Castle Gate disaster echoes to this day
Ninety years seems like a very long time...but in the annals of mining, it isn't. The story unfolded just a decade short of a hundred years in the town of Castle Gate.
On the morning of March 8, 1924, three violent explosions jarred the small community and the lives of many families would be changed forever.
At approximately 7:30 a.m., 172 underground workers entered the main corridor at Castle Gate's Number Two Mine.
The coal production operation at Castle Gate ranked as one of the best equipped and safest in the nation at the time, based on what the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration has stated in the past.
But for the "show mine of Utah," that cold March morning in 1924 represented only the third eight-hour shift for miners to work during the month of March as the lowered demand for coal had resulted in a serious decrease in on the job hours. That meant that almost everyone who could work, went to work that day because things had been slim.
The men working the full shift were considered lucky; most miners had a wife and children to support.
At approximately 8:30 a.m., an explosion ripped through the mine.
The force of the violent eruption blew down telephone and light poles, timber and pipes near the tramway across the valley, a distance of nearly a quarter mile. One ore car was also blown across the valley as well.
Coal dust showered the area, covering trees, rocks and the ground on the mountain opposite the mine entrance.
The dust also embedded itself in the tombstones of the small cemetery near the mine. It was a cemetery in which the number of graves would grow by leaps in bounds over the next few days.
Poles were splintered into kindling; boulders and pipes were scattered on the valley floor.
One minute later, a second explosion blew out the wall of the fan house. Twenty minutes later, a third explosion devastated the main entrance and caved in the main entry way. The force of the third explosion wrecked the main office building, located 100 feet from the entrance, and knocked the miners' metal checks off the rack. This meant the company's only way of knowing which men were in the mine lay in shambles.
The blasts sent frightened women and children running toward the portal of the Utah Fuel Company's number two mine, located one mile east of the town. Word spread quickly, first in town, then to Helper and then to Price. Help began to arrive very quickly from other areas of Carbon County. Relatives, fellow employees who were not working, friends and neighbors, friends of the entombed miners crowded along the roadway leading to the mine's entrance.
The underground facility had exploded with devastating violence when accumulated gas and coal dust ignited inside the number two mine, touted as the company's "show case." That first shattering blast occurred about 7,000 feet from the mine entrance, trapping more than 100 miners in the underground shafts.
The violent eruption blew the steel doors off the entrance, tearing hinges out of concrete. The sheer force of the air rushing from the mine hurled the doors across the canyon, where the steel was embedded in the mountain side.
The force of the explosions was so great that the coal along the walls had been coked by the first explosion and glazed over by the second, a process that requires a minimum temperature of 662 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rescue crews soon entered the mine, leading horses into the shafts to carry out victims. One of the rescuers died when carbon monoxide overtook him.
By March 10, the bodies of 26 Castle Gate miners killed in the explosions had been removed from the underground shafts. Many of the bodies' were mutilated and dismembered beyond recognition.
It took the crews almost two weeks to remove all of the victims from the underground shafts, which were filled with deadly gas and flooding water. By March 11, the bodies of more than 100 victims of the mine explosions had been recovered, squelching any hope that remained and ending the grim suspense. By March 18, 172 bodies had been removed from the underground shafts carried out of the mine by rescue crews using horses.
The total dead were registered officially at 173 although there is speculation that there were more that were killed.
The youngest fatality was the 15-year-old brother of another victim killed in the mining accident. As with all mines in those days, young men worked alongside their fathers, brothers and uncles. Many families had multiple fatalities within their immediate family. At least one family lost every man in the family.
On March 24, the hauntingly sad sound of "Taps" echoed from the bleak hillside above Castle Gate in memory of the dead miners as the town and the county grieved.
Sealed caskets were carried from the town's amusement halls, which had served as temporary morgues following the disaster, and loaded onto the beds of trucks.
Grieving survivors followed the funeral processions to cemeteries in Price, Helper and Castle Gate.
It was a terrible time and surviving families with no one to provide for them soon found themselves with little money from the company to compensate for their losses, and in some cases no place to live.
The repercussions of that disaster still reverberates today in the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those that were lost.