Coal miner John A. Wolti is trapped underground in the Big Four Mine at Elk Coal on December 13, 1950.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 12/20/2008
  • Essay 8872
See Additional Media

On December 13, 1950, John A. Wolti, (1897-1974), is working in the Big Four Coal Company mine on Victory Slope at Elk Coal in southeast King County when a coal mine tunnel collapses, burying him 400 feet underground.  Although the mine owners and state officials hold out little hope, rescue workers dig continuously for 54 hours, find Wolti alive, and free him from beneath tons of dirt, rocks, and broken timbers.  A survivor of three mine disasters, Wolti decides to change his occupation from mining to chicken ranching.

Elk Coal Mine and its Miners

The Big Four Coal Company mine, located about 1.5 miles south of the former Pacific States Lumber Company mill town of Selleck and approximately six miles northeast of Black Diamond in southeast King County, produced 20,000 tons of coal a year. In 1950, the Big Four mine was one of the few remaining coal mines still operating in Washington state.  Coal was being rapidly replaced by oil and natural gas and was no longer required to fuel locomotives and ships, heat buildings and homes, or generate electrical power.   

At 12:55 p.m. on Wednesday, December 13, 1950, 12 miners on the day shift were removing the last carloads of coal from a gangway (or tunnel) terminus at the Big Four mine when the roof of a “chute,” (a diagonal hole cut into a seam of coal), suddenly collapsed, dumping hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt into the chamber.  “Big John” Wolti, age 53, six-foot, two-inches tall and 220 pounds of solid muscle, had gone to the end of the gangway to retrieve the block and tackle, used to pull coal cars up the tracks, and was buried in the fall. The other 11 miners escaped the “quickie” slide without injury.  It was the first major accident at the Big Four mine in 30 years.

Grover C. Smail, one of the miners who escaped, was nearest to Wolti and saw the accident happen. “I’ve mined for 21 years and I’ve never seen a slide come that fast before.  Usually there is some warning, cracking or falling rocks. But with this, there was nothing.  It just swept him away” Smail said (The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin).

Rescuing John Wolti

There was only a million-to-one chance that Wolti had survived the accident, but Fred Davies, mine foreman, and William Moses, day fire boss, began immediately to organize rescue crews. Hundreds of men volunteered to work around-the-clock in shifts to accomplish the dangerous task of digging through the cave-in. Davies estimated there were at least 40 feet of debris and broken timbers to penetrate and it could take up to three days to reach Wolti. There was also water to contend with, which seeped continuously into the tunnel, destabilizing the packed dirt.  On the plus side, there was abundance of good air inside the mine.

David J. Williams, president of the Big Four Coal Company, went to Wolti’s home in Kent to tell his wife, Lydia H. Wolti (1895-1993), about the accident.  She was no stranger to the hard and dangerous life of a miner. Her first husband, Herman Roponen, had mined iron ore in Ely, Minnesota, and copper in Butte, Montana.  Williams brought Lydia to the Big Four mine and she waited patiently in the hoist house for reports from below.  Several family members, including her son, Walter Roponen, and daughter, Dolores Popp, and Wolti’s sister, Anne Johnson, joined Lydia in the somber vigil.

Although there was little expectation of finding Wolti alive, the miners began the back-breaking excavation project with grim determination. They started digging a narrow tunnel through the debris along the wall opposite from where Wolti was presumably trapped.  Only two men at a time could work in the cramped space.  As they dug away dirt and loose rock from the slide face, a relay team moved the debris into coal cars which were then hauled to the surface.  Broken timbers and planking were carefully cut away with saws and dragged off.  Then new cribbing lumber was brought into the tunnel to shore up the unstable roof and walls.  The excavation was agonizingly slow, advancing at the rate of one foot per hour. Periodically, the men shouted out Wolti’s name, but they heard no reply.  

In a later interview, Wolti said he knew the chute was ready to collapse because small pieces of coal were falling from the roof.  But he thought there was enough time to retrieve the pulley block and reentered the tunnel. When the entire roof began caving, Wolti ran, but his exit was blocked by a fallen timber.  He couldn’t escape so he crouched next to a heavy support post. A huge timber fell beside him, shielding his body and providing an air pocket so he could breathe. Then he was buried under tons of debris and couldn’t move.  His left arm was wedged between two timbers and another lay across his back.  Wolti could hear the sound of digging, but it was faint.  He whistled and yelled, but soon lost consciousness. When he finally came to, the rescuer workers were much closer and he resumed shouting.

At 2:00 a.m. on Friday, December 15, the miners reported hearing Wolti’s voice responding to their repeated shouts. His voice sounded strong, but it was too muffled by the rubble to permit conversation. The news was electrifying; they had expected to find Wolti dead.  Reinvigorated, the men continued their frantic digging, but rescue was still several hours away.

At about 11:00 a.m., one of the rescuers shouted to Wolti: “How are you John? Are you hurt?” 

“No, I’m feeling fine,” came the muffled reply. “When the hell are you going to put a stove in here?  It’s getting awfully cold.”

Fred Davies, mine foreman, then asked: “John, what happened to that block?” 

Wolti replied: “I got it.  I don’t know what happened to it, but I’ve got the strap [a loop of cable]. What did the old lady say?”

Davies said: “I told him his wife probably would tell him plenty when the shock wore off.  He laughed” (“Entombed Miner Quips ...," The Seattle Times). 

They could hear Wolti groaning, indicating he was injured, but he still managed to keep a running conversation with the men.

The rescue effort was complicated by the discovery that Wolti was somewhere below the rescue tunnel rather than directly ahead, as originally believed.  Digging down through the rock and packed dirt, the miners first uncovered Wolti’s feet, then carefully removed the debris from around his legs.  Slowly, they worked their way up his body toward the support timbers laying across his back and pinning his left arm.  Hydraulic jacks were used to lift the timbers off Wolti’s body and he was inched out of the rescue tunnel into the gangway.

Bringing Wolti Out

Dr. J. Gordon Adams, a physician from Enumclaw, had been at the mine most of day waiting for the finale.  Wolti, still wearing his miner’s hard-hat, was wrapped in blankets, put on a stretcher and lifted into a coal car.  At 7:20 p.m., the electric bell in the hoist house rang six times, then repeated. It was the signal from below that the rescuers were bringing Wolti out of the mine. The hoistman engaged the winch, slowly dragging the line of coal cars 500 feet up the inclined tracks to the surface.  At the mine shaft entrance, Lydia Wolti and her family waited nervously for the cars to arrive.

When Wolti emerged from the mine, he was barely conscious, but recognized Lydia.  Dr. Adams, who accompanied him in the coal car, said the rugged miner was in relatively good condition.  He was suffering from a crushed left arm and a few additional injuries, but had no apparent broken bones. The most serious consequence of his long ordeal was shock (a life-threatening condition where blood pressure is too low to sustain life) caused by his severe dehydration. Dr. Adams administered a unit of plasma, boosting Wolti’s blood pressure, then rushed him by ambulance to the Community Memorial Hospital in Enumclaw.  

Fred Davies, who directed the rescue operation, was surprised that Wolti was not only found alive, but also not seriously injured.  “Big, jagged rocks were all over him and around him.  The lagging (timber) is two by sixes and they were pressing him.  All the stuff was under strain” Davies said (The Seattle Times).

Employment Under the Sky

It was the third time Wolti had narrowly escaped death in an underground mine accident and would be his last, at least according to his wife, Lydia.  “We’ve got a chicken ranch up the road (in Kent).  He’s going to spend the rest of his days there.  I’ll never let him enter another mine shaft” (The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin).

Wolti survived a gas explosion at the Pacific Coast Coal Company mine in Carbonado (Pierce County) on April 17, 1930.  Out of 21 miners on the night shift, 17 were killed outright and four, who were working elsewhere, survived uninjured.  Some years later, Wolti was injured in a cave-in while mining in Alaska.  Thereafter, he tried chicken ranching and commercial fishing, but eventually returned to mining in order to qualify for his pension.

Wolti was released from the Community Memorial Hospital on December 24, 1950, the day before Christmas.  The doctors said he was in good condition, but it took him months to recover from his injuries.  He never returned to mining, making a living raising chickens instead.  The Woltis lived on their farm in Kent for the rest of their  lives.  John A. Wolti died at Valley General Hospital in Renton hospital on October 18, 1974 at the age of 77.  Lydia Wolti died at Valley General Hospital on May 3, 1993, at the age of 97.  They are buried at Hillside Burial Park, 1005 Reiten Road, Kent, Washington.

Sources: Don Duncan, “Deep in the Mine,” in Washington: The First One Hundred Years (Seattle: The Seattle Times, 1989), p. 79; “Rescuers Battle to Reach Victim,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 14, 1950, p. 1; “‘One of Our Best,’ Declares Mine Official,” Ibid., December 14, 1950, p. 7-B; “Mine rescue Hopes Fading,” Ibid., December 15, 1950, p. 12; “Life of Cave-In Victim Spared by Pure Chance,” Ibid., December 16, 1950, p. 1; “John Wolti, “Rescued Miner Tells Own Story of Being Trapped,” Ibid., December 16, 1950, p. 1; Fergus Hoffman, “Life Sweet, Wolti Got Wish -- Picture in Paper,” Ibid., December 16, 1950, p. 3; “Workers Seek to Reach Trapped Miner,” The Seattle Times, December 14, 1950, p. 5; “Condition of Buried Man Uncertain,” Ibid., December 15, 1950, p. 1; “Entombed Miner Quips With His Rescuers,” Ibid., December 17, 1950, p. 19; “Slide Buries Coal Miner,” The Walla Walla Union Bulletin, December 14, 1950, p. 1; “Voice of Trapped Miner Heard From Behind Barrier of Rock; Rescue Still Many Hours Away,” Ibid., December 15, 1950, p. 1; “Hardy Miner Survives 54-Hour Entrapment -- His Third Disaster,” Ibid., December 16, 1950, p. 1; “Rescued Miner To Be Home for Christmas,” Ibid., December 20, 1950, p. 3; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “King County Landmarks: Town of Selleck (1908-1939), Kangley vicinity” (by Heather MacIntosh), and “Coal in the Puget Sound Region” (by Laura McCarty), (accessed August 30, 2008).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You