Friday, March 8, 2013

The Utah Horror

The 1924 Castle Gate Mine Disaster

On the morning of March 8, 1924, 171 men walked into the Castle Gate No. 2 mine in Utah’s Willow Creek Canyon. Mining in those days was still a hard, brutal and dangerous job but for the most part, it paid well and the men were happy to have their jobs. Most of them were smiling when they headed for work that morning, but within hours, their happiness would turn to horror.

What happened on that day in March is still regarded as one of the worst disasters in Utah mining history. Scores of men lost their lives and according to the stories that followed in the wake of the explosions that shook the mine that day, many of their spirits remained behind as a reminder of the lives that were lost.

For well over a century, steam kept this country moving. In a way it still does: Until the 1920s and 1930s, steam ran just about everything -- tractors, trains, ships, industrial machines, and even some cars. Steam provided the power and boiling water provided the steam but it was coal that kept all that water boiling. Coal also kept people warm in their homes and fired the giant steel mills that helped make our country the industrial powerhouse that it was.

Coal was king, and the digging of the stuff made some men rich as kings. Coal provided meager livings for hundreds of thousands of men and boys, and fabulous wealth for a few. With all the money there was to be made in the coal industry, it is not difficult to believe that many business men wanted to become involved with that lucrative prospect. Coal was the original “black gold.”

During the nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth, coal mines were opened all over the country. Although ten states provide ninety percent of the coal in the U.S., at least 27 states had (and still have) active coal mines. Early on, it seemed that coal couldn’t be pulled from the ground fast enough, but as we moved through the early decades of the twentieth century, the coal boom was starting to decline. The coal industry had moved into a period of over-expansion and over-production. Too many mines had been opened and mining technology allowed for more coal to be pulled from those mines. It wasn’t just men with picks and horse drawn coal carts anymore. Other forms of energy, such as gasoline and diesel fuels, were being introduced and used. The automobile was firmly established as the newest and most popular mode of transportation. 

The result was decreased orders for coal from mines all over the country. Coal certainly wasn’t hearing its death toll, as many billions of tons were still being produced, but some mines were hit harder than others.  Some mines shut down temporarily and others reduced their work force. Such was the situation in March of 1924 in east central Utah. 

The Castle Gate mines took their name from this unusual rock formation, resembling a castle spire, at the entrance to Price Canyon. 
A reduction in orders for coal meant layoffs and closings. Utah Fuel Company’s Castle Gate Mines were no exception. Although Castle Gate had not decided which mines it needed to close, it furloughed many of its miners. To keep as many families in the area fed as possible, they laid off young, single miners and those without dependents and even hired some married family men who had been laid off when area mines had temporarily shut down. The miners knew the Castle Gate Mines were known for being dangerous, but they were happy to have jobs. Two weeks later, disaster struck.

Castle Gate Mine No. 1 opened in 1886 in Willow Creek Canyon, 90 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. It was named for a unique rock formation at the entrance to Price Canyon. Initially, boxcars were used to bring in the first miners, who used them as their homes until the boxcars were needed elsewhere.  Then, the company put the men up in tents until suitable housing could be built. After the first few houses were completed, the makeup of the Castle Gate began shifting from single immigrant and American-born men to more families.  The town of Castle Gate was incorporated in 1912, the same year the second mine was opened. Castle Gate No. 2 was located on the opposite side of the canyon, one mile apart from the No. 1 mine.

Castle Gate Mine No. 1 had reasonably good coal quality, which was baked into coke for smelting plants to use in the production of steel. But when No. 2 was opened, the coal was of supreme quality, some of the best in the state, or even the region. This coal was destined for use in steam locomotives and steamboats. In 1922, Castle Gate Mine No. 3 opened and coal production went into full swing.

All three Castle Gate mines had been running smoothly with rotating shifts. For two weeks, some new men had been working together after many had been laid off and others hired. It was very unusual for such a high percentage of the miners to be married with children, but the company was trying to do right by the family men. And so, when 171 men walked into Castle Gate Mine No. 2 bright and early on Saturday morning, March 8, 1924, they were happy to be there and grateful to have jobs. It would not be long before their happiness would turn to terror.

A check board was positioned next to the entrance of each mine. On the board were a series of tiny hooks with small brass number plates hanging from them. As every miner walked into the mine to work, he would take in with him the brass plate bearing the number he had been assigned. This system was used to keep track of who was in the mine and who was not. If a man’s number plate was gone from its hook, he was in the mine. It was a simple, commonly used system that had been adopted by many mine companies. As each man passed into the mine on that Saturday, he carried with him his brass number plate.

Inside the mine, the men walked down deep below the surface into rooms where different groups would be removing the coal that the shift before them had knocked loose. The coal mined in Castle Gate No. 2 was very brittle. The new “short wall” mechanical equipment that they had been using to dig out the coal created a large amount of coal dust when it was used with brittle coal. This mine had a sprinkler system to dampen down the dust, but it had not been sufficient to keep the dust down that day. Consequently, when the men went to work that day, the air and floors were heavy with light, fluffy black powder. In some mines, the men had to work hunched over because the room and tunnel ceilings were so low. In No. 2, however, the coal seams were very deep and wide, allowing for the ceilings in some rooms to be as high as 12 to 16 feet. 

Two of the men were loading coal in Room 2, about 7,000 feet from the entrance. This room was known to have some of the poorest safety conditions in the mine, and it had with a particularly high ceiling. A few minutes before 8:00 that morning, the fire boss working Room 2 climbed up to investigate a pocket of gas at the ceiling. As he did so, his open carbide head lamp went out. He stopped to relight the lamp with a match, and in doing so, he ignited a deadly combination of explosive gas and coal dust. The force of the explosion that followed was monstrous. 

The blast roared up the drift and burst out the entrance of the mine with such tremendous force that it tossed railcars about as if they were toys. One mining car, several telephone poles and some heavy equipment near the entrance were thrown across the valley to the other side of the canyon, nearly a mile away. The steel gates inside the drift near the entrance were twisted and ripped free, tearing the heavy hinges from their concrete foundations. These gates were also blasted across the valley and were found embedded in the rock of the opposite canyon wall. The damage inside the mine was as bad, if not worse. Heavy support timbers were ripped out and the steel rails were twisted like so much string.
A few minutes later, a second explosion burst through the mine. This time, the force of the blast was directed in a different direction, nearly destroying the fan house and leaving the fan itself extensively damaged. It was supposed that the force of the first explosion likely extinguished the carbide headlamps of the miners working in the other rooms. Plunged into utter darkness, it would not have been long before someone tried to re-light his own headlamp with a match, which set off the second explosion. This explosion was the one that likely killed any of the miners who had survived the initial blast. It is quite likely there were survivors, as the energy from the first explosion was directed outward. Even if there had been no second explosion, it does not necessarily follow that these men would have come out of the mine alive. The first explosion would have rapidly burned off most of the oxygen in the mine and “afterdamp” would have been left behind. Afterdamp is made up of hot toxic gasses left behind after the explosive gasses and the coal dust had burned, mixed in with a large amount of carbon dioxide - a lethal combination. 

The catastrophe was not yet complete. About 20 minutes after the second explosion, the earth shook one last time as a third, spontaneous explosion detonated. This final explosion did extensive internal damage to the mine. The first and second explosions had blown out many of the timber roof support beams, allowing the third explosion to cause extensive collapses and cave-ins throughout the mine. 

Family members and off-duty miners knew exactly what must have happened as the earth below them shook. They ran directly to No. 2, trying to get as close to the entrance as they could. The bosses set their emergency plan into action by calling the area mines to let them know what had happened. Trained rescuers would be arriving within the half hour. 

Every mine had its own trained rescue teams and rescue equipment on hand. If ever there was a fire, explosion, or cave-in within any of the area mines, these rescue teams would be immediately alerted and sent to the mine in distress. The men on these teams were all miners themselves and very often when the call for help went out, they would be called out of their own mines. No matter what mine was in trouble or what company owned the mine, help would always be on the way when needed. No matter how bad the situation appeared when the rescuers arrived on the scene, they always went to work believing that there would be living men trapped inside. Unfortunately, when they arrived at the No. 2 Mine, they had no way of knowing how many men were inside at the time of the explosion. The check board containing that information was blasted into splinters and brass tags were blown all over the valley with the first blast.

The first men to enter the mine after the third explosion were 22-year-old Thomas Hilton of Helper, Utah, and two other men. Hilton, who later spent over 55 years working coal mines, had just been certified in mine rescue and first aid and had been laid off from No. 2 two weeks earlier. The men needed to get to the water shut-off valve for the eight-foot water line leading into the mine. There were worries that if the line had burned through, men could possibly drown if they were holed up in a low-lying room. Wearing breathing helmets, the men entered the mine while holding a rope so they could be pulled out in case they were overcome with gas. They were able to get as far as 100 yards but were only about halfway to the water valve. Hilton began feeling dizzy. He jerked his lifeline to signal that he was in trouble and turned toward the exit. After walking a short distance, his legs began to feel unstable and he began to run. In sight of the exit, he collapsed into unconsciousness. Two company managers who were holding the lifelines, covered their mouths with wet handkerchiefs and ran in and dragged Hilton out. The next thing he knew, he was lying in the Castle Gate cemetery, propped up against a tombstone, breathing clean fresh air. 

Hilton took some time to recover and then headed back to continue with the rescue effort. The rescue team leaders were careful to keep him away from the area where his father had been working until after his father’s body was removed. Hilton lost his father, an uncle, a cousin and other relatives in the blast. 
The afterdamp in the mine was tremendously thick and there was no way to get it cleared; the force of the explosions had collapsed the airshafts and the ventilation fan was all but destroyed. The rescue teams were in possession of the latest emergency equipment in the forms of breathing helmets. These would allow the rescuers to work for fifteen minutes or more in areas saturated with afterdamp. But in this case, the afterdamp was so extreme that even with rescue helmets, the men were being overcome and frequently had to be dragged from the mine. 

Of the 171 men who walked into the mine that Saturday morning, there were no survivors. Then the mine took one more life. George Wilson of Standardville, the head of the rescue crew, was in the first group to enter the mine. These men went in on Saturday afternoon, knowing full well that there had been no opportunity to ventilate the mine. They were focused on finding any trapped miners that could still be saved. It was believed that Wilson’s breathing apparatus had somehow malfunctioned or that the device shielding his nose had slipped. Within the first 100 yards, he fell to the mine floor, asphyxiated from the toxic afterdamp. The other five men on his team also collapsed and had to be pulled from the mine. They were all unconscious but all but Wilson were later revived. The afterdamp was too strong even for the rescue breathing helmets. 

Repair work had begun on the giant fan but it could not be put back into service before Sunday afternoon.  Helmeted teams repeatedly tried to enter the mine but were turned back by the heavy afterdamp. Eventually, efforts to enter the mine were stopped until the fan could be repaired the following day. In the meantime, miners worked at and around the entrance, laboring to remove as much debris as they could, but their efforts were hampered by the massive crowd that had developed on the road leading to the mine. Police and mine officials were tasked with trying to push the crowd back so the others could work more efficiently. On Sunday, Utah National Guardsmen were called in for crowd control, and they were eventually able to move the crowd back down the road. After that, no one was allowed up to the mine unless they were known rescuers, had proper credentials, or were from the press. 

A special train arrived at 3:00 p.m. at Castle Gate from Salt Lake City with five doctors and many nurses.  With rescue and medical personnel in place, the Red Cross quickly arrived to help care for the families of the miners. They were provided with much-needed supplies and food, and with volunteers to help with such mundane household chores as child care, cooking and cleaning because many of the miners’ wives were too distraught to function normally. Mothers and wives of the entombed miners did little more than stand silently and sadly, looking toward the mine.

Saturday night, a helmeted crew was able to penetrate the mine as far as 500 feet, but no bodies were found. Later that night, another helmeted crew made it as far as 1,000 feet, but found no one, and no evidence of anyone left alive. 

Sunday, March 9, started with great expectations. The fan was to be repaired and would begin ventilating the mine, making it easier and safer for the rescue crews to do their work. Those high expectations were dashed that afternoon as a fire broke out in an emergency exit and rescuers were once again evicted from the mine for several hours until the fire could be extinguished. While the fire burned, there were more cave-ins in the main entrance, dropping tons of debris that would have to be cleared out before the operation could get underway once again. A further hindrance was a bitterly cold wind that blew steadily throughout Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Bonfires were built to help keep the teams warm.

Several more rescuers were overcome by the gas and had to be hauled out, but there were no more deaths. As an added precaution against gasses, where the afterdamp was not visibly present, the rescuers took caged canaries in with them. That was an old miner’s trick for detecting many types of hazardous gasses, primarily carbon dioxide. The gasses would affect the birds long before the humans, so when a miner would see that his canary had fallen dead, he knew that it was time to leave quickly.

After the fire was out, the first ten bodies were found and gently carried from the mine. Horribly charred and mutilated, it was instantly evident that these men had been killed instantly. Soon after, two more bodies were found, headless and badly charred, it was impossible to identify them immediately. About 6:00 p.m., twenty more bodies had been located but the recovery team was unable to reach them before much debris was moved. All but the faintest of hopes of finding anyone alive were lost. The afterdamp had penetrated even the farthest reaches of the mine and it continued to hamper the men recovering the bodies. As more of the mine was being ventilated, and they ventured deeper into the mine, the helmeted workers would locate and carry the bodies to an area that had been cleared of the afterdamp, and pass them on to miners without need of breathing helmets. Then, with the aid of horses, the bodies would be carried to the surface.

When the rescuers accepted the fact that none of the miners were coming out alive, rescue shifted to recovery. They needed to find a place to store the remains and to make identifications. The Knights of Pythias Hall was used as a morgue and all the remains were then taken there and placed gently on the floor, with any clothing or belongings that were found near the bodies. Undertakers from area towns flooded in to assist in preparing the bodies for burial. The company had already sent out a mass order for coffins, to be delivered within a few days. 

 A group of children who lost their fathers in the explosion
It took nine days to recover all 172 bodies. Mass funerals were conducted and burials took place in three cemeteries: Price, Helper and the largest number in the Castle Gate cemetery. One man, who was found headless, had to be dug up so his head could be put in the coffin after it was found several days later. On March 24, the sorrowful sound of “Taps” was heard echoing through the canyon as long funeral processions carried dozens of coffins to their final resting places. 

Death benefits were paid by the newly established Utah State Workmen’s Compensation Fund. Each dependent received $5,000 over time, with payments of $16 per week for five years. Several of the very young continued receiving payments well past the five-year cutoff. The company cancelled all of these families’ debts to the company store and gave them ample time to find other lodgings. Governor Charles Mabey used the national press to plead for donations to be sent to help the families. He raised an additional $132,445.13. He then hired a social worker to work with the families to determine how the money would be delegated. 

The Castle Gate No. 2 mine was cleaned, rebuilt and reopened. Coal was pulled from No. 2 until it was closed down for good on February 4, 1960, the same day that Castle Gate No. 4 was opened. 
The mine and the land around it have changed hands several times, with different parcels sold separately.  The land under the town of Castle Gate remained company land until it was sold in 1974.

The town was dismantled and some of the houses were moved to nearby Helper. The remaining 200 Castle Gate residents were relocated to 60 newly built homes in the new Castle Gate subdivision, later absorbed into Helper. The remainder was bulldozed, leaving not the least hint that there ever was a town there. 

Castle Gate is officially listed as a Utah “ghost town” but the truth is that there is nothing much left to see there; just level, graded ground. There are still several of the old mining buildings left from No. 2, but they have fallen into disrepair. At some point over the years, the old mine wheelhouse had a sinister local nickname of The Devil’s Playhouse attached to it, but no one around seems to remember how or why it came to be called that. But they do stay away -- just in case. 

Hopefully most of the miners who died so suddenly and violently that day have gone on to their rest, but at least a handful of the miners who went back to work in No. 2 after the disaster believed that some of the spirits of the dead remained in the mine. The cleanup and rebuilding was all done by experienced miners who knew how to put a mine back together. As they went about their work, they found little mementos and reminders of their lost colleagues mixed in with the rubble. On a few occasions, they were reminded by their friends themselves! Most of the men believed that their old friends were trying to protect them as they did their work, more than once whispering a warning or giving a slight shove that kept them from being harmed by falling rocks or timbers. Although frightening when it happened, none of the miners regretted the protection. 

The story of the Castle Gate Mine (and many others disasters) appears in the book A PALE HORSE WAS DEATH by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse. It’s available in a print edition from the website or as a Kindle and Nook edition. 

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