Darkest Day: the Bear Creek mine disaster
Posted on 07 March 2016
By David Reese, Montana Living
The town of Bearcreek, Montana, sits in a narrow draw just over a small ridge from Red Lodge.
Cottonwood trees line the small creek, and only a few houses are scattered about. The town appears as if it were left by winter’s snow, the remnant of a season passed. But a few residents still cling to life here. Perhaps it’s the quiet solitude, with more modern conveniences and shopping just six miles over the hill in the resort town of Red Lodge.
It’s only March, but the ground is soft, and the red clay sticks to our boots as we walk the short dirt road up to Bearcreek’s town cemetery. It’s not quite spring, and insects are already buzzing in the air over these sagebrush covered hills. The cemetery sits on a hill, and the graves, about 100 of them, all tilt sideways, toward the creek.
A new shelter has been added to the cemetery, showing that there are still signs of life here, and that people, somewhere, still care about the dead who are buried here.
Many of the dead that are buried here were killed in an explosion on Feb. 27, 1943, at the Smith Mine, a coal mine just outside of town. The graves show what kind of community Bearcreek was when the underground coal mine caught fire and a black cloud covered town. Many were immigrants: Croatians, Italians, French, Swedes, and Irish. Some of the dead’s families had money, their graves marked with lavish borders and granite headstones with photos on the headstones. Other graves have no markings, just a loose circle of rocks with no name, no headstone, no cross.
Bear Creek Mine entrance, David Reese photo
It was a bright winter’s day on that Saturday in 1943. It was payday, and the miners were expected to return home with their money. When a plume of smoke billowed out of the mine shaft, and the wives and children of the miners likely knew what that meant: death.
Seventy seven men entered the mine that morning, going as deep as 8,000 feet, but only three came out alive. All told, 74 miners were killed that day, making it Montana’s worst mining disaster in the history of this state, whose motto “Oro y Plata,” (gold and silver) reminds us of our mining roots. The mine is located in Carbon County, a name synonymous with coal mining.
Newspaper reports say workers from nearby mines were called to the scene to help extricate the dead, while townsfolk kept a silent vigil and maintained hope that some miners would be found alive.
It was determined that the miners died from the concussive blast and gas poisoning resulting from an explosion of gas and coal dust.
The disaster left 58 women without husbands and 125 children without fathers. One family devastated by the mine explosion was that of Adam Lee Wakenshaw. At age 72, this man from Dublin, England, was the oldest man killed in the mine disaster, along with his son, Robert.
The mine never recovered from the disaster and it eventually closed.
There’s a reason this county is called Carbon. Coal was discovered here in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the 1890s that coal mining began in the Bearcreek district, according to historical reports.
Elijah Smith and George Lamport were the founders of the Montana Fuel & Iron Company in 1897. That company would eventually be called the Montana Coal & Iron Company which operated the Smith Mine.
Bear Creek Steakhouse
Today, only the skeletons of buildings remain at the Smith Mine. Entrances to the mine shaft have collapsed, but the intricate machinery used to get the coal out of the mine remains, evidence of ingenuity and some industrial architecture that was cobbled together with iron, wood and steel. An old office building remains near the mine entrance, its windows broken out and old paperwork scattered about and littered with pigeon droppings and a few beer cans.
To get to Bear Creek from Red Lodge, you drive over a two lane, winding road that crosses a hogback ridge of sage and brown dirt. Dropping down into town, you drive right past the old Smith Mine.
The town of Bear Creek, itself, is just more than a saloon, a café, quilt shop and a few worn out homes huddled around each other. There are signs of life, however.
There’s the Washoe Quilt Shoppe, a quilt-supply store just up main street from downtown and a short ways from the mine. The Hungry Bear Café promises its world famous banana cream pie. At the feet of the Beartooth Mountains, this is pretty country, and you can see why people might want to live here, with its solitude and quiet. If you need anything much, Billings is about an hour’s drive away.
The town is growing — slowly. The 2000 census listed 83 residents in Bearcreek, the most people there since 1950, which was an increase of 55 percent over the 1990 count. That increase made Bearcreek the fastest growing town in Montana in the Montana census. Towns folk say Bearcreek’s population has continued to grow, with cheaper land prices than Billings’ bedroom community of Red Lodge, with its golf course and ski resort.
The Bear Creek Saloon and Steakhouse buzzes with activity on the Friday night we arrive to town. The pig races, which the saloon is known for, won’t run tonight, as there were not enough entries.
But the place is packed with young families, locals coming over from Red Lodge or perhaps down the valley toward Roberts and Joliet, or farther yet, from Billings or Red Lodge. You can get a good steak here, along with a baked potato and the trimmings served sizzling on a metal platter. The beer is cold, served quickly by a cheerful barmaid
We ask about the mine disaster and if there are any survivors of the “old Bearcreek” still around. The bartender, who probably gets asked that question a lot, hands us a well-used, dog-eared copy of a local historical account of the tragedy. The account tells of how the community banded together after the accident, how the families of men killed in the accident were taken in by other families, and how the accident left a black scar on the mine company — a scar from which it never recovered.
The bartender tells us that not many people remain from that generation that worked in the mine, and the stories are dying along with them, some at the retirement home over in Red Lodge.
On a hill at the edge of town, the iron frames of the old Smith Mine stand in the warm spring air, stark reminders of the men who died here that winter day. Roofing on the rusted buildings bangs in the wind, but there is no other sound. The sun slips out of a perfect blue sky and a chill sets in.
Only the ghosts remain. I close my eyes, and standing in an old building that’s smeared with grease and litter, I can hear the banter of the men as they change shifts or huddle in the lunch building.
The miners who worked at the Smith Mine were said to be supporting the War Effort of World War II, and most likely they were; but it’s unknown how much of the coal they extracted ever made it into the war effort. Old papers found at the mine site show, perhaps, a different story. One receipt showed a rail shipment of coal going to the college in Havre. Did the men at the Smith Mine die in vain, extracting coal to run Montana’s university system, or did they, in fact, help America fight Hitler and his wehrmacht?
No one knows what happened deep down in the mine that day, when 73 men died. No one knows what kind of peril they faced.
But reflecting on the kind of work that these men did gives one a sense of just on whose backs Montana was built.
A stroll through the Carbon County museum shows where the money from Montana coal mines went: back east. A framed letter on a wall at the Red Lodge museum shows the names of men who owned stock in the local mine companies: many were Wall Street industrialists like James D. Rockefeller, who owned stock in the Rocky Fork Coal Company. In 1894, stockholders of the Rocky Fork Coal Company included one B.P. Cheney, founder of the American Express Company, and Wm. Buff, president of the New York Stock Exchange.
The men who worked at the Smith Mine had no choice in the work they did: the immigrants from Scotland, Croatia, Italy, England or France came to America to find work, and they were probably glad to get it, down deep in the bowels of the earth.
But some — 74 in fact — found death that winter day in 1943, and the town of Bearcreek, Montana, is forever marked with that black scar of coal.