, which was connected to the site of the blast by an airshaft. Rescuers rushed to the scene, but were forced to wait while the air cleared. Some victims were found with tools still in hand, indicating instant death. Others were buried, or burned beyond recognition.

On May 3, 1900, Carbon County lawyer L.O. Hoffman traveled to Scofield to perform an inquest upon the body of John Hunter, one of the victims. Justice of the Peace William Hurst served as the corner. During the inquest, a miner named Andrew Smith blamed the explosion upon the Pleasant Valley Mining Company's practice of using "heavy shot" while the men were still underground. The state mine inspector agreed that coal dust played a role, but placed most of the blame on the company's stores of blasting powder. "I went to a place where it was claimed they had powder stowed away," Gomer Thomas explained, "and the place showed that the explosion had started here". Still, Thomas recommended that the company begin to water down the coal dust inside the Winter Quarters mine.


Image Credit: Western Mining and Railroad Museum


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