Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Smith Mine Disaster


Thirty-nine corrugated metal structures mark the site of the Smith Mine, a ghostly reminder of a once vibrant mining district near Bearcreek in Carbon County. The Montana Coal and Iron Company began developing the Smith Mine after the Montana, Wyoming and Southern Railroad arrived in 1906. By 1907, it produced 8,000 tons of high-grade coal. The company mechanized the mine, and throughout the 1930s, it continued to invest in new equipment, building a new crushing plant, elevator, cleaning plant, coal sheds and scales, electrical substation, and other above-ground structures to support the underground operation. By 1943, miners working three shifts a day, six days a week produced almost 500,000 tons of coal annually to meet coal needs for the nation during World War II.  But investments in safety lagged behind other improvements, and in the 1940s, many Smith miners still used open-flame carbide headlamps (as opposed to safer electric lamps). The highly gaseous mine also lacked good ventilation or rock-dusting equipment to control coal dust. On February 27, 1943, this proved a deadly combination when a methane gas explosion in Smith Mine #3 killed seventy-four miners and, later, one rescuer in the worst coal mining disaster in Montana history. There were only three survivors. Although the company closed the #3 adit after the explosion, it continued to work its other mines, raking in record profits through 1945. Declining demand, lower quality coal, competition from diesel and natural gas, and bad management led to the operation’s closure in 1953. Sometimes visitors to the lonely site, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, report anguished cries. They seem to come from deep within the earth and carry on the breeze.

The Smith Mine #3 site in 1968. Library of Congress, HAER MONT,5-RELO.V,2--1

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