Explosion of Pleasant Valley Coal Company

Ronald G. Watt
History of Carbon County

Roof collapses and falling rock were the leading cause of single injuries and death in the coal mines of Carbon County. In April 1898 coal and rock struck a young unnamed man in the Castle Gate Mine. On 3 October 1900 John Marriotti was killed in the mine at Castle Gate; he left a wife and five children. In November 1902 John Maskei, a thirty-one-year-old Slovenian who had only been in America for eight years, was killed at Winter Quarters. In July 1905 William K. Brown filed suit against Utah Fuel Company for $15,000 for injuries received while employed in Castle Gate. In 1907 various accidents killed eight men in the mines; eleven were seriously injured and seventy-one were hurt less seriously. Of the eleven fatalities in the Utah Industrial Commission reports in 1922, falling coal or roof collapses caused five deaths. William Rees died at the Liberty Mine when falling rock from the roof killed him instantly. Loose coal falling on Ira Jones caused his death; and Joseph Kicks died at Sunnyside from coal crushing his head. When sounding the roof at the Standard Coal Company mine, rock fell on George Berkley, resulting in his death. George Stamitalas (or Stamos) died after suffering several hours from a crushed chest and pelvis when a slab of cap rock fell on him.

These accidents were made more tragic by what many considered to be the callous attitude toward the miners by their employers. To the companies, men were expendable. They could always find more workers, especially since they could hire foreign coal miners from Italy, Greece, and other places in southern Europe and Asia. Miners often compared their status to that of company-owned horses that hauled coal cars inside the mines. Because the company had to expend money to acquire and take care of its horses, however, they became more valuable, at least economically, than the men who mined the coal. The death of an animal affected the company’s ledger, but the death of a miner did not. The accidental death of a horse or mule in the mine usually meant the instant firing of the man who was responsible for that animal.

While the death of a single miner brought little attention from the outside world about the dangers of coal mining, tragedies like the Winter Quarters explosion and the Castle Gate mine disaster drew close attention to the plight of miners and the need for stronger safety measures. Public dismay over the loss of scores of men added problems for companies that were already faced with economic losses when mines were closed, equipment destroyed, and a new work force that had to be recruited as a result of such tragedies.

Large-scale explosions in the mines of Carbon County were not common until the year 1900. On 22 March 1900 a large explosion shook Castle Gate Mine causing extensive damage; but this explosion took place after all the men had left the mine. A few weeks later, on 1 May at Winter Quarters, a day when the community was preparing for a dance, at 10:28 a.m. a gigantic explosion shook the mountainside. At first families thought it was something to do with the celebration that evening, but they soon realized that Winter Quarters No. 1 and No. 4 mines, owned by the Pleasant Valley Coal Company, had exploded. People rushed to the mine portal.

Only a few miners survived. Thomas Pugh, who was only fifteen years old and working in the mine, seized his hat in his teeth and ran for the entrance of the No. 1 Mine, a mile and a half from his work area. He fainted when he reached it. Pugh’s father, William, died at the place where Thomas began running. The first rescue party recovered Harry Betterson still alive, but he died that evening. The explosion threw James Naylor 200 feet, but he was uninjured and was able to aid in rescue attempts. The explosion carried John Wilson 820 feet, with part of his skull crushed and with a stick driven into his abdomen. Wilson later recovered from his serious injuries. After the explosion, Roderick Davis left the mine uninjured but was overcome by gas when he returned to the mine with a rescue party. Presumed dead by the rescue party, Davis was loaded into a mining car, but he revived when his body was being washed in preparation for burial.

Rescue parties worked around the clock and well into the following morning. During the next few days, men from Clear Creek, Castle Gate, and Sunnyside arrived at Winter Quarters to help with the rescue work. By 6 May all recoverable bodies were out of the mine. The official count by the company was 200 dead; but some miners counted 246. Sixty-two of the dead were Finns.

The rescuers brought the dead out of the No. 1 Mine in mining cars. Those who had been burned badly were brought out in sacks. The bodies were then placed at the mine entrance where others removed their clothing, cleaned soot and powder burns from their faces, clothed them in long robes, and then took them to the company boarding house. C.L. Nix, a Pleasant Valley Coal Company employee, initially identified many of the bodies. Family members identified them at the boarding house. The explosion burned or mutilated some of the bodies beyond recognition, which caused problems with identification. In a few cases, the wrong bodies were buried in graves.

The Pleasant Valley Coal Company store furnished burial clothes selected by the wives, many of whom were in shock. Salt Lake City shipped 125 coffins to Winter Quarters and seventy-five more came from Denver. Because of the limited number of men in Pleasant Valley, men from Provo came to dig the graves. Altogether the company buried 125 men in Scofield, where Finnish Lutheran minister A. Granholm conducted a burial service for his countrymen. Then four Mormon general authorities—George Teasdale, Reed Smoot, Heber J. Grant, and Seymour B. Young—conducted a Mormon funeral service. Reed Smoot counseled the survivors to make no demands on the company. The coal company shipped the remaining bodies to their relatives in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, Coalville, Springville, American Fork, Eureka, Richfield, Price, and other small towns in Utah.

Abe Louma and his wife, who had arrived from Finland only three months before, had seven sons and three grandsons killed in the explosion. Eleven members of the extended Hunter family died at Winter Quarters that day. The Logan newspaper the Tri-Weekly called on Governor Heber M. Wells to convene a special session of the legislature in order to help the widows and fatherless children. Representative William H. King met with the leading members of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., to discuss federal relief for the widows and orphans. In both the state and the nation, the representatives expressed sympathy but opposed aid. Finally each widow had to sue the Pleasant Valley Coal Company. The courts eventually awarded the women $500 each minus thirty-three dollars for court fees. The company also erased all of the family’s debts from the company store and paid burial costs. Various communities in Utah organized local committees which helped raise money for the families. Donations also came from other parts of the nation, including San Francisco. The people of Pleasant Valley reciprocated six years later, taking up a collection for the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Altogether, from the company and the communities, donations to the victims of Winter Quarters totaled $216,289.81.

The Finnish miners, who had been highly respected in the community before the explosion, received a lot of negative publicity. Because of their superstitions, they would not help in the rescue operation, and they expected the company to take care of the burials, which it finally did. A few Finns were caught stealing clothes that had been taken off of the dead miners. Later, Superintendent T.J. Parmley falsely believed that the Finns had taken more explosives into the mine than was allowed in order to load more coal and make more money.

The best possible explanation of the cause of the explosion was that coal dust had not been kept at a safe level. The state inspector’s report stated that one miner accidentally ignited a keg of black powder in the mine which ignited the coal dust. Years after the Winter Quarters disaster, William Boweter, a survivor of the Winter Quarters explosion, told Stan Harvey that prior to the explosion he was working in a room adjacent to two miners who said they were going to shoot down some coal. The wall between their room and the next room was thinner than they expected, and when the powder ignited it blew down the wall, with the coal dust igniting into a ball of rolling fire. This explosion set off a chain reaction that caused damage, death, and sorrow throughout the small community.

After the disaster at Winter Quarters in 1900, mining companies began training first-aid squads in safety procedures. After each mine disaster, both state and federal governments began regulating coal mines, and coal companies inched forward in providing mine safety.

Sources: Eastern Utah Advocate, 11 October 1900, 27 November 1902, 27 July 1905, 2 January 1908. John Crawford, “Coal Mine Fatalities,” in Bulletin No. 4 of the Industrial Commission of Utah, 1922–1924 (Salt Lake City: State of Utah, n.d.). Harry Mangus, oral interview by Nancy Taniguchi, 26 December 1986, Utah State Historical Society. Powell, The Next Time We Strike, 27–29. Helen Z. Papanikolas, “Utah’s Coal Lands: A Vital Example of How America Became a Great Nation,” Utah Historical Quarterly 43: 104–24. Powell, The Next Time We Strike, 30. Ibid., 31. J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo: Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 55–56. Powell, The Next Time We Strike, 32-33. Ibid., 33–36. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster, 12. Alan Kent Powell, “Tragedy at Scofield,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (Spring 1973): 182–94.