Bonanza Mine Disaster 1903

Privacy Level: Public (Green)
Date: 20 Nov 1903 [unknown]
Location: Bonanza, Arkansasmap
Surnames/tags: Mining_Disasters Arkansas Disasters
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Disasters | Mining Disasters | United States Mining Disasters | Southeast United States Mining Disasters | Bonanza Mine Disaster
Contact: United States Mining Disasters


History and Circumstances

  • Date: Nov 20, 1903
  • Location: Bonanza, Arkansas
  • Victims: 13 casualties (11 bodies recovered and identified in reports)
  • Cause: Explosion

Bonanza roots date back to the discovery of coal in the Arkansas-Oklahoma line. The Central and Coke Company laid tracks to the area, and in 1896, as the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway, began operating in the area. Bonanza sprang up as a company town. By the time Bonanza was incorporated as a town in 1898, there were already many mines in the area (Mine #10, Mine #12, Mine #20, and Mine #26). The town lay about 8 miles south of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and as mines were opened, people began to arrive into the area for jobs, many of them immigrants. By 1900, coal in the county had entered its peak years. Almost every family in the county had someone working for the coal company, or supplying goods or services to them. Although coal mining provided good income for families, there were downsides to working in the industry.

Bonanza No. 20 was one of the deepest mines in Arkansas. From the shaft-wheel to the bottom of the sump, it was 358 feet. It was also one of the finest equipped mines in the country, with all the up-to-date equipment. The mine opened around January 1900 and was in constant work since that time. The mine was owned by the Central Coal and Coke Company, who operated mines throughout Arkansas.

In the mine itself, there was about 2,000 feet of track for conveying the coal from all parts of the mine to the shaft. The thickness of the vein was from 3 1/2 to 4 feet. It was estimated that about 15 acres of coal had already been removed.

One of the mine's interesting features was that mules were used in the mine. When they were taken down, they never returned to the surface, unless they were crippled, killed or died. They kept a stable in one part of the mine, where stalls were located with feed boxes like you would find in any stable. A wooden floor was built for them to lay on in the stables to make them comfortable and dry.

Rescue Efforts

On Tuesday, November 24, 1903, it probably seemed like any other day. About hundred and seventy-five workers were in the mine working when a fire damp (fire damp is an flammable gas found in coal mines, typically coal-bed methane) explosion rocked the mine around one o'clock in the afternoon. The force of the explosion was terrific, timbers were torn from the walls for several hundred yards at the mouth of entry "K".

Most of the miners were able to escape from the mine, but those working in entry "K" where the explosion occurred were trapped.

Rescue efforts to find the men trapped inside were tedious and difficult, because the passageways were completely blocked from the explosion. Every able-bodied man and boy in the company's employ alongside volunteers participated in rescue efforts. It would be several hours of backbreaking work to clear the shaft before the first bodies were found. Around three p.m., the first of five men were found dead and taken out of the mine. They were Bob Drysdale, Mike Walkie, Ira Strickland, William Doyle Moore, and Bruce John Brown, grandpa, father of Pit Boss Louis Brown.

The others trapped in the mind remained unknown. Initial reports were fourteen men missing, but the exact number of people in the mine was unknown, so the true number of those trapped was speculative. Nevertheless, the work of searching and taking out the bodies amidst the mass of debris continued. Hope of finding survivors diminished, as those brought out were in some cases severely burned and difficult to identify.

The scenes outside the mine were heartbreaking and difficult to witness, as hundreds of women and children were harshly exposed to the fear and calamity of grown men involved in the rescue, giving way to their feelings and grieving in the open with sobs and wailing of horrors being revealed. There was no one at the scene who was not immediately impacted by the fear of what was yet to come while dealing with the fate of those found. Many of them bonded by ties of blood or friendship. One can only imagine the difficulty of waiting to hear any news about your loved ones, while having to bear the grief of those around you hearing the news of loved ones lost. The whole camp at No. 20 was oppressed with fearful calamity.

As work continued, more bodies were brought out of the mine. William Kehoe, John Wesley Pettit, Fred Arnold, Joe Carr, Paul Walton, and Paul Witton. All the men working in entry "K" were killed, where it was thought the explosion occurred. They were all either killed from the blast, gas or black damp (suffocating mixture of carbon dioxide and other unbreathable gases). The official death toll was set at thirteen when the rescue efforts were complete. Initially, it was thought fourteen were trapped. Two of the men who died in the explosion cannot be identified now, as they were new men. There appears to be some doubt about which of them were sent into entry K. Their names may never be known to us.

Results and Findings

The explosion was thought to have occurred from an open lamp igniting the gas in the mine.

The coroner opened an inquest to investigate the cause of the explosion, after reports circulated about the gas explosion and the negligence of the company in not properly providing safe working conditions for the men working in entry "K".

In the inquest, State Mining Inspector Rafferty testified he recently examined the mine, and he had complimented the pit boss on its excellent condition. He also said there was no accumulation of gas and the mine had good ventilation. Inspector Rafferty's theory was that an accidental shot caused the explosion to fire in room eleven, which blew out the curtain and shut off the air supply, suffocating all but three men. He also suggested a committee of disinterested men were sent into the mine to make an inspection. Fire Boss Jim Mullen of the Cherokee Construction Company for mines at Montreal, and Fire Boss Jim Pudlas from Mine No. 18 in Jenny Lind. Both of these men testified in the inquest that the mine was free from gas and perfect ventilation. Therefore, agreeing with Inspector Rafferty's theory of the explosion. The coroner inquest concluded in the face of testimony, provided there was only one verdict the jury could render. In this inquest, he stated "It has been reported that room had been marked on account of an accumulation of gas. This is not true as the air in that room is as pure as that in any other."

The inquest returned a verdict exonerating the Central Coal and Coke Company from any blame in connection with the accident. Colonel Ira D. Oglesby brought the news of the finding to families and residences of Bonanza. The residents of the community were not satisfied with the expressed opinions of Mine Inspector Rafferty or the results of the coroner's inquest.


Name Sourced Bio Connected Category
Robert Drysdale Yes Yea Yes died in explosion
Ira James Strickland Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
William V. Kehoe Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
Michael Walkie Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
William Doyle Moore Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
John Wesley Pettit Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
Fred Arnold Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
Joe Carr No No No died in explosion
Paul Walton No No No died in explosion
Johann Andreas Braun Yes Yes Yes died in explosion
Paul Witten No No No died in explosion



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