Always one of the most hazardous occupations, coal mining was particularly perilous in Oklahoma. During the 1867 to 1906 period Indian Territory's mines were the most dangerous in the United States, with more than thirteen miners dying per million tons of coal produced. Next door in Kansas, the ratio was less than half that in Indian Territory. In the Indian Territory period there were ten major coal mining disasters that killed 187 men, but this figure is misleading as at least five men had to die for an accident to be considered a "major disaster." Hundreds more died alone or in small groups of two or three. Not until the miners organized and demanded safety improvements did Oklahoma's mines become a somewhat safer place to work.
There were numerous ways for a miner to die in the underground or shaft mines. Rockfalls, "windy shots," coal dust explosions, and noxious gases were only a few of the dangers faced. By the 1880s the term killed by a "windy shot" was common in mining reports. A "windy shot" occurred when a miner used too much black powder or improperly tamped the charge down before setting off the explosion. "Windy shots" would spew sparks into the mine, frequently igniting methane gas, coal dust, or both. These explosions could travel through miles of tunnels and kill and maim miners long distances from the initial blast.
One of the most tragic disasters in the 1880s occurred at Savanna. There a mine explosion in 1887 killed eighteen miners. The initial explosion killed six workers, but another dozen miners attempting to recover the bodies were killed by afterdamp, a deadly gas composed primarily of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide that followed a blast gone awry. Exposure to afterdamp caused miners to lose consciousness in seconds and could cause death in minutes. After the disaster the mine's owners ceased operations at Savanna and hauled the miner's homes to Lehigh.
The worst mining disaster during the Indian Territory period occurred in Krebs on January 7, 1892. At the Osage Coal and Mining Company's Mine Number Eleven a "windy shot" set off an explosion that quickly swept through the entire mine, killing one hundred men and injuring another two hundred. The blast left a mass of dead bodies at the bottom of the elevator shaft. The disaster was the third worst in the United States at that time. After the tragedy at Krebs, the federal government established a mine inspector position for Indian Territory. This development did little to reduce accidents as the inspector did little more than chronicle disasters, rather than prevent them.
Oklahoma's mines were notorious for being "gassy." One of the most infamous was Rock Island Railroad's Mine Number Eight. After numerous earlier methane gas explosions, a blast there in 1910 killed ten miners. The mine ultimately had to be abandoned due to the large amounts of methane. Properly ventilating mines to prevent methane gas explosions was a continual problem that would plague many of Oklahoma's coal mines.
One of the state's most horrific mining accidents occurred in McCurtain on March 20, 1912. On that day a blast ripped through the San Bois Coal Company's Mine Number Two, killing seventy-three men. The blast was the seventh to occur at the mine in a decade, each one resulting in fatalities. The explosion was so massive that witnesses reported that a fifty-foot tongue of fire had erupted from the mine's entrance.
The establishment of an Oklahoma Mine Inspector's Office scarcely reduced the number of accidents. In fact, the fatality rate increased in the 1920s. Gas explosions in 1920 killed fifteen at a mine in Alderson and another ten at Degnan. Eight miners died in a gas explosion at McCurtain in 1922. In 1926 a blast at a mine in Wilburton killed ninety-one. In 1929 an explosion killed sixty-one at the Old Town Mine in McAlester. Twenty-five of the victims were buried in a common grave. The calamity created forty-six widows and orphaned 178 children. The explosion, which occurred more than a mile from the mine's entrance, killed dozens but did minimal damage to the mine. In 1930 an entire shift of thirty men died as the result of a gas explosion in a McAlester mine. Safety reforms eventually made the mines of Oklahoma somewhat safer, but they remained a dangerous place to earn one's living.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Stanley Clark, "Immigrants to the Choctaw Coal Industry," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 33 (Winter 1955-56). Philip A. Kalisch, "Ordeal of the Oklahoma Miners: Coal Mining Disasters in the Sooner State, 1886-1945," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 48 (Autumn 1970). Frederick L. Ryan, The Rehabilitation of Oklahoma Coal Mining Communities (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935). Steven L. Sewell, "Amongst the Damp: The Dangerous Profession of Coal Mining in Oklahoma, 1870-1935," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 70 (Spring 1992). James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990)
Steven L. Sewell
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