Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mining Camp Dangers

Epidemics were fairly commonplace throughout the nineteenth century and knew no social boundaries. Rich or poor, no person was immune. Typhoid and cholera plagued mining camps because miners quickly polluted the water source. But measles, whooping cough and diphtheria also invaded the communities. The great silver camp of Elkhorn that flourished in the 1880s has a particularly pathetic legacy, reminding us that sometimes the sacrifices of parents—leaving home and family for new opportunities—were minor compared to the sacrifices they imposed on their children. Dr. William Dudley served as camp doctor but could do nothing when a diphtheria epidemic in 1889 claimed most of Elkhorn’s children. His wife was pregnant with their second child, and the Dudleys left Elkhorn abruptly, leaving their first born son, a casualty of the epidemic, buried in the hillside cemetery. During that same year, on September 27, Harry Walton, 9, and Albin Nelson, 10, found a quicksilver container full of black powder. Adults filled these containers to detonate for community celebrations like the Fourth of July, and had overlooked this one. The boys managed to explode it and blew themselves to bits. They share a grave in the small cemetery.

Young boy in a coffin. Illness knew no social boundaries in Montana’s mining camps.
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives
Mining-related accidents were a hazard to children, and explosives and mine shafts were not the only perils. Dredging created its own danger. At Bannack in 1916, three girls were enjoying the warmth of a summer afternoon, splashing and wading in Grasshopper Creek. Laughing and talking, they waded out into a pond created by the dredge boat, not realizing they had gone too far. Suddenly the girls stepped off a ledge into nine feet of water. None could swim. Twelve-year-old Smith Paddock heard the commotion and managed to pull two of the girls out, but the third girl, sixteen-year-old Dorothy Dunn, drowned.

Dorothy Dunn, second in line on the left, wading in the dredge pond at Bannack.
Courtesy of Kathie Stachler, Dorothy's great-niece.

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