The Scofield Mine Explosion

by JESSIE WARMOTH

On the morning of May 1, 1900, the most deadly explosion the United States had witnessed up until that point tore through the Winter Quarters Mine in Utah. The coal mine, owned by the Pleasant Valley Coal Company of Carbon County, was located just west of Scofield. Work at the mine provided the incomes for many of the families in the area. The explosion occurred when a significant amount of coal dust in the tunnels caught fire, resulting in the deaths of at least 200 men and young boys.

According to Floyd A. O’Neil, author of “Utah’s Twentieth Century History: Reprise and Nostrums,” published in the Utah Historical Quarterly in spring 2006, “It was one of the worst mining disasters in the history of the nation and the worst in Utah’s history.” (O’Neil, 6) Among the dead were 20 boys and 61 Finnish immigrants. O’Neil also noted that caskets holding the bodies of the deceased were gathered at the Scofield train station to be sent home to their families for burial. (O’Neil, 6)

Many of the deaths were not caused by the explosion itself, but by the carbon monoxide gas that was released in the blast. Some of the men trying to escape made their way through the Number Four mine, the quickest way out of the mines, but were suffocated before they could reach the opening. A similar incident took place seven years later, when a West Virginia coal mine exploded causing the deaths of 362 men and boys. According to an online article published by Boise State University, titled “Monongah Mining Disaster,” that explosion disrupted the ventilation system and also blocked several mine entrances, causing poisonous gas to accumulate and remain trapped within the tunnels.

According to an article published on the Utah History Encyclopedia Web site, families grieving the losses of their fathers, grandfathers, and sons each received $500 from the Pleasant Valley Coal Company as compensation, and were also supplied with the coffins and burial clothes for their dead. As an added contribution, the mining company forgave $8,000 of the debt incurred by the miners at the company store. (Powell)

The media coverage had a tremendous effect on the community’s response to the mine tragedy. The Deseret News, as well as other news sources, brought reports of the disaster into American homes and helped to create a strong sense of community in the area. Perhaps most important was the media’s ability to spread awareness. Newspapers at the time not only gave details about the incident, but also painted a vivid picture of the grief and destruction that the affected families faced.

The Deseret News, a Utah newspaper, tirelessly covered the events of the tragedy as they unfolded. Readers of the paper could find news about the funeral plans, fundraising efforts, and the struggling families of the dead miners. Reporters captured the suffering caused by the explosion by using both eloquent and stirring language to describe the scene.

In an article titled, “Agony of Bereaved,” published May 4, 1900, it was stated that, “Death’s winding sheet seems to envelop Scofield this morning. Every house, without exception, is a house of mourning and every household is preparing to receive its dead.” The article also added this description: “The awful scene of yesterday had passed away when the sun dawned this morning and the awful calm of despair had taken its place. The agonizing shrieks of the widows and the moans of the fatherless were no longer heard.”

The detail and imagery used in many of the newspaper articles, like the one mentioned, likely influenced the public to feel sympathy for the grieving widows and children. Donations and fundraisers continued for months after the disaster. An article published in the June 5, 1900, Deseret News stated, “Philanthropic ladies raise nearly one thousand dollars more,” referring to a ladies group that was still meeting to collect money for the mine victims’ families. Also influential in the public’s willingness to give were the petitions of the Utah governor of the time, Heber M. Wells, for support of the grieving community. According to an article in the Deseret News published May 8, 1900, Governor Wells quickly established a relief committee to aid the families of the deceased. He also made an eloquent appeal to Utahns, and later one to the whole American public, to be generous in their support for the poor Utah women and children.

Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also encouraged support. An article, titled “Jordan Stake Conference,” published May 8, 1900, in the Deseret News recorded the speech of Apostle Brigham Young, in which he stated that those of the faith “should be liberal in their donations to the bereaved in order that the cries of the widows and orphans should not go unheeded.”

People everywhere wanted to know more about the disaster and to find out what was going to be done to help the community. In a May 8, 1900, article, “Agony of the Bereaved,” the Deseret News reported, “All along the line of travel the people are greatly agitated over the mine disaster; papers are in such demand that five times their price has been refused; they are read aloud to listening groups at the post offices.” The news of the tragedy was also far reaching. Within the days following the disaster, the news had reached the White House. According to the May 4, 1900, edition of the Deseret News, President McKinley sent a telegram to Governor Wells on May 3, expressing his sorrow over the tragedy.

News of the mine disaster also helped to make the public aware of the plight of the widows and orphans created by the explosion. Many of the families were left without a means of support. Perhaps even more problematic was the fact that a great many of the women had immigrated with their husbands and could not speak English. Thus they were left isolated in a foreign land without the support of relatives or close friends. According to a Deseret News article published May 8, 1900, a 21-year-old immigrant woman proclaimed upon watching the coffin of her husband being lowered into its grave, “What will become of me? I am alone. I have no relatives in America, nowhere to go. They cannot give them back to me and I only want to die.”

The Scofield Mine Disaster was one of the most damaging coal mining tragedies in the United States. On the surface, the incident was the cause of grief and major losses for the wives and children from Manti to Coalville. It cost families both their livelihoods and their only means of assimilation into a foreign society. However, the common grief caused by such a massive loss helped to create a stronger sense of community. Newspapers like the Deseret News vividly described the days that passed between the first news of the explosion, and the heart wrenching funeral services where the dead found their final resting places. Both Utahns and those living outside the state were touched by the stories of the women and children struggling to accept their losses. They were quick to offer their support and their sympathies. The newspaper offered a means for connectedness to exist among those affected and those interested in the story of the mine. The Deseret News provided a vantage point from which those affected could step back and see the bigger picture of what had happened. It also created a road map for outsiders to follow along and have an understanding of what was going on in the Scofield area in the aftermath of the explosion. Thus, the paper was critical in not only chronicling the event in history, but also in shaping the public view of what had taken place May 1, 1900.

Jessie Warmoth is a senior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication.

Sources

“Agony of Bereaved,” The Deseret News, May 4, 1900, 3.

“Arrival of the Dead – A Fortunate Misfortune,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 8.

“Eleven Coalville Citizens Among the Victims – Escape,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 7.

“God Help Her,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 5.

“Jordan Stake Conference,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 5.

“Last Rites at Ogden,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 5.

“McKinley Extends His Sympathy,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 5.

“Official Report on Mine Disaster,” The Deseret News, June 5, 1900, 7.

“Scofield Fund Increased,” The Deseret News, June 5, 1900, 5.

“Utah Now Appeals to the Nation,” The Deseret News, May 8, 1900, 6.

Yvette D. Ison. “The Scofield Mine Disaster in 1900 Was Utah’s Worst.” Utah’s History to Go. State of Utah, 1995.

Floyd A. O’Neil. “Utah’s Twentieth Century History: Reprise and Nostrum,” Utah Historical Quarterly (Spring 2006): 6.

Allan Kent Powell. “Scofield Mine Disaster.” Utah History Encyclopedia.

My Darling Clementine.” Monongah Mining Disaster. Boise State University.

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