Reliving the 1942 Mount Harris coal mine explosion
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Clad in coveralls, a hard hat and with soot on her cheeks, Sara Sweeney stood in front of a packed house at Butcherknife Brewing Company April 4 and held her phone up to a microphone, emitting a chilling wail like that of an emergency siren.
Sweeney is the intern at the Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat Springs, and the siren (can you hear it?) served as a dramatic introduction to her talk about the tragic coal mine disaster of Jan. 27, 1942.
That was the night 34 miners died in an explosion at the Victor American Fuel Company’s Wadge Mine outside Mt. Harris between Steamboat Springs and Hayden. Newspapers across the country reported it was Colorado’s worst coal mine disaster in 25 years. Only four miners survived the blast.
In her research, Sweeney was able to talk to a woman, Eunice Wilson, who was born in Mt. Harris in the 1940s and was too young to have experienced the aftermath of the 1942 explosion but understood what it meant when the siren sounded.
“When they would have an explosion, the horn would blow. You could hear it and not know how many people were killed,” Wilson told Sweeney in a telephone conversation. “I remember when there was a cave-in, that horrible horn would blow, and the whole town would react. You know, they cared about everyone, but really most were concerned about their own fathers and husbands.”
The explosion occurred at about 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night when the night shift was at work about 3,300 feet into the mine shaft. Two days after the explosion, the Steamboat Pilot reported that the chief state mining inspector theorized that coal torn from the wall of the mine shaft opened a dike that emitted methane gas, which mixed with oxygen with horrible effect. Another possibility was that an electric coal trolley emitted a spark that ignited the gas.
Sweeney described the gruesome conditions of the corpses: “All of them were completely blackened, their clothes burned off.”
Many of the dead men were married with children.
Because the explosion left the mine shaft filled with carbon dioxide, it wasn’t until the next day that the bodies of the dead men, burned so badly that identification was very difficult, were recovered. Others among the dead had succumbed to carbon dioxide just feet from an escape route.
All signs of Mt. Harris have disappeared
“In 1920, Mt. Harris had a bigger population than Steamboat,” Sweeney told her audience at Butcherknife during the museum’s History Happy Hour event.
The buildings were owned exclusively by the companies, including Victor American Mine and the Colorado Utah Coal Mining Company. The mining companies owned the churches, and they owned the homes where the miners lived.
The mining companies provided two baseball diamonds, a band shell and the biggest drug store in Routt County, Sweeney said. In winters, the baseball field was turned into an ice skating rink.
If there was a downside that rankled mining families, it’s that they were issued “script,” a form of compensation that was good only at the company stores in Mt. Harris.
“A lot of the miners paid in store credit,” Sweeney said. “They’d end up spending money or script, they didn’t have, so they were in debt their first week (on the job). Rightfully so, it made the miners very angry, but that wasn’t the only thing that made them mad. It was the working conditions.”
Pay for the miners finally increased in 1933, when the United Mine Workers formed a union.
But the mines at Mt. Harris were not designed to be adaptable to emerging mining technology. In May 1958, the entire town was auctioned off, and everything of value was carried away. Even the houses were moved to Craig, Hayden and Steamboat.
Sweeney told her audience that descendants of Mount Harris miners still gather annually at the town site.
“There’s nothing there but grass and grazing cows,” Sweeney said. “It lives on in their hearts but also in ours.”