Monday, September 16, 2013

Black Gold

Written by Karen.
The Smith Mine. Montana.  We quickly put the two pieces of the puzzle together as we saw the small memorial sign up ahead and pulled over.  There wasn’t much room alongside the two-laned highway, but we found a little patch of gravely-dirt and stopped.  

Coal mining is a tough business.  While we were in Lusk, Wyoming, we had the time to get to know some people who earned their living in and around the coal mining industry: driving support and supply trucks; performing administrative work in offices; or actually working inside the coal mines. “You gotta do what you gotta do”, several people told me during the course of our conversations.  “There’s not many jobs out here, and I gotta feed my family.”

In both Wyoming and Montana, we saw ample evidence of continued mining activity. It remains an important revenue stream for both the state coffers and for the thousands of people who make their living in the mining industry.

The Smith Mine was part of the Bear Creek coal field, which is part of the Fort Union Foundation.  It is estimated that the Fort Union Foundation contains over 200 billion tons of coal in eastern and central Montana. 

The Montana Coal and Iron Company began to seriously develop the Smith Mine after the railroad arrived to the area in the early 1900’s.  In 1907, the Smith Mine was producing 8,000 tons of coal a year.

By 1943, miners at the Smith Mine were working three shifts a day, six days a week to produce almost 500,000 tons of coal a year.  According to the Montana Coal and Iron Company, this level of production was necessary ‘to meet the coal needs of a nation at war.’

However, safety issues lagged behind. At the time of the Smith Mine disaster, many of the miners still used open-flame carbide headlamps.  With inadequate ventilation in the mine shafts and coal dust piling up, it seemed inevitable that a methane gas explosion would occur.  It did.  

On February 27, 1943, a methane gas explosion rocked the Smith Mine #3 and killed 74 miners below the earth’s surface. It was the worst underground coal mining accident in the history of Montana.

We read the memorial and stare across the waving green grasses at the ghostly remains of what was the Smith Mine.  The facts of how this underground disaster happened are laid out in detail and the 39 corrugated metal structures that mark the site of the Smith Mine are clearly seen.  However, it is the poignancy of the following words written by two trapped miners that waited underground for the dangerous gases that would eventually kill them that hit home and stuck deep.  

“Walter and Johnny.  Good-bye. Wives and daughters.  We died an easy death.  Love from us both.  Be good.”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a blog entry that combines economic reality with the ever present dangers with which coal miners and their families must live.
Steve S.

Observers of Life said...

Hey Steve! Thanks!