On November 16, 1915, 31 men are killed by an explosion in the Ravensdale coal mine, a few miles northeast of Black Diamond. The mine is owned by the Northwestern Improvement Company, a subsidiary corporation of the Northern Pacific Railroad. This is one of the largest coal mining disasters in King County history.
Fire Down Below
That morning, a blown fuse knocked out the hoisting machinery and 100 men were sent home until the problem was fixed. If not for this, the extent of the disaster would have been much greater. Nearly 50 men were left on the job. At 1:24 p.m., 36 of them were down in the mine. At 1:25 p.m., a muffled explosion shook the earth, and smoke billowed out of the ground.
Those in town knew immediately what had occurred. The Ravensdale mine was a dry mine, in that little or no moisture permeated the tunnels. Coal dust filled the passages, and it took only a spark to set it off. A sprinkler system was installed throughout the mine to dampen the air, but it obviously wasn’t enough to prevent a disaster.
Whatever ignited the dust was never determined. It could have been an improperly placed dynamite charge, which miners called a windy shot, or possibly a miner carelessly lit a cigarette. In any case, the air in the mine burst into a violent fireball, killing most of the men horribly and instantaneously.
The Ravensdale mine had two means of access, a main shaft and an auxiliary entryway (called a slope) that sloped at an angle of 45 degrees. At the 800-, 1200-, and 1500-foot levels, horizontal tunnels led out as leaders to the different galleries where men worked. The first and second levels had long since been worked out. Most of the men were in the third level.
The blast was so great that two men standing at the mine’s main entrance were knocked off their feet. Ironically, these two men were in town selling accident insurance from the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company. By the time they got to their feet, hundreds were rushing over to start rescue operations. A major cave-in had occurred inside the main shaft, so all efforts focused on the auxiliary entryway.
Hasty phone calls were made to nearby mining communities to help in the rescue efforts. Nearby Black Diamond miners were on site within the hour, and by the end of the day, rescue units had arrived from as far away as Roslyn, located on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. Matt Starwich, former Deputy Sheriff and now a Ravensdale saloonkeeper, also helped in the efforts.
Hoping Against Hope
Three injured men from the second level were brought up first, along with three bodies. One man’s injuries were so slight, that he returned to help with the rescuers. For 10 hours, crews attempted to reach possible survivors on the third level, but were hindered by poisonous gases, smoke, broken timbers, and debris. Crews wearing Draeger oxygen helmets worked in 90-minute intervals.
Upon reaching the third level, more bodies were found, and word was sent up that there was no chance of survivors. The bodies were mangled and burnt, and the surrounding air was unbreathable. Foreman Thomas Kane had an office just off the bottom of the slope. The explosion had wrenched off the door, and Kane’s body was found in the wreckage of his desk.
Above ground, women and children wept as they waited, still hoping against hope. But each time the cars came up, they only contained rescuers or grisly remains. A dog waited anxiously by the entrance for his master, and even though he was pushed aside by the boots of frantic workers, he kept returning to his spot, in vain.
Roster of the Dead
Work continued around the clock, but bodies came up slowly. A drizzling rain added to the pall above ground. Down below, workers carried canaries with them, to check for foul air. If the canaries passed out, that meant that miners had to watch out for what miners called black damp or afterdamp. (Today we know that black damp is simply an atmosphere deficient in oxygen. Afterdamp is the mixture of gasses, extremely variable, which exists after a coal mine explodes. The mixture includes what used to be called firedamp, the methane gas that coal dust and coal emits continuously.)
In the end, 31 men lost their lives in the explosion. Their names are listed here.
- John Arno - Miner
- Joe Baldacci - Miner
- John B. Castagnia - Laborer
- Charles Davis - Pumpman
- P. J. Dowd - Shot firer
- John Errington – Lumberman
- Joe Galob - Miner
- Noel Goodman - Laborer
- Thomas J. Kane - Mine foreman
- Joseph Krajnoc - Motorman
- Charles Martini - Cager
- Thomas Mashiokoski – Laborer
- Romeo Medaine – Miner
- John Miller - Miner
- Louis Minaglia - Laborer
- Edris Morgan - Track layer
- Angelo Morris - Miner
- Jack Muncie - Haulage boss
- Dominick Novarra - President of local miner’s union
- Emil Pawallek - Miner
- Louis Pazziol – Miner
- M. Pennachi - Laborer
- John Pesta - Laborer
- Howard Salter –-Laborer
- Thomas Speck - Motorman
- Jack Storey – Miner
- Lorenzo Tasamantino – Cager
- John Testa - Laborer
- L. Thibaut - Miner
- Frank Wegher – Miner
- Joe Zgonc - Miner
Many of the men were prominent in the community. Thomas Kane, besides being foreman, was also a city councilman. Jack Muncie managed the local baseball team. Thomas Mashiokoski was a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War. Charles Davis was director of the local school district. Jack Storey was a former justice of the peace, and had once been wounded in a gun battle with bandits near North Bend. Twenty-three of the men were married and had families.
An Ignoble Ending
Many of the men were buried in the Ravensdale Cemetery, while others were sent back to the homes of their youth. The tragedy hit Ravensdale hard, and the town never recovered.
Many miners left town and coal mining to fight in World War I. As fuel oil and natural gas increasingly replaced coal as a source of energy during the 1920s, coal mines throughout the county shut down, including Ravensdale. The records have been lost, but at some point during the 1920s the town of Ravensdale disincorporated. This is the only town in King County to have done this.
The community turned into a near ghost town, but has since shown signs of life. The 2000 Census counted 816 residents, now that the suburban ring has expanded so far from the boundaries of Seattle and Tacoma.
But one sad fact remains about Ravensdale and the disaster. At some point during the last 50 years, vandals made it out to the Ravensdale Cemetery, which is now overgrown with brush. Graves were desecrated, sarcophagi were shattered, and human remains were looted and stolen.
An ignominious end to an already horrid tragedy.