West Virginia Coal Mines
Winter Quarters Mine Disaster
The Day 200 Miners Died 100 Years Ago
Readers of Salt Lake City's Desert Evening News raced over those few introductory lines the day after an explosion tore through the workings of Winter Quarters No. 4, near Scofield, Utah, 115 miles southeast of the state's capital. On the day of the explosion, May 1, 1900, the News reported that "an army of men" had been killed in an explosion that very morning. When the last body would be recovered, that army would number 200 Utah coal miners. At the time, the United States had never recorded so many lives lost in a single coal mine tragedy; since then the death toll has been exceeed three times in different states, all within 14 years of the Winter Quarters disaster.
Salt Lake City's three daily papers tried to make sense of the chaos and emotional convulsions that wracked the small but growing mining communities of Scofield and Winter Quarters in the northwest corner of coalrich Carbon County. Early estimates of the number of dead ranged from 200 to 350, and articles about the explosion sometimes included conflicting accounts, mistaken identifications, charges and countercharges(some directed at competing papers), and passages dripping with editorial venom for specific ethnic groups among those immigrants who worked the coal mines in eastern Utah.
Despite these shortcomings, the papers succeeded in capturing the courage of those who searched for survivors, the pain of the many widows and orphans and the resilience of human nature as hundreds of Utahns and others contributed to a massive relief fund established by Utah Governor Heber M. Wells to assist bereaved families. The melodramatic prose of these papers painted an evocative landscape of Scofield those first weeks in May, but in that landscape of gray clouds that clung to the valleys and canyons, of mourning clothes and of faces streaked with tears and coal dust, the predominant color was black.
When Winter Quarters No. 1 first opened about 1878, the coal was carried out the only possible way by mule. Before long the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway laid tracks own Pleasant Valley, about 16 miles southwest of the main line junction in Colton, providing rail transportation for the region's high quality coal to Salt Lake City and other points in the West, By 1896, the Pleasant Valley Coal Co, which operated Winter Quarters in os 1 and 2, as well as the Castle Gate Mine at nearby Helper, Utah, produced 60 percent of Utah's coal. The company's mines continued to flourish to such a point that in April 1897, Butch Cassidy's band rode in from Robber's Roost to steal $7, 000 in gold from Castle Gate's payroll office. The Pleasant Valley Coal Co, opened new mines in 1899 at Clear Creek, Sunnyside and Winter Quarters No. 4, the next year, despite the work lost following the explosion, the company's mines produced nearly 1.1 million tons of coal, or 88 percent of Utah's production.
During the last quarter of the 19th century, these mines had earned a reputation as being among the safest in the West. Many miners followed that reputation to Carbon County from mines in Wyoming after explosions there in 1881, 1886 and 1895 took more than 100 lives. Despite that reputation, Pleasant Valley Coal Co, mines suffered several fatal accidents..
In 1890, an explosion killed three miners at Castle Gate. As a result, the company adopted a new blasting system that required all shots to be fired electrically from the surface and only after all miners had left the mine at the end of the shift. Ten years later, another explosion ripped through the Castle Gate Mine, wrecking 200 mine cars, blowing out all the stoppings and knocking down doors, timbers and props all along the main entries. More than 200 miners had been working at Castle Gate that day, but when fired shots touched off an explosion of coal dust, most miners were safely at home enjoying their supper, and no one was injured. In the company's other mines, coal dust was not considered as hazardous as it was at Castle Gate, and miners blasted coal loose at any time. Less than six weeks after the destructive explosion at Castle Gate, coal dust would earn hew-found respect for its explosive qualities, but at an unexpected cost to eastern Utah.