Scofield Mine Disaster, May 1, 1900

by EMILY JOHNSON

On May 1, 1900, there was an explosion in the Winter Quarters Mine, Number 4 shaft. Winter Quarters mine is west of Scofield, which is located southeast of Provo. The Winter Quarters Mine was a coal mine.  According to A History of Carbon County: “The best possible explanation of the cause of the explosion was the 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.” (Watt, 148-149) Although the explosion involving the ignited coal dust happened in the Number 4 shaft, those who were in the Number 1 mine also were affected because the two mines were connected. Those who died in Number 1 were not killed immediately,  but rather were poisoned by the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. According to J.W. Dilley, author ofHistory of the Scofield Mine Disaster: “Dr. E.B. Isgreen lives in Scofield and has practiced for two years …. He said suffocation by gas may have caused the death of those examined. He noticed in treating some of the miners, who went into the mine later as rescuers, that there was a smell of poisonous odor. Some seemed to have struggled before death came, as the bodies showed great bodily violence.” (Dilley, 55) Because this was a small community comprised mostly of mining families, it had a huge impact on everyone. This also had a huge impact on Utah history in that this mine disaster had the most deaths compared to any other mine disaster in the state. It also was the worst in the country at that time. Many women not only lost husbands, but also sons. It was a devastating time for this community.

My great-grandfather, Emil Isgreen, was working as a doctor in Scofield at this time. He later wrote a journal of his memories from what happened and included many of his findings and personal experiences with the mine disaster. I will compare and contrast the things he wrote about the explosion and what was written in newspapers in the subsequent days.

Isgreen wrote of the devastating effect  that the explosion had on the mothers and wives of the miners. “I went to Edwards Boarding House just across from the railroad track in front of mine no. 1…. Tables and chairs were taken out and already more than 50 dead were lying in rows on the floor while all around them were wives, mothers [and] children crying furiously.” (Isgreen, 2) On May 2,1900, The Deseret News reported on the “Story of  terrible suffering of heart-broken wives, parents, brothers, sisters, and little children…. The lamentations of the bereaved were heard on all the streets and the moans of mothers and piteous cries of many orphans were heartrending in the extreme.”

Isgreen wrote about a young woman who had lost her husband in the mine. He told of walking by the railroad track and seeing a train coming.  “The young bride rushed out onto the middle of the track screaming ‘I want to die. Jimmie I am coming.’ I suddenly dropped my case [and] rushed out and grabbed her and pulled her off the track just in time for the train to cross. She was very angry at me saying ‘I want to die, I want to die.” (Isgreen, 3-4)

This was something that not only affected those who were right there in Scofield but also those who were throughout Utah and even all over the nation. On May 3, 1900, The Deseret News reported  that President Loubet of France had sent a message to President McKinley with his condolences regarding the mining disaster that happened in the Winter Quarters mine.

One thing that the residents of Salt Lake did to show their love and sympathy was to send flowers. On May 3, 1900, the Deseret Newsreported, “It was made known here this morning that a carload of flowers, presumably the gift of the people of Salt Lake, would arrive here tomorrow night. The simple announcement brought tears to many eyes, engulfed in their own sorrow. The stricken ones have scarcely thought of the sympathy that is felt for them all over Utah, and an act like this suddenly awakens in them the thought that their sorrow is shared by others.” Isgreen wrote about this experience in his journal: “An express car completely filled with flowers from Salt Lake, Ogden, Provo, Springville and Price was such an expression of sorrow and sympathy to the bereaved families.” (Isgreen, 6)

Four days after the disaster, The Deseret News reported on the front page the number of miners who had died from the tragedy. “Five brought out this morning and the other four all located, which makes a total of two hundred and fifty corpses.” (May 5, 1900)  In all of my research I have found that this number has been different in every article that I have read.  This number varies from 200 to 250 in contemporaneous newspaper accounts. On May 7, 1900, The Deseret News asked: “Will the number ever be learned? … Dr. Seymour B. Young counted two hundred and two — others who have been on the ground continuously insist upon the number of being dead near two hundred and fifty — News correspondents invariably make a higher count than does the company.” Even within the same newspaper the number is uncertain. Isgreen reported 202 men had died in the mine.

Most of what was being reported was news of the deaths and the sorrow of what was going on within the community. Articles published during the first week of the explosion talk about those who had died. Many articles name the men counted as dead and spoke of the widows and orphans left behind. Many of the people living in Scofield had just had their means of support taken from them. Support funds were set up for the widows and orphans. On May 15, 1900, the Salt Lake Mining Reviewreported, “Prompt aid and assistance on the part of the kind-hearted and generous people of the state robbed the situation of some of its terrors but it will take time to soothe and comfort the afflicted ones and to erase from their memory the horrible fate which overtook their loved ones.” TheDeseret News names many of the different organizations that were raising money for relief. Of those that were reported was a charity concert given at the Tabernacle, Richfield Commercial and Savings bank, Ladies of Provo, Evanston’s Odd Fellows, Arizona Lumber and Timber company and many more. (May 9, 1900) 

One thing that was not widely publicized in the newspapers was the cause of the explosion. However, a short article published in The Deseret News on May 4, 1900, reported that “State Mine Inspector Thomas Says There Was Neglect.” Gomer Thomas, the mine inspector, is quoted in the article as saying: “This accident was caused by neglect of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company. … There has been considerable carelessness. The dust in tunnel No. 4 and the various cross-entries and ‘rooms’ should have been sprinkled with water. Had that been done none could have arisen to be ignited.  … Consequently there should have been greater precaution taken ….” Isgreen wrote in his memoir what he felt was the cause of the deaths of the miners. He described how some had died of carbon dioxide poisoning and others had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He wrote five lessons to be learned from this explosion. “1st — dry coal miners should be sprinkled. 2nd — moist air should be pumped in. 3rd — all men must be kept out of the mine when dynamite charges are set off. 4th — miner’s  headlights are to be safe. 5th — the purity of the air to be regularly tested.” (Isgreen, 10)     

In every instance of reporting from this explosion we can see that it was a devastating thing to happen to the community and the state. I found that for the most part the reporting from both my great-grandfather and fromThe Deseret News was the same. There were some small differences, but overall it was a true report of what was going on at that time. I was interested to see the personal way of writing; the newspaper listed names and told the stories of the people who had been killed. In today’s reporting we get the facts but many times leave our hearts out of reporting. I felt as I read the many articles that it had the potential to be a personal experience for everyone who was reading the articles. To me this has a great significance for communication history because it shows how history was reported and even more importantly how we have changed over the years.  To me this shows that our society has become detached and not as caring about the details. But also from their style of reporting, you can see that the problems were not necessarily addressed. And when the investigative reporting was addressed it was in a small article. This shows that it is good to have the stories in the articles but because the investigative reporting was not up to par at this time we might be missing some of the important details that could be beneficial to us in this day.

One struggle that I had with writing this paper was that many of the newspapers did not go back to 1900. Some newspapers went further back than 1900, but for some reason the year 1900 was missing from the archives. I felt that it made my research difficult in that I got almost all of my primary resource information from The Deseret News. This made it difficult to find variety in my research. One source that I was planning on relying on, The Salt Lake Tribune/ Salt Lake Telegram did not have the year 1900 for me to look up. I felt that the broad scope that I wanted to have became narrow and limited. 

Emily Johnson Keyes graduated in May 2010 with a bachelor of science in mass communication from The University of Utah.

Sources

Journal of Emil Isgreen, author’s collection.

“Death’s Awful Harvest At Winter Quarters,” The Deseret News, May 2, 1900, 1.

“Sympathy of France,” The Deseret News, May 3, 1900, 1.

“Terrible Mutilation,” The Deseret News, May 3, 1900, 1.

“State Mine Inspector Thomas Says There Was Neglect,” The Deseret News, May 4, 1900, 1.

“All the Miners’ Bodies Are Found,” The Deseret News, May 5, 1900, 1.

“Will The Number Ever Be Learned,” The Deseret News, May 7, 1900, 1.

“Efforts for the Fund,” The Deseret News, May 9, 1900, 1.

“The Mining Review,” Salt Lake Mining Review, May 15, 1900, 6.

Ronald G. Watt. A History of Carbon County. Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1997.

J.W. Dilley, J.W. History of the Scofield Mine Disaster. Provo, Utah: Skelton, 1900.

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