Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, September 1995
Throughout history mining has been perceived as a distinctly male profession. Though women have been part of mining communities as boardinghouse keepers and cooks, few have achieved administrative or labor positions in mining. Desdemona Stott Beeson was an exception to the rule. Determined and ambitious, she combated social expectations and became a well-respected operator and engineer of several mines in Utah.
As a child Desdemona was fascinated by the silver mines in her home town of Eureka, Utah. Born in 1897 she grew up during the town’s peak mining era. Since most of her male relatives and friends were involved in the mining industry, she would often tag along to explore the mines. Her brother once took her to the Iron Blossom No. 3 mine to show her a new cavity of native silver. The experience left a lasting memory for Desdemona of the beauty of the underground world. Encouraged to see more, the young girl gained permission from the manager of the Gemini shaft to ride the rail car down with the morning shift. She spent hours watching the men hammer into the surface of the rocks. Later, she dated a young foreman who let her spend evenings in the Mammoth mine while he worked. No matter what the occasion, she was in the mines every chance she could get.
After graduating from high school, Desdemona left Eureka and the mines for several years to attend the University of Utah. Though she wanted to study engineering and geology, she was encouraged by her parents and professors to accept a discipline they considered more appropriate to her gender. Half-heartedly she pursued a degree in psychology. After graduation, however, she moved to the mining town of Alta to live with her brother and his wife.
It was in Alta that she met her future husband. Joseph Beeson was a Stanford-educated geologist that had been hired by a local company to examine ore deposits in the region. Not long after the couple was married in 1917, Joseph discovered a large ore body in the Emma Mine. He and Desdemona managed the mine for nearly a year. But soon the Emma Mining Company went bankrupt due to excessive stock promotion. The Beesons’ first year of marriage was one of financial strain. Luckily, new opportunities opened with the outbreak of the First World War. Joseph enlisted to serve in the military and was sent to Europe as an army engineer at the end of 1917. During her husband’s absence Desdemona was able to pursue her studies in mining engineering and geology at Stanford University. The intense year of study gave her skills and expertise that were invaluable to her future career. But, like the other women in her field, she had to fight to maintain respect among the male faculty and staff.
Fortunately, she was up for the fight. After a year and a half of struggle at Stanford, Desdemona entered the mining profession with a confidence that demanded respect. In 1918 she joined her husband in an independent mining venture in Bingham, Utah. Though some miners objected to having their paychecks signed by a woman, Desdemona continued to run the mine when her husband was busy with geologic consulting. She maintained her managerial role when the family moved several years later to run a mine in Jarbidge, Nevada. At one point the miners went on strike to demand their pay include travel time to the mine each morning. Aware that Nevada practices differed from those in Utah, Desdemona drove 100 miles to Elko to study Nevada law. She discovered a law that defined pay periods as not including travel time. She drove back to Jarbidge and nailed the statute to the door with a statement that she would fire anyone who refused to work in the morning. The strike ended the next day.
Determined and motivated, she always made mining her first priority. While working at the Bingham Prospect mine, Desdemona got such a severe case of sunstroke that she was briefly hospitalized. Though weak, she returned to work several days later. When Joseph took a position at the Park City Consolidated Venture, a lot of initial work was required to start the operation of the mine. Though pregnant, she carried large posts to help with construction. While exploring an old mine near St. George in the 1940s, she was hit by a boulder and broke her neck. She quickly recovered and returned to work in a neck brace.
Though female workers were often restricted from going underground, she entered the mines to supervise her workers. On one occasion, Desdemona gave a scathing lecture to a diamond drill crew that had made a major error. She fired a husky workman for using a shovel to catch the drill sludge. When he refused to leave, she said, “You get out of here or I’ll wrap that shovel around your neck.” Nevertheless, she was often refused permission to tour underground mines when she traveled to surrounding areas with her husband.
Desdemona also faced discrimination when she and her family moved to Washington in the late 1930s. The Office of Price Administration had offered Joseph a position to govern appropriations for lead and zinc mines. But for several years she could not find work. Finally, U.S. involvement in World War II opened many positions to women that were formerly filled by men. She took a job in the Foreign Economic Administration monitoring world metal and uranium production. Though skilled and competent, she lost her position when the war ended in 1945. When told she could remain as a secretary, she decided to quit. Not long afterward the family moved to Utah to manage a mine near St. George.
During the 1950s the Beesons returned to Alta where they had first met to pursue their last mining venture together. They managed the Cardiff Mine for more than ten years until development of the Snowbird ski resort began a new era. The retired couple became involved in the Utah Geological Society and became favorite speakers at meetings of local organizations.
Desdemona Beeson died in Salt Lake City on July 8, 1976. Through her daily actions and achievements, she demonstrated that women can pursue their goals. She pioneered a place for women in business and with remarkable grit proved that they could have a role in mining.
Sources: Laurence P. James and Sandra C. Taylor, “‘Strong Minded Women’: Desdemona Stott Beeson and Other Hard Rock Mining Entrepreneurs,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (1978); Salt Lake Tribune, July 10, 1976.