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Franklin Mine disaster (August 24, 1894): A Compilation of Contemporary Sources

HistoryLink.org Essay 9165 : Printer-Friendly Format

This People's History consists of contemporary newspaper accounts of the Franklin Mine Disaster of August 24, 1894, and portions of the investigative report by the official state mines inspector. With a death toll of 37, this was at the time the second worst mine disaster in Washington state, exceeded only by the Roslyn mine explosion two years earlier, in which 45 died. A reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was soon on the scene in eastern King County, and his report appeared in the paper the following day. These lengthy excerpts, including the stacked headlines in the style of the day, reflect a time when newspapers were the exclusive medium through which the public could learn of newsworthy events. This material was contributed by Bill Kombol, manager of Palmer Coking Coal Co. No attempt has been made to update the spellings or usages of the period.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 25, 1894

STIFLED BY SMOKE.
Fire Spreads Death in Franklin Mine.
Fancied Security Completes Work of the Flames.

ONLY A HANDFUL ESCAPE ALIVE.
The Lingerers Finally Run, but Are Overcome by  Smoke.
Fires Breaks Out in One of the Breasts
and the Brave Miners, Familiar With
Danger, Linger Till Escape Is Cut
Off  -- Sad Scenes as the Bodies Are
Brought Out -- Father and Son Perish
Together -- Prompt Measures of
Relief -- One Great Funeral Tomorrow --
Steps to Extinguish Flames

The city was shocked yesterday by the news of the worst mining disaster that has occurred in the Puget sound country, almost equaling that at Roslyn two years ago. Thirty-seven employes of the Oregon Improvement Company's Franklin mine suddenly found themselves confronted by fire in the workings and, familiarity with danger having caused them to under-estimate their peril, they lingered until the deadly smoke and flames overtook them, and within a few hours they were brought out dead.

The list of the killed as telegraphed by the Post-Intelligencer correspondent at Franklin is as follows:

Frank Willis, colored, married.
Ed Maxwell, colored, single.
R. W. Jones, colored, single.
John Frantalli, Italian, single.
Joe Dawson, English, single,
H. R. Robers, colored, single.
John Irvin, colored, single.
Joe Cassel, Italian, single.
James Gibson, colored, single.
Edward Johnson, Swede, single.
Andy Engdahl, Swede, single.
John T. Pugh, Welsh, married.
John Q. Anderson, Swede, married.
William Secor, American, married.
Andy Greer, colored, single.|
Joe Bossie, Italian, single.
Ike Clements, colored, married.
Pete Parry, Italian, single.
Robert McCoskey, Pole, single.
Evan D. Jones, Welsh, single.
Peter Hay, Scotch, married.
Louis Farr, Italian, single.
Joe Standridge, American, single.
Phil De Mari, Italian, married.
John E. Johns, Welsh, married.
John Morris, Welsh, married.
John Hall, English, single.
Chris Dunker, American, single.
Charley Stevens, colored, single.
Jacob Olsen, Swede, married.
Frank Larson, Swede, single.
Evan Hughes, Welsh, married.
Rocco Tetti, Italian, single.
D. D. Johns, Welsh, married.
Evan Jones, Welsh, single.
A. J. Jones, colored, married.
W. P. Jones, colored, single.
 …
The full particulars of the disaster are given in the following special dispatch from Franklin:

OUTBREAK OF THE FIRE.


Franklin, Aug. 24 – [Special] --  At 11:45 o'clock fire was noticed by some of the drivers on the sixth north level and notice was given to the men inside, who were working in different places, some in the breast above the level and others along the gangway. As soon as it was known that there was a fire many of the men in the gangways rushed back to notify the miners further in, while others rushed out and reached the main shaft. It is certain that all the men in the breasts reached the gangway in safety. In all about seventy men were at work in the sixth level north and of that number about forty lingered at breast six, where the fire originated, and made an attempt to put out the fire. The breast was burning fiercely and before the miners knew it the fire had communicated to breasts sixty and sixty-one. Several of those who lingered at the burning breast sixty-two took warning and fled, but all who remained were overcome and asphyxiated. It is evident that all the men had time to come out, for those at work in the farther breast  reached the shaft in safety, while those who were nearest the shaft and consequently more removed from danger perished. They evidently believed they were in perfect safety from the fire, but while they lingered the smoke oozed from some outside place farther south, and the bodies were all found south of breast sixty-two within a space of 500 feet. Several men were badly bruised, and one colored man was taken out with a broken neck, their wounds indicating that they had thrown themselves against the posts and timbers of the gangway in a wild and desperate endeavor to escape. But the majority of the bodies bear no marks at all, not even a scratch, and their features were in quiet reposed, indicating that their death had been a speedy and painless one.

As soon as the alarm whistle sounded from the engine house, people began to crowd around the mouth of the slope and the cry "The mine is on fire," quickly spread throughout the town.

THOUGHT HE WAS JOKING.

Among the first to reach the scene was Superintendent W. T. Ramsey. He tried to appear unconcerned and really did not believe any lives would be lost, and the crowd of men, women and children of both colors, who lived near the track roundabout, becoming reassured at this careless and good-natured manner of the superintendent, began to treat the whole affair as a huge joke, laughing and "joshing" each other. In a short time, however, word came for help, and then, when the superintendent called for volunteers to go into the mine, there was great excitement.

The first man to volunteer was George W. Smalley, a negro, and with two others he was lowered down the 1,100-foot slope to the sixth level. There he met the men from the sixth level south, who were doing all they could to rescue the men on the north side of the same level.  Other rescuers went down from the surface, and Smalley, C. C. Todd, John Adams and John Morgan found the body of the first man in the in the gangway, about 1,000 feet in from the slope. The body proved to be that of John Q. Anderson, and it was pulled to the top of the slope.

FIRST BODY BROUGHT OUT.

The arrival of Anderson's body on the surface was the first intimation to the men, women and children on the surface that any one had met death. Consequently when the body was carried away there was a wild scramble to discover its identity. When it was found the rescuers were besieged with questions from the mothers, fathers and children concerning loved ones who were imprisoned. But their questions were only answered by an ominous shake of the head. It was at first thought that Anderson was not dead, but after being worked with for ten or fifteen minutes and  no signs of life appearing he was given up.

Meanwhile the miners from the other levels were carrying on the work of rescue in the bowels of the earth. The fan keeping the air current in the mine had been stopped at the first indication of fire from the return air-course, but when the rescuers went to work the fan was started up and thus the air in that part of the gangway south of breast sixty-two on the sixth level was kept pure.

FINDING THE BODIES.

M. D. Story, one of the rescuers who went in from the surface, upon reaching the sixth level north, ran along the gangway. At 1,000 feet in he found the first body, and then the rest of the miners were found scattered along in  a row. In one place eight men were found together, and in another one man was found under a mule, five mules in all being dead. Story says that the men were all lying in the middle of the gangway with their faces in the mud, as if they had tried to bury their heads completely and thus escape the deadly and noxious coal smoke. He could not believe  that they were dead, and turned them with their faces up so they could breathe, but he was soon satisfied that they were dead. Nearly all the bodies were found south of the burning breast.

John C. Story, brother of M. D. Story, was at work in the sixth level south, when a boy named Chapman gave the alarm that breast sixty-two was on fire. Story says he tried to escape via the Green river, or auxiliary slope, but finding this impractical, he returned, making up his mind that he would get out via the main slope. Reaching the man slope, he met others from the sixth level south who were going into the north level to do what they could to rescue their imprisoned comrades, and he joined them, working steadily for two and one-half hours before coming to the surface. It is his opinion that every man in line with the deadly smoke was killed within two minutes after the smoke reached them.

FATHER AND SON PERISH.

Of the rescuing party from the south sixth level was John E. Jones, a gas tester, who is now numbered among the dead. His  boy, Evan John, is also dead. The bodies of father and son were found lying side by side, showing that the father had remained in the gangway until he had found his son, but it was then too late and both died. Evan John, who was 18 years old, will be remembered as an ex-Seattle newsboy. He also sold peanuts in the Standard theater about three and a half years ago. He was commonly known as  "Peg," having but one leg and a wooden peg serving as the other. At the mines he was recognized as a bright young fellow, and was boss driver of the sixth level north.

THE SUPERINTENDENT'S STORY.

As the bodies began arriving at the surface of the main slope the excitement among the wives and mothers, and for that matter the whole population, became uncontrollable. At 3 o'clock the last of the thirty-seven bodies was recovered and the people began to quiet down. Many of them were completely prostrated with their violent grief and devoted their time to methodically caring for the dead. Superintendent Ramsey, telling what he could of the disaster, said:

"As soon as the alarm whistle sounded, the man at work at the fan at the top of the hill noticed smoke coming from the six course, and not knowing the cause immediately shut down the fan. He did just what he should have done, and, had the miners not lingered so long at the fire, trying to put it out, they would have all been saved, but the smoke surrounded them, and before they were aware of it they were overpowered and smothered. All  those who were 200 and 300 feet up in the breast had time to climb down to the gangway, and some of them escaped and reached the surface, not experiencing the slightest unpleasant sensation. One of the men who stopped with the others at breast sixty-two, seeing the danger he was in, started on a run for the main slope, shouting to his companions, 'Come on, you'll not get out.'"

"But still they lingered, and five minutes later thirty-seven men were dead."

"George W. Smalley was the first man to go down into the slope after the fire was reported. He answer to my call for volunteers and he and three others soon brought up the first body, that of John Q. Anderson. Previous to this time no one knew how serious the accident was, but when the dead began to arrive the voices of the people lamenting for their loved ones was terrible to hear. I again asked for volunteers and several whites and blacks responded; they went down and worked diligently, bringing men to the top of the slope, while others who had gone from the southside were bringing them along the gangway. The excitement increased every time a body was brought up and recognized. At one time four bodies were brought up at one time and such a lamentable noise of weeping women and men I hope I shall never have to hear again."

STORIES OF THE SURVIVORS.

Ike Clemms was sitting in chute 62 in which the fire was located. He was opening up the chute and trying to put out the fire. He told the men who were coming out not  to be in a hurry; that there was no danger. He stayed there and was smothered. James Scott was in the room farthest in and told his partners to come out; that there was danger, but they stopped to get their tools and were all three killed. Emanuel Moore said that he came out by breast 62 and saw Ike Clemms sitting there. Moore told him he had been in a breast in the fifth level, and that the fire was just like it and he had better come out. Ike said, "No, there's no danger, " and stayed and died. From all that can be learned , it is believe that had all come out on the first alarm they would have all escaped.

Archie Jones, colored, a track cleaner in the sixth north level, said he knew the upper end of the gangway was on fire when Joe Dawson came running up to him and said:

"Get some empty powder cans and help get the water to put a fire out in breast sixty-two." He continued,  "I got the cans and ran down to the breasts. I saw that the fire was big so I ran right out to the main slope. When I last saw Joe he was running north to tell the other boys. That was the last I saw of him. He was taken out later dead. All the men could have been saved, but they did not know there was any danger. They were all surprised."

JOY OVER THE LIVING.

As soon as the dead arrived at the surface Superintendent Ramsey had another party carry them to the old engine room, where they were laid out in rows on the floor, the thirty-seven stalwart bodies covering almost every inch of space. The sight was one that chilled the people with horror. Thirty-seven men without a scratch on them, still dead. All had been lively and happy a few hours before with their families and their friends, little dreaming that death was near. The few who escaped, upon reaching the surface, were greeted with cries of joy, while all evening men were shaking each other's hands, happy that they were not among the dead. One man said this evening: "I thought I had some enemies the other day, but I haven't now. Every man I meet I feel is my friend; I'm so glad no more are dead."

This evening all is quiet in the face of this awful death. The dead have been prepared, clothed and laid out, and a man is out among the people seeing what disposition will be made of the bodies. Tomorrow the men will dig the graves, and the next day there will be one great funeral. All day long the little telegraph office was besieged with sorrowing people sending dispatches to relatives living in other parts of the country, notifying them of the grief which has so suddenly befallen them.

This evening a thoughtful crowd congregated at the postoffice when the mails came in. The postmaster, finding letters for the dead in the mail, would inquire who was entitled to take care of this man's mail of that man's mail, the dead seemingly outnumbering the living.

ORIGIN OF THE FIRE.

The origin of the fire in breast sixty-two is supposed to be spontaneous combustion caused by refuse and screenings in the bottom of the breast slacking and catching fire. The mine was never in safer condition, however,  and it seems a mystery that the fire could have burst out and gained such headway all at once. It is suggested that possibly the fire had been burning for some time, perhaps two or three days, and from a smouldering blaze it all at once became a burning furnace. Breast sixty-two is about 300 feet high and is now all on fire. The fires has also communicated to breasts sixty and sixty-one of the same level, and the fifth level is threatened … .

HIS FIRST ACCIDENT.


Superintendent Ramsey has been a miner forty-one years and has been a mine superintendent for the past twenty-five years, being now 54 years old. This is the first disaster that has ever occurred in a mine under his charge, although he has run mines that were said to be "hoodooed" and unsafe … . He himself said this evening that he has always taken great care to avoid danger regardless of expense. He would work the mine economically, but would never have the men work in a place that he had reason to consider dangerous. Speaking of the mine here, he said that it has always required a great deal of careful attention, but at no time has the mine been in better condition than at the present time.

As soon as the news reached Seattle Superintendent T. B. Corey arranged for a special train to leave for the mines immediately … .

MEASURES OF RELIEF.


Superintendent Corey, immediately upon arriving at the mines, visited the old engine house, where the dead were lying in row upon the floor. The first man Superintendent Corey met was Thomas Dawson, who appeared in the greatest grief. He wrung his hands and  moaned, "My boy, my boy, Joe, is one; he went back to save the others, but was caught and now he's no more."

Then the man uncovered the face of his dead boy and talked to him, telling him he did right to try to save his companions. The superintendent could with difficulty control his feelings and walked away … .

There may be a good deal of suffering as a result of today's disaster, some of the men who were killed having large families. One man leaves a wife and six children and another three motherless little ones, while other families are deprived of their only means of support.  Temporary suffering will no doubt, however, be alleviated ... .

--End of Excerpt--

A coroner's jury was quickly convened on August 25, the day after the disaster, and after an investigation and deliberations that lasted only a few hours, ruled that the fire had been intentionally set. The Post-Intelligencer reported this finding in the next day's edition, an excerpt of which follows.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August  26, 1894

FIRED BY A FIEND.
Startling Verdict of Jury on Franklin Victims.

EVIDENCE OF THE SURVIVORS
.
John L. Snyder Tells of His Escape From the Jaws of Death
Brave Work of John Morgan in Endeavoring to Rescue the Men -- A Sorrowful Night -- Burying the Dead -- Aid to the Suffering.

Franklin, Aug. 24 - [Special] - After being in session the whole afternoon, the coroner's jury empaneled to investigate yesterday's disaster this evening rendered a verdict which, though it may startle the outside country, caused no surprise here. The jury found that the fire in breast sixty-two of the north level was started by parties unknown who willfully, knowingly and maliciously desired to do great injury and damage to the lives of the employes and the property of the Oregon Improvement Company. The verdict in full is as follows:

"We, the undersigned jurors, do agree that on August 24, 1894, on the sixth level of the Franklin mine, King county, Wash., the following parties, namely: [here follows a list of the thirty-seven dead miners] did come to their deaths by suffocation caused by smoke emanating from a fire in breast sixty-two, on the north side of the sixth level, said fire having been caused by a party or parties unknown to us, and that said party or parties did willfully, knowingly and maliciously cause said fire with intent and purpose to do great injury and damage to the lives of the miners and property of the Oregon Improvement Company.  Signed:   
            "E. E. Makiel, Foreman.
            " E. M. Mathew.
            " B. M. Curtis.
            "B. J. Collins.
            "John Robinson."

MUCH TALK OF INCENDIARISM.

Throughout the day there was a good deal of talk of the mine having been fired by an incendiary who, for some unknown reason, desired to destroy the company's property. Perhaps jealousy, vindictiveness or pure love of destruction prompted the fire fiend, but the truth will probably never be known. In view of the testimony adduced at the inquest, however, the verdict is thought to be a particularly strong one, but few can be found here who are not in hearty accord with it. Not a man in town can be found who will even venture an opinion as to who the  incendiary might be. The officials will not talk concerning the matter. One of the pit bosses said this evening:

"I have an idea who set the breast on fire, but I won't say."
"Why?"
"'Cause the man I suspect is dead. He was smothered in the level."

--End of Excerpt--

The following is a verbatim transcript of that portion of the "Annual Report of the Coal Mine Inspector of the State of Washington for the year ending December 31, 1894," which discusses the Franklin mine disaster. In contradiction of the findings of the coroner's jury, the official inspection report concluded that the most likely cause of the tragic fire was "spontaneous combustion."

ANNUAL REPORT OF THE COAL MINE INSPECTORS OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON FOR THE YEAR ENDING DECEMBER 31, 1894

by David Edmunds, Coal Mine Inspector, First District

FRANKLIN MINE

The north gangway was poorly ventilated during the fore part of the year. The ventilation was produced by natural means; the upcast airway being at a much higher elevation than the downcast, a very good current was obtained during the winter season, but as the weather became warm the air current became weak, and, to overcome this, they placed stoves in the upcast, a very primitive method of ventilating mines. As the law prohibits the use of furnaces, I concluded that it would apply to stoves as well, and requested that they be removed, and a fan substituted, which was done, and the result was very beneficial. The ventilation of the south side was good, it being ventilated by a separate fan. The air is well conducted through the face of the workings.  Considerable fire damp is given off in that part of the mine.  Drainage is very good.

FRANKLIN MINE DISASTER

One of the most deplorable accidents that has ever occurred in the history of mining, by which thirty-seven persons lost their lives through suffocation by smoke from a mine fire in the above mine, occurred on August 24th. The fire originated in breast 62 of the north sixth level; how it did occur will remain a mystery. Two theories were advanced – incendiarism and spontaneous combustion. I believe in the latter. The gobs or refuse, which is kept in the breasts, are known to have been heated before and after the fire. Each of the old worked out levels have had fires from that source. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict ascribing the cause to incendiarism without any evidence of that nature. The testimony of those that escaped proved that the men could have all gotten out safely, but it seems that they stopped for the purpose of extinguishing the fire; some of them had come from the south side with buckets so as to throw water on it. They would have been perfectly safe in doing so, had the fan remained in operation; but someone stopped it, thus compelling the men to retreat towards the bottom of the slope, and when they reached the rock tunnel leading to the fanway they encountered the smoke which came into the gangway when the fan stopped, thus their only means of escape was cut off, and they were suffocated in trying to go through it. Had this mine been worked by a double entry system, or had two levels been connected at stated distances, this loss of life would not have occurred. This would have afforded another means of escape. This is a matter that should be provided for by statute. This disaster emphasized the need of having competent men in charge of the ventilating apparatus, when so many lives are dependent upon them. Fourteen wives were left husbandless and thirty-eight children fatherless by the mistake or ignorance of the person who stopped the fan.


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Coal mines, Franklin (King County), 1898
Courtesy Black Diamond Historical Society


Some of the miners who died in the 1894 Franklin Mine Disaster. In some cases childhood photographs were the only ones available
Courtesy Black Diamond Historical Society


 
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