Dust to Dust: Reflecting on the Scofield Mining Disaster of 1900

May 1, 1990

This day, 124 years ago, was a day of horror in Scofield, Utah. On this day, 200 men and boys perished in a dark hole under the mountain. At the time, it was the worst mining disaster in The United States and would become a rallying cry for American Workers. 

This is the story of May 1 and the sorrow that followed.

It was difficult to get around the room because the coffin was so big. But they did it. They shuffled and jostled and positioned themselves around the dead man as the photographer told them to hold still. Any movement would blur the image. So they were arrayed around the box, absolutely motionless—as still as the man in the coffin. Nearly every home in Scofield, Utah, would have a 6-foot-long box in the parlor in early May 1900. Families who were a little better off would pay to have a photographer document the scene. Within a short time, the coffin would be in the ground, the families would continue to mourn, and just about everyone in this eastern Utah town wondered how the Pleasant Valley Coal Co.’s mine had exploded on such a perfect May morning, wiping 200 men and boys out of existence.  

Scofield Mining Disaster

Mrs. Seth Jones and family and casket at a funeral ceremony following the disaster. Photo by George Edward Anderson (1860-1928), courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

124 Years Ago at 10:30 a.m.

On May 1, 1900, Scofield became a town with too many bodies, and nowhere to put them. The Scofield mine disaster ranks as the fifth most deadly mining accident in the United States, and Utah’s worst calamity. Some estimates place the death toll as high as 246. To a certain degree, miners and their families accepted the risks. Today, 124 years later, not much has changed. Miners still gamble every time they go underground. The 2006 Sago Mine disaster, which claimed 12 lives, was a vivid reminder of those dangers.

The Pleasant Valley Coal Co.’s mine was in nearby Winter Quarters at the mouth of the canyon. Sagebrush and scree littered the hillsides. Mineshafts yawned out of the hills, the more productive mines reaching high-quality coal seams. Shafts No. 1 and No. 4 were good ones; at one point the two would be producing more than 80% of Utah’s coal.

The folks at Scofield and Winter Quarters had not had an easy winter. Smallpox and poverty were rampant. The smallpox ran its course and soon abated, but the poverty did not, particularly for the immigrants—the Finns, the Italians, the Dutch. Still, Scofield’s 2,500 people were just beginning to come out from under such dark clouds, preparing to celebrate May Day. 

Things looked good. The Pleasant Valley Coal Co. was due to supply 2,000 tons of coal a day to the U.S. Navy. Men trudged to work that morning, many hefting large bags of gunpowder for blasting. There were shouts and teasing, the Finns clustering together, a mishmash of languages and accents bouncing off the canyon walls. They disappeared into the ground, working their way through the warrens and low rooms.

At 10:25 a.m.

The men in No. 1 felt a change in the air. A kind of concussion, a pressure on the chest. Word spread that something was terribly wrong in No. 4. Then the words “Get out” echoed through the caverns. Tools dropped and boots began moving toward the mouth of shaft No. 1, while pushing at their backs was a cloud of dust, debris, and the deadliest thing a mine can throw at you: afterdamp. 

Miners fear several things: an accident resulting in injury, followed by time off work and no pay; or losing the job because the company folds or the coal plays out. And of course black lung, a disease from inhaling coal dust. But that’s a slow, protracted death, free of shock and violence. Miners don’t dwell on those. After all, these mines in Scofield had a reputation for being among the safest. 

But afterdamp, that’s something else.

Following a mine explosion, oxygen is forced out of the shaft. What’s left behind is a deadly cocktail of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, utterly irrespirable. Those who survive a fire or explosion are usually wiped out by afterdamp in short order. Rescuers know it when they see it: corpses strewn across the mine floor, untouched by flame or debris, but with handkerchiefs, hats, and coats pressed to their mouths in a futile attempt to keep the afterdamp out of their lungs. One rescuer described the scene in the Winter Quarters mine: “We found bodies of the men in every conceivable shape, but generally they were lying on their stomachs with their arms about their faces. The men died almost instantly when struck by the damp and did not suffer. They just became unconscious and were asphyxiated. Their faces were all calm and peaceful as though they had just fallen asleep.”

One-hundred and three miners made it out of Winter Quarters No. 1. Some 200 did not make it out of the mine at all—that is, until they were hauled out with sheets covering their faces. Some of the dead included young boys who had been working with their fathers.

At No. 4, those who were near the portal were lucky, despite the shattered timbers and twisted mine cars blown out of the hole. They could get to fresh air quickly.

Walter Clark rushed into the mine to find his brother and father. But the afterdamp still hung heavy in the air. He lost consciousness and died.

The Library of Congress maintains archive of images from the horrific mining disaster. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

After the air in No. 4 began to clear, rescuers plunged into the mine, scrambling over the tangles of wood, metal, and horses split open by the explosion. They would only find four survivors, one of whom was so badly burned and wailing in pain he begged to be killed. He died the following day. Another miner died on the way to a nearby boarding house, which was to serve as a makeshift hospital. Of the other two survivors, one was put on a train to St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and would recover. The fourth, Jacob Anderson, emerged untouched.

Some evidence, based on the mine inspector’s report written just after the explosion, suggests that the men had run directly into the afterdamp. They didn’t know from which direction the explosion had come, and in effect, fled straight to their deaths. 

As bodies were hauled out of the mine, wives and children drifted up the hill. Some bodies, burnt and mangled beyond recognition, could not be identified. Row upon row of corpses lay on the ground. Some were loaded onto a boxcar and hauled away to be stored at the schoolhouse in Scofield, and news of the tragedy spread across the West. The tally of the dead revealed some horrific numbers: Nine members of the Luoma family died. The Hunters lost 11. In total, 107 widows, 270 children without fathers and three orphans.   

A large proportion of these were Finnish families. Life had been brutal enough, with a dangerous oceanic crossing and a difficult trek across the continent to Utah. And there were the slurs and insults. But nothing compared to having the fathers, sons, husbands, brothers and nephews snatched away.

Now, the Undertakers Descended on the Town

Mine safety in the early 20th century was understandably not as advanced as today. Yet it wasn’t primitive, either. Requirements for ventilation, escape routes and levels of noxious gasses were enforced. The state had a mining safety inspector, and in 1897, Gomer Thomas visited the mine, giving it a clean bill of health.

His investigation of the accident was far from conclusive. But after examining singed timbers, debris and charred corpses, he concluded that someone in No. 4 inadvertently ignited gunpowder, touching off an even larger blast when it mingled with the coal dust hanging in the air. Coal dust is highly combustible, but enough water vapor in the air will keep it under control. The air in the Winter Quarters mine, however, had been dry and thick with dust. “The blast shot down along the main and main-back entries of No. 4 mine, gathering combustibles, such as dust, powder, etc., within reach,” Thomas wrote. “Part of the blast shot out to the surface through No. 4 tunnel and air shaft, and part went through No. 1 mine.”

Scofield Mining Disaster

Covered bodies in a schoolroom after the 1900 Scofield mine disaster. Photo by George Edward Anderson (1860-1928), courtesy L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

In 1936, Federal Bureau of Mines investigator Daniel Harrington—who had also worked at Winter Quarters following the explosion—drafted a report on the disaster, based on extensive research. “Two men, wearing the old-time oil lamps, were making up some cartridges of black blasting powder at a point in their workroom where they had at least three, and probably more, 25-pound kegs of black blasting powder available,” he wrote. “Presumably on making up the charge, the flame of their open light in some way or other came in contact with the granular black blasting powder and the explosion was precipitated with the resultant loss of 200 lives.”

The Finns were destitute. Many were in deep debt to the company, owing money for housing and supplies from the company store. Sometimes, as much as 95% of a worker’s pay had been deducted to pay off these debts. What had been a hardscrabble existence suddenly became unbearable.

Funeral trains rolled out of Scofield, heading east to Colorado and north to Salt Lake City. The mining company provided the coffins and the clothes and forgave families’ debts at the company store. The company also offered $500 to each family, in exchange for agreements to not hold it liable for further damages.

A few days after the explosion, a Lutheran minister came down from Wyoming to preside over the funeral. Mormon officials came to town to conduct their funerals. Even in death, the community remained segregated. That evening, clouds rolled into the valley and the winds picked up. Sheets of rain forced the last of the mourners indoors.

Scofield Mining Disaster

One-hundred years after the horrific mining disaster at the Winter Quarters Mine vestiges and evidence of the event can still be found at the site. The Library of Congress maintains an archive of images and mine schematics (above) from the Federal Bureau of Mines investigation—which wasn’t fully completed until 1936. 
Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Scofield disaster highlighted the dangers of concentrated coal dust. Up to that point, the chief culprit in mine disasters had been a buildup of methane gasses. Yet after Scofield, miners, companies, inspectors and officials began to look into the possibility that coal dust was more than a minor irritant. But it would take other explosions, more deaths, including a 1924 explosion at Castle Gate, Utah, killing 172, before anyone would take coal dust seriously.

The Scofield explosion also focused attention on the perilous conditions of mine work. Miners in the area staged an unsuccessful strike the following year, but set the wheels in motion for reform. Real change in the industry did not occur until 1933, following a major national strike.

But take a walk through Scofield’s cemetery on a warm, still day, something much like the morning of May 1, 1900. Under the hillsides around you, seams of coal are locked in darkness. Underfoot, men and boys, locked in darkness.  

Read More

My Loving Vigil Keeping
by Carla Kelly
(Cedar Fort, 1992)

This historical romance, based on the Scofield Mine disaster of 1900, features Della, a young woman who takes a teaching position up in the Utah town above Scofield for a year. She gives up the comforts of bustling Salt Lake City to teach school in the rural coal mining town. When tragedy strikes in the Scofield Mine, Della’s life will be changed forever.

History Of The Scofield Mine Disaster:A Concise Account Of The Incidents And Scenes That Took Place At Scofield, Utah, May 1, 1900 by James W. Dilley (Kessinger Publishing, republished in 2009) 

Originally published in 1900, the book provides an account of the events leading up to the disaster, the rescue efforts and the aftermath. Dilley provides detailed information about the mining industry in Utah at the time and the conditions that led to the disaster.

The Next Time We Strike:
Labor in Utah’s Coal Fields,
by Allan Kent Powell
(University of Colorado Press, 1992)

In the traumatic days that followed the disaster, the surviving miners began to understand that they, too, might be called to make this ultimate sacrifice for mine owners and begin a struggle for unionization. The Next Time We Strike explores the ethnic tensions and nativistic sentiments that hampered unionization efforts even in the face of mine explosions.

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