When the evening news reported a week ago Saturday that for two days there had been no signs of life from the nine men trapped in Pennsylvania's Black Wolf Mine, those who know mining and its history hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.
"It's probably wet, cold and dark," a mine safety official said. "Coal miners are a special breed. If anybody can get through it, a coal miner can."
News of the disaster hit home to a lot of our state's hard-working miners and recalled haunting memories of Utah's past. It served as a reminder that everything we eat, drink, wear and drive has to be grown and harvested, or dug out of the ground--and that it's working people like farmers, lumberjacks, ranchers and miners who are the ultimate source of the world's wealth.
Of all working-class heroes, miners labor under the most difficult and dangerous conditions. Coal has been vital to Utah since the Mormons showed up. One of the bits of information Jim Bridger gave them about the Great Basin in 1847 was that "coal is very common."
Since there was little firewood in the Salt Lake Valley, the pioneers voted to have Almon Williams "oversee the making of a Coal Pit" the day before Brigham Young arrived. Unfortunately, coal proved harder to find than Bridger had indicated, and in 1854 the territorial Legislature offered a reward to anyone who could discover the first workable coal deposits within 40 miles of Salt Lake. No one claimed the prize, but coal discovered in the early 1860s gave Coalville its name.
The Mormon pioneers developed the deposits and eventually sold them to Union Pacific after completion of the transcontinental railroad. The UP monopolized the business until 1881, when the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad arrived in Carbon County. Utahns hoped this would break the UP's stranglehold on the coal business, but the D&RG simply established its own monopoly.
Miners launched their first strike at Winter Quarters in 1883 and battled for a half-century to protect their rights. For years, they endured brutal living and working conditions that led to the Winter Quarters disaster that killed 200 men and boys in 1900, many of them Finnish immigrants. It is still America's fourth-worst mining tragedy. (The worst disaster killed 362 at Monongah, W.Va., in 1907.)
To break the strikes that followed the Winter Quarters disaster, Rio Grande agents recruited miners from Italy, Greece, the Balkans, China, Japan and Mexico to work their holdings in Carbon and Emery counties. The immigrants soon joined the union movement.
Utah workers were still fighting for union representation in 1924 when an explosion at the Castle Gate Mine killed 172 miners. It took President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the Wagner Act before Utah miners finally won the right to unionize in 1935.
According to James Whiteside's Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry, 1,265 Utahns died in coal-mine disasters between 1893 and 1980. Twenty-seven miners lost their lives in a fire at the Wilberg Mine in December 1984, and in July 2000 a methane gas explosion at the Willow Creek Mine in Carbon County claimed the lives of two miners and injured eight more.
More than 50 percent of America's electrical power is generated from coal. Next time you switch on a light, remember that the comfort and convenience of modern life costs a lot more than the dollars we send to Utah Power every month.
Coal country historians Phil Notarianni, Nancy Taniguchi and Floyd O'Neil provided historian Will Bagley with information for this column.