Location: Bearcreek, Carbon County, Montana
Surnames/tags: Mining_Disasters Montana Disasters
Contact: United States Mining Disasters
History and Circumstances
- Date: 27 Feb 1943
- Location:Bearcreek, Montana
- Cause: Explosion (coal mine)
- The Smith Mine disaster was the worst coal mining disaster in the State of Montana, and the 43rd worst in the United States, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
|Montana State Flag
- The land that is now Montana has been occupied by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The land in Montana east of the continental divide was part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Subsequent to and particularly in the decades following the Lewis and Clark Expedition, American, British and French traders operated a fur trade, typically working with indigenous peoples, in both eastern and western portions of what would become Montana.
- Until the Oregon Treaty (1846), land west of the continental divide was disputed between the British and U.S. and was known as the Oregon Country. The first permanent settlement by Euro-Americans in what today is Montana was St. Mary's (1841) near present-day Stevensville. In 1847, Fort Benton was established as the uppermost fur-trading post on the Missouri River. In the 1850s, settlers began moving into the Beaverhead and Big Hole valleys from the Oregon Trail and into the Clark's Fork valley.
- The first permanent white settlers came to Montana between 1812 and 1820. After gold was discovered in the area, Montana experienced rapid population growth which resulted in designation as a United States Territory on May 26, 1864. Montana became the 41st state on November 8, 1889.
- The railroads were the engine of settlement in the state. The coming of the transcontinental railroads to Montana Territory in the 1880s is the single most transformational economic development in the entire history of Montana. 
- The coal in the Bear Creek field is part of the immense Fort Union Formation, which is estimated to contain over 200 billion tons of coal in eastern and central Montana. "Yankee Jim" George discovered the Bear Creek coal field in 1866, but it would not be commercially mined for another forty years with the arrival of the railroad. Five companies operated coal mines in this narrow valley by 1910. Two towns, Bear Creek and Washoe provided living quarters and services to the multi-ethnic miners and their families.
- Some of the highest quality bituminous coal in Montana was found in this area of Montana. Coal mining began in the valley around Bearcreek and Washoe in 1900. Initially the mining companies had to haul their coal up the steep hill to Red Lodge using wagons. In 1906 the Montana, Wyoming and Southern Railroads built a line connecting the Bearcreek mines to the Northern Pacific Railroad. They were taking out 100 rail cars of coal every day.
- The Montana Coal and Iron Company (MCI) began developing the Smith Mine in earnest after the arrival of the Montana, Wyoming and Southern Railroad, producing 8,000 tons of high-grade coal in 1907. MCI electrified its operation by 1915, completely mechanizing it by 1929. Throughout the 1930s, the company continued to invest in new equipment, building a new crushing plant, elevator, cleaning plant, coal sheds and scales, electrical substation, and other above-ground structures to support the underground operation. By 1943, miners working three shifts a day, six days a week produced almost 500,000 tons of coal annually, “to meet coal needs for a nation at war.” Investments in safety lagged behind other improvements, however, and in the 1940s many Smith miners still used open-flame carbide headlamps (as opposed to safer electric lamps). The highly gaseous mine also lacked good ventilation or rock-dusting equipment to control coal dust. 
Mine Disaster Circumstances
- Saturday paid time-and-a-half at the Montana Coal and Iron Co.’s Smith Mine between Bearcreek and Washoe. Miners who had just emerged from the Great Depression of the 1930s eagerly worked the overtime weekend shift. They had the added incentive of doing their part to keep the World War II war machine running.
- On February 27, 1943, at approximately 9:37 a.m., an explosion ripped through Smith Mine No. 3, a coal mine located between the towns of Bearcreek and Washoe. Of the 77 men working that day, only three got out of the mine alive, and one of the rescue workers died soon afterward. The report from the United States Bureau of Mines states that 30 of the men were killed instantly by the explosion, and the remainder died either because of injuries sustained in the explosion, or because of suffocation from the carbon monoxide and methane gas in the mine. The explosion was deep underground, and was not heard at the mouth of the mine, despite having enough power to knock a 20-ton locomotive off its tracks 0.25 mile (0.4 km) from the blast origin. 
- Those on the surface were unaware of the explosion until Alec Hawthorne, hoisting engineer, called the surface and told them that something was wrong and he was coming up. Dense fumes pouring from the mine prevented rescue workers from getting inside. They had to wait for trained rescue workers to be flown in from the Anaconda Copper Mining company's mine in Butte. 
- It was later determined that about 30 of the men died from injuries caused by force of the explosion. Carbon monoxide and lack of oxygen killed the rest. At least five of the doomed miners survived for an hour and a half — long enough to scrawl a few last words for their families. Three messages were found. According a wire service report, the miners wrote with chalk on rough boards. Emil Anderson, 40, left this final message: “It’s five minutes pass 11 o’clock. Dear Agnes and children I am sorry we had to go this way — God bless you all.”
- Another note listed Frank Pajnich, 53; Fred Rasborschek, 61; Sundar; and Joki. They wrote “We try to do our best but couldn’t get out. One found near Walter Joki, 30, and John Sundar, 28, read, “Goodbye wifes and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.”
- The other two mines in the town, the Coster and Brophy mines were closed for about two weeks to enable their men to help in the attempted rescue. 
- Montana Governor Ford asked the Montana legislature to appropriate $5,000 for a thorough examination into the cause of the Smith mine disaster. The appropriation was approved immediately. R.H. Dalrymple from Utah was appointed the chairman of the special committee.
- The report from the committee was completed in the fall of 1943. The report is quite lengthy and detailed and can be reviewed here. Report of the Governor’s Investigative committee. The actual cause of the explosion was an ignition of explosive gas by a miner wearing an open light in No. 5 room of the 9 southeast entry in No. 3 bed. There were numerous failures in the system that led to this end. There was an inadequate supply of first aid and mine rescue equipment. The equipment they had was not maintained. The men had no recent training in first aid and self-rescue. There was not enough supervisory staff and the management structure was not effective. Ventilation in the mine was inadequate. To sum up the investigation "It is evident that the most elementary safe mining practices were being disregarded".
- As a result of this catastrophe the US Department of Mines conducted five day mine rescue operations classes for miners and mine operators. There was also a plan to establish a permanent mine rescue station in the Red Lodge-Bearcreek area.
Management got its first notification of the disaster below from hoisting engineer Alex Hawthorne, 55, who telephoned the surface and said: “There’s something wrong down here. I’m getting out.” Before he got far, Hawthorne was overcome by fumes. Two others, Willard Reid and Eli Houtonen, were blown down by the force of a wind from below.
A rescue force braving the deadly gas brought all three unconscious men to the surface along with two bodies. The Gazette said that they had been working in Vein No. 2. All three survivors, who were described in the newspaper as “very sick,” were rushed to a hospital in Red Lodge, five miles away. Also hospitalized early that day were eight volunteers who were searching for survivors.
Hawthorne later said that he and the other survivors were working 4,800 feet inside the mine “When the power failed and I sensed serious trouble I grabbed the telephone and rang desperately. At that time a cyclone of wind ascended from the mine, carrying sticks and everything that was loose. Then came the worst smell that I have ever sensed and I knew there was an explosion.” Another miner called to him, he said, and they started out with a loaded coal car. “That’s the last I remember until I came to here in the hospital,” Hawthorne said.
Rescue Effort & Rescuers
Miners from Montana Coal and Iron’s nearby Foster Mine joined rescue parties, as did crews from Klein and Roundup. An Army paratroop transport based in Helena picked up a special 14-man rescue squad from the copper mines in Butte and flew the men to Billings. The squad was ferried to the mine in screaming Montana Highway Patrol cars.
In agonizing slowness over the next week, the number of bodies began to mount. The last — that of mine foreman Elmer Price, 53 — came out on March 7. He left a wife and five children. Funeral announcements for victims of the disaster ran in The Gazette’s pages until March 19.
Others Involved/Supporters and the Aftermath
Those miners killed in the Smith Mine were survived by 58 widows and 125 children.
As a result of this disaster and in the aftermath, the US Bureau of Mines conducted a five-day mine rescue operations class. 
- The "exigencies of World War II" were blamed for disregarding mine safety. The fire began when an open flame touched off an explosion of such force that it knocked a train locomotive off the rails a quarter-mile away.
"Nobody ever took responsibility for the Bearcreek disaster, and the families didn't get any compensation for their pain. All those people died, and even more, grieved, but it was as if they didn't matter," Resnick wrote. "That sense outraged me more than anything else. All people matter." Many were involved after the disaster:  Susan Kushner Resnick in her book "Goodbye Wifes and Daughters."
|Memorial to the 74 Men Lost set in the cemetery.
Videos & Museums
- Video & Song Dedicated to those lost
- Carbon County History Museum Exhibit of Smith Mine Disaster
- Carbon County History Museum Facebook page
- Memorial Video
In Remembrance: Smith Mine Disaster Victims 27 February 1943 They took, willingly, the daily risk which accompanies the occupation of mine working in order that they might provide the wherewithals of life to their loved ones. Rev. A.W. Seebart, Memorial Service, March, 1943
- Carbon County, Montana Genealogy
- Carbon County, Montana Courthouse Records
- Links to Carbon County Resources
- Carbon County, Montana Census Records
- Clerk & Recorder
- Carbon County, Montana Genealogy Links to Genealogy Research and Sites
- “Goodbye wifes and daughters . . .” wrote two of the miners as they died. The story of that tragic day and its aftermath unfolds in this book through the eyes of those wives and daughters—women who lost their husbands, fathers, and sons, livelihoods, neighbors, and homes, yet managed to fight back and persevere.
- Susan Kushner Resnick has uncovered the story behind all those losses. She chronicles the missteps and questionable ethics of the mine’s managers, who blamed their disregard for safety on the exigencies of World War II; the efforts of an earnest federal mine inspector and the mine union’s president (later a notorious murderer), who tried in vain to make the mine safer; the heroism of the men who battled for nine days to rescue the trapped miners; and the effect the disaster had on the entire mining industry. Resnick illuminates a particular historical tragedy with all its human ramifications while also reminding us that such tragedies caused by corporate greed and indifference are with us to this day.
On February 27, 1943, an explosion at Smith Mine #3 in Washoe, MT killed 74 men in the worst mining disaster in Montana’s history. This is the story of the miners, the heroes in the rescue operation, and the communities that were brought close to extinction by the disaster.
Many reports have been made of the Smith Mine Disaster. It was an event that shocked the state of Montana with the worst tragedy in its long history of coal mining. The calamity had far-reaching effects on thousands, and repercussions on communities and towns which came close to bringing them to extinction. Because it was a vital portion of history, this work has been compiled from many sources to provide as comprehensive a record of that time as possible.
Originally written by Fay Kuhlman, former Mayor of Bearcreek, The Darkest Hour was edited and expanded by Gary Robson for the 60th anniversary of the disaster.
- ↑ Montana Territory
- ↑ Montana Railroad History
- ↑ History of Montana
- ↑ The Darkest Hour. A Comprehensive Account of the Smith Mine Disaster of 1943. 3rd edition by Gary Robson. Red Lodge Books. 2011. pages 43-53
- ↑ The Montana National Register Sign Program, “Smith Mine Historic District,” Explore Big – Montana’s Historic Places, accessed October 8, 2018, http://explorebig.org/items/show/20.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Thackery, The Worst Coal Mining Disaster in Montana History.
- ↑ Smith Mine Disaster
- ↑ The Daily Inter Lake (Kallispell, Montana) 7 Feb 1943, Sat. page 1
- ↑ The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana). 19 Mar 1943, Wed. Page 2
- ↑ Miners train to Prevent Recurrence of Disasters. Great Falls Tribune(Great Falls, Montana) 17 July 1943, Sat, page 4
- ↑ Great Falls Tribune, 17 Jul 1943, Sat, page 4
- ↑ Kristen Inbody, Mining Disaster Devastates Montana Valley. Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls Montana). 2 Aug 2014
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