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Commemorating the Wadge Mine Explosion – January 27, 1942

Tuesday Tidbits By Shannon Valora- Your tidbit of Hayden and West Routt County history on Tuesday morning.

Commemorating the Wadge Mine Explosion – January 27, 1942

Tomorrow, January 27th marks the 79th anniversary of the 8th worst mining disaster in Colorado history – in terms of fatalities – and it happened right here in West Routt County.

34 miners lost their lives in an explosion at about 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday, January 27, 1942 at the Victor American Fuel company’s Wadge Mine.

The Wadge Mine was one of two mines operating at the time near the mining town of Mount Harris, the other being the Mount Harris mine owned by Colorado-Utah Mine. The Wadge mine was originally a “twin mine”, operated by two separate openings in the Wadge seam on opposite sides of the Yampa River. Wadge No. 1 was the south side mine located on the Yampa River while Wadge No.2 (the main tunnel) was northwest of the town of Mt. Harris, one-quarter mile north of the Yampa River on Wolf Creek. The main tunnel, with air shafts parallel to the main tunnel, extended west from the mine. From the main tunnel other work tunnels branched off to the north. It was in the 19th branch tunnel, the one farthest to the west and north, that the explosion took place. The main tunnel dropped off at an angle of about 10 degrees from the surface of the earth at the location. Hoists pulled the cars from the mine on this incline. Thus the explosion actually took place at a distance of a little over a mile north and west of the town of Mt. Harris.

Four men, were working on a piece of broken down equipment near the entry of the mine, when they heard the explosion and fled, escaping alive, and alerted officials of the disaster about 10:30 p.m., approximately 45 minutes after the blast. The explosion had not been heard outside the mine. Telephone lines into the mine were taken out by the explosion.

Bill Fickle, one of the four survivors, stated that the four had “heard a dull thud from way back in the hole. In a second we smelled smoke and ran for the air shaft.” Fickle went on to say that he and his companions came out through the air shaft, a smaller tunnel paralleling the main tunnel and they were “uncomfortable but not sick”. He believed that if they’d been a couple hundred yards farther into the mine they wouldn’t have made it.

Henry Johnson was the mine superintendent at the time where the 34 men were trapped about 5,500 feet inside the tunnel of the mine. Immediately upon receipt of the word of the explosion, a call for emergency rescue crew was sent out. The eerie cry of the whistle continued to blow as it’s shrill echo from the hills around an unsuspecting town. A crew from the Colorado-Utah (Mt Harris) mine, under leadership of pit boss Joe Burns, was soon ready to enter the mine. However, black, damp, deadly, carbon dioxide gas, filled the shaft after the blast and impeded the work of rescue crews who fought the suffocating gas with huge blowers, forcing air into the mine and sucking the fumes out. The rescue workers were finally able to reach the victims around 4 o'clock the next morning, over seven hours after the blast. They found broken, charred, and terribly mangled bodies, lying at the stations where they had been employed in the various duties.

Families from Mount Harris, Steamboat, Craig and the surrounding areas rushed to the site, as smoke belched from the mine entrance leaving a mixture of gas and coal fumes to blanket the community. Families were told to go home and wait for word as ambulances and hearses were called from surrounding towns. An improvised morgue was set up at Liberty Hall in the old opera house. After the first rush of excitement following the blast relatives of the doomed miners stood stoically on the cold, bleak hill awaiting further news of their men. The first rescue teams brought back the sad news that there were no survivors. It was only then, a few at a time, the families took the officials’ advice and went home.

It was another six hours before the first bodies were brought out -- six bodies carried on stretchers on a mine car. They were burned so badly that identification could not be made immediately. By 4:00 p.m., thirty-three of the bodies had been placed on rows in the morgue, only one remained to be brought out. Two of the thirty-three were still unidentified. The last body was not found and removed until Friday evening. The miners wore “brass checks”, a thin, brass coin with a number stamped on it. These were clipped to their belts as they received their cap lamp to go into the mine for shift. Many of the bodies were identified only because of their brass check.

As expected school was called off in both Mount Harris and Hayden, along with all sporting events throughout Northwest Colorado for the rest of the week. Life came to a stand-still as bodies were recovered from the mine. Workers in the community's other coal mine, the Colorado-Utah, which employed about 250 men, were told not to report for work.

The shift in which the miners were killed began at 3:30 p.m. and would have ended at 11:00 p.m. that night. Just ninety minutes later and the tragedy could have been doubled as twice as many men would have been in the mine during a shift change..

The four who escaped alive, age and town were JOE GALL, 40, Milner BILL FICKLE, 35, Hayden ELMER EVERSON, 23, Hayden MIKE ATANSOFF, 53, Mount Harris

The 34 men who lost their lives, age and town: ANTONIO ADAME, 42, Mt. Harris. PLUTACO ADAME, 45, Mt. Harris. CHARLES BAKER, 37, Craig. LEO BECK, 43, Steamboat Springs. H. TRUMAN BEEN, 37, Mt. Harris. FRED W. BLOUNT, 50, Mt. Harris. MAX BUSTOS, 65, Mr. Harris. RALPH CABLE, 30, Hayden. ROSS CABLE, 35, Hayden. RAYMOND CABLE, 38, Hayden. S. PETE CRETONNE, 51, Mt. Harris. DON FORD, 25, Craig. JACK GASPERICH, 42, Craig. PHILLIP GONZALEZ, 50, Mt. Harris. JOE A. GOODRICH, 40, Craig. HARVEY HARDIN, 46, Mt. Harris. H. H. HARTMAN, 47, Mt. Harris. ELMER HINDMAN, 40 Hayden. E. KEN HOCKMAN, 32, Mt. Harris. JOE MARTINEK, 55, Mt. Harris. TOM McKNIGHT, 54, Mt. Harris. HARRISON G. MOORE, 29, Mt. Harris. ROBERT NANCE, 46, Mt. Harris. HARRY OLIVER, 55, Mt. Harris. RAYMOND POPE, 21, Craig. GEORGE SEARLES, 40, Mt. Harris. JOE SERTIC, 50, Mt. Harris. FRANK SHEPERD, 33, Craig. TONY SKUFCA, 39, Mt. Harris. TIMOTHY TRUJILLO, 26, Mt. Harris. ARTHUR VAN CLEAVE, 34, Steamboat Springs. ADRIAN VRIEZEMA, 21, Mt. Harris. CHARLES VUKOMAN, 49, Mt. Harris. GEORGE H. WARD, 44, Steamboat Springs.

The explosion took four members of one family, RALPH, ROSS and RAYMOND CABLE were brothers, and RALPH was a brother-in-law of ELMER HINDEMAN.

Twenty-four of the thirty-four were married.

Forty-three children lost their father.

The State of Colorado paid for all of the funerals and $4375 to each family, paid at $750 per year for six years. The United Mine Workers of America paid approximately $100 to each family, while the local district UMW organization donated $25 to each family the day after the blast.

Messages and flowers from across the entire country poured into the Mount Harris and surrounding areas. The Steamboat Pilot received requests from across the nation, which they were happy to fill, for copies of the newspapers reporting the accident. The Mount Harris telegraph office received messages from relatives and friends from all of the nation concerning their relatives and friends.

The official cause of the explosion on record, was an explosion of gas caused by arc-electric machinery which was being used to help clear gas. While killing 34 men, the explosion did not do a lot of damage to the actual mine shafts. Just a few short weeks later, crews were busy reestablishing communications and running power back to the pumps and other equipment in preparation to reopen the mine.

The Wadge Mine was developed by the Victor America Coal Company in 1916, just two years after the Colorado-Utah Coal company developed their mine at Mount Harris. In January 1950, The Victor America Coal company applied for reorganization bankruptcy. The Wadge Mine continued to operate but was listed for sale in May 1951. By May 1952, total liquation of all Wadge Mine holdings had begun.

The Mount Harris Coal company mine closed on May 20, 1958. The town of Mount Harris, mostly owned by the coal mine, was dismantled to avoid taxes and liability. Many of the homes and buildings were moved to Hayden and surround areas and still stand today.

A couple more interesting side notes – • Victor-American Fuel Company also operated the Pinnacle Coal mine in Oak Creek. • Mine work at that time was a seasonal job – starting in the middle of August and going until the first or middle of February. • The Wadge Mine had approximately 125 employees while the Mount Harris mine was closer to 250 employees. • Many Wadge mine First Aid Teams had won or placed in International and local safety contests prior to this disaster. • The Wadge mine was considered quite safe. A mine inspection just 2 months prior to the accident said ventilation in the mine appeared to be good and that working conditions were satisfactory. The whole of the Routt County District had always been considered to be an almost entirely gas free field and no explosion had ever been known to occur from gas. There was also an abundance of moisture in the mine which kept the dust well under control and although it was known to contain some gas, it had never occurred in quantities sufficient to cause any trouble. • This was the second explosion for survivor, Mike Antanasoff aka: “Fat Mike”, who one of two men who survived the Moffat Mine explosion in Oak Creek in 1921 that claimed seven lives. • One other miner, Bill Lee escaped being in the mine at the time of the explosion because he had left the mine at 7:00 p.m. to take his wife and daughter to the train depot to catch the train to Denver. After seeing his family off, but before returning to the mine, he stopped by his home for a bite to eat and actually fell asleep at his kitchen table. That decision no doubt saved his life as the explosion had already happened by the time he returned to the mine. • George Searles and Elmer Hindman, both of who were killed in the explosion, did not normally work underground. They were mechanics from the machine shop who had gone into the mine at about 6:00 p.m. to repair an electrical motor. • In the mid-1800s there was no organized reporting of mine fatalities but in 1884 the death of 59 miners at the Crested Butte coal mine in Gunnison County inspired the State of Colorado to pass legislation requiring mining companies to report their accidents, both fatal and nonfatal. Of the 31 major mining incidents resulting in fatalities in Colorado, Victor-American Fuel Company was the owner of 6 of the mines, including the top two. On April 27, 1917, 121 miners were killed in an explosion at Hastings Mine in Las Animas County and on November 8, 1910, 70 miners were killed in an explosion in another Las Animas mine

Stay tuned for our next Tuesday Tidbit. Visit the Hayden Heritage Museum at 300 W. Pearl Street in the Old Depot P.O. Box 543, Hayden Co 81639 (970)276-4380

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