The Russian said, "Let's try the coal mines." They didn't have any gold mines or copper mines there. The next morning we went up to the Smith building. It wasn't too far from front street. It was the tallest building in town then, but now there are a lot of tall buildings around it. We went up to the mining offices of the Northwest Coal Co. They were hiring. It was sort of like the railroad in that you had to have a doctor's exam. They had to make sure we weren't color blind. We were all working underground, and there isn't much light. We were sent out to Carbonado. I worked there from the fall until April.
From the beginning I had a vague feeling that I was taking desperate chances. I tried to brand this feeling as being childish. Hadn't I felt the same way when I took my first plane ride? After all, mining isn't such a dangerous work if a fellow watches his step.
With nearly three hundred and fifty other miners, I was working far beneath the earth's surface in a coal mine in the Cascade Mountains. The vein lay on a steep pitch, consequently there was a lot of gas around making it necessary that every miner be alert, guarding against the danger of an explosion. Somehow, the strangeness of this new situation fascinated me in such a way as to make me forget my misgivings for some length of time.
"The miners frequently congregated at lunch time to spin their tales and hear the yarns of others. I listened with bated breath to many strange stories as we lay in those dark underground passages. Looking back upon such occasions, I can only imagine how we looked there in the darkness, the headlights from our caps struggling to pierce the gloom. To an onlooker we might have been a group of giant cyclops gathered to this dark cavern in council.
Pete Nicholi could paint vividly in his broken Italian way, word pictures of the big fire in the old "Prospector" mine in Montana. Rock Allen figured prominently in the "Midas Disaster" and could relate in awful detail the horrors suffered by entombed miners.
I was partner to Al Paxton, working as repair timberman when he told me his story in detail. It happened in this mine, The Carbonado. Miners in one of the chutes on the first level struck gravel and it came in like water, caving from the surface. Al was in a crosscut at the time and was knocked to the ground, but succeeded in lifting his head up against the roof timbers as the gravel poured in around him. He was buried alive for three days and nights, breathing the air that was pocketed around the timbers. Seven others were caught like rats in a trap without a fighting chance, and only Al came out alive. He was a mental and physical wreck for months.
Such experiences as these seemed quite common among the miners. As I listened to these weird experiences, I was often startled with the thought that, perhaps I was witnessing a strange drama that was bound for a tragic ending.
Graveyard shift was a lonely stretch but somehow I liked it. On this shift we entered the "hole" at eleven thirty at night, just after the departing miners had fired their last shots. Often I've lain in the dark smoky passages with my nose rooted to the ground. I lay down because the air was freer from powder smoke near the floor. I would try to glean enough air from the smoke to satisfy my burning lungs.
Shortly after midnight each night, a strange phenomena occurs which, according to the old miners, is governed by the moon or the tide. In the darkness above, one can hear coal and rock sluffing off into the chutes almost as if someone were mining. This lasts for over an hour. A veteran miner beside me might casually remark that the Chinaman are mining. Twenty years previous to this, it seems that thirty five Chinamen had been entombed beneath thousands of tons of rock, making recovery of their bodies impossible. The seam, of coal, in which they were buried, had to be sealed up and abandoned. Some of the most imaginative of the old miners told of having seen or heard these orientals at work on the graveyard shift.
Another peculiarity of the mine was a large grayish brown mine rat. These little animals could smell our lunch the moment we opened it even though they were several hundred yards away. They came scurryimg toward us squawking, and as they came into the range of our lights their eyes gleamed. They ate the morsels of food from our hands with no more ado than would the common house cat. Rats are regarded by the miner in much the same manner as the Hindu regards his sacred cow. It is claimed it possesses uncanny intuition, that warns of approaching danger. His flight is a signal for all miners to leave the mine. Men have avoided death by heeding this warning, so I was told.
A feeling of doubt often came over me as I watched these little varmints. I wondered if they should ever have occasion to warn me of impending disaster.
During my first six months of mining experience, three men had met with unpleasant deaths. Why I stayed on I can not say." Ma was quite sick and had to have an operation. It was a major operation. I think it was her appendix. She had to go to Salt Lake. They had tried to get hold of me but had no way of knowing where I was at. In the harvest we'd go from job to job. It seemed like I'd just get into town and then go out on another job. Finally, at Christmas time I went home.
Earlier I had had a bad dream. I dreamed I was staying in this company hotel and I was sitting there when the whole earth started rolling. I thought it was an earthquake. The whole mountain was shaking. Then someone said, "It's in the mines! An explosion in the mines." Then I ran out and over to the mining offices. The guys were there and Mrs Parker, our laundry lady was coming up wringing her hands. Somebody else was coming up the man trip and was coming out. It was a disaster. Mrs Parker said, "Is Al all right?" Anyway I was experiencing this dream, but I wasn`t in it.
I had been working in the mines, and there was a lot of gas. I thought maybe my thinking had been prejudiced. The coal company had this hotel where most of the single guys lived. The town was made up of coal miners.
The mine offices were right at the edge of the canyon up on a little plateau. They had the dry there where you could change your clothes before going down into the mine. The dry was between the hotel and the offices. Then we took a mantrip down about 800 feet to another level, and then we went into the mine. A man trip was just cars with seats that went down the side of the hill to the bottom of the canyon. It was run by a big pulley and cables. This one boy would hook the cars up to go up the mountain. Some of them broke loose on him once and almost cut him in two. It didn't kill him, but he was in terrible shape. I think he lost a leg.
After we got off the mantrip, we would walk into the mine. Sometimes we would walk the good part of a mile back in. Therewas a railroad into the mine. It had the narrow gauge cars. The cars were the little ones that carried the coal out.
I started out as a timber packer, packing timber in. From there I went on to running the haulage. That was a job where we'd run an electric motor hauling the coal cars out and then empties back and switching them into the mines. I was spotting the cars and switching them into the mines. When I was spotting the cars,a fellow named Murphy out of Twin Falls was helping to run the haulage. He was just a young fellow with a couple kids. He had a beautiful little family. He used to bootleg out of Twin Falls. He'd go up to Mackay and bring back liquor and sell it in Twin Falls. That was still during Prohibition days.
We would lay tracks as we went in. When the drilling gang went in, they laid tracks as far as they had cross cuts. They built shafts going up to the next level. After they'd drive the shaft, they'd start making wings going out to the side of it. Then it was all timbered in with green timber.
They would let the coal down the shaft a block at a time so it wouldn't spill on the gangway causing rocks and niggerheads to come down and hit the miners. One guy was the chute chaser. He would start the coal down the chute. The miners would have to have the empty cars to haul the coal out. I'd spot the cars and tell the chute chaser when they were full. We'd be off in the mine, and then we'd shoot off five cars to the miners on a little side track back into a place where they were working. I'd get back between the fourth and fifth cars, and when I'd get to the right spot, I would signal Murphy to shut off the motor, and I'd coast on in.
We had these things like a sword made into a cross that I used to sprague the cars. It was sharp on one end and had another end to hold on to. I'd throw it into the spokes of the cars, and it would lock them in place. Then when the weight of the cars came on it, it would hold them. I was spraguing these cars, but I had more of an incline than I thought on this one place, and I hadn't spragued it enough to hold all the cars. I had just spragued the back car; the one closest to me.
The guys were working right on the gangway. I gave Murphy the high sign and told him to give it the hardest shot because I had to go quite a ways past all these open chutes to the face so they could get their coal out of it. I was riding the cars when I got to the place where I had spragued the last group. There had been enough weight there that they pushed too far and the last car flared out a little. It was just hitting the edges of the other cars.
As it hit the first one, I could see it rock back, and I gave the electric light; that was the stop signal. Murphy was reversing his motor; I could hear him reversing it, but it hit one, then two, then three. When it hit four, it came back and buckled the car just enough to come back on my foot and ankle and leg. I think it was just a bad bruise and sprain.
I was off work about two weeks. I stayed there then because I got sick leave and got paid for it. I was getting paid six dollars a day and time and a half for overtime. I was one of the few single men, and I worked quite a bit of overtime. When I had started, I started working on the timber gang. That was all midnight work. The day shift and the afternoon shift took out the coal; then the timber rats would have to bring green timber to stud up what they'd mined.
I had been on the timber gang and knew all the ins and outs of timber packing. So when I got on swing shift, I could get all the work I wanted. There was always someone sick. Besides, when you get on graveyard, especially married men like to be with their family more. If they wanted the time to do something, I could always work. I'd average twelve dollars a day and in those days that was fabulous.
The Pacific Coast Coal owned the Alaska lines as well as the Northern Pacific. They had two ways to go to ship coal and they never closed down.
Anyway, I had two weeks off with my leg. I was having a lot of fun. We'd go into Seattle over the weekend, but they had a little community non-denominational church there at the mine. We'd go to that once in awhile. The boys would go to see all the girls. There were some cute little miner's daughters. We'd go to look them over.
Besides gas in the mines, there would be quite a bit of water. There would be a big stream of water by the time you got down to the bottom. It would come in at several places. There would be big enormous pumps pumping water to the surface all the time.
"At the time I was working graveyard quite a bit. After they had set the timber they'd fire our shots, and as they'd fire the shots, they'd come out. The morning shift would go in and clean up, loading the coal and putting it in the chute. Anyway, when I came off graveyard this one night, I felt odd. When I woke up that next morning, I thought I was losing my mind. Something inside of me kept saying, "Get up and get out of here. Go! Leave!" I thought, "Well I'm losing my mind." I got up and told my roommate, "Damn it, I just feel like leaving. I feel like I want to go."
"He said "Ah man, we've got the safest place in the mine." They had never tested gas in any of our working places, and you'd generally have a little here or there.
"He said "You guys got it made. It's dry in there too." Our vein was going up hill. That's how I had hurt my leg, because the cars had slid down on me. If you don't have an engine on them, you'd have to sprague the cars. You'd have to sprague it enough to hold a load of coal.
"I tried to walk off the feelings of doom, but it seemed as if walking only stimulated within me a feeling of dread. My mind seemed capable of harboring only one thought, "Leave!" I debated the question with myself. I had been recently assigned to work in a new seam of coal which had just been opened up. It was considered the best and safest working place in the mine. I was fascinated by my work and my wages were high when compared to wages paid for work outside of the mines. Why should I quit my job? I wouldn't! Always my conclusions were blotted out by one thought, "To quit, to leave!"
After dining at the hotel, I took my lunch over to the dry, the locker room where mining clothes were kept. Accompanied by two fellow workers, I went to Mount Rainier Park, about twenty miles away.
It was a beautiful day, Mount Rainier stood out majestically against a blue sky. The scent of pine needles, mingled with the early spring air was invigorating. The ride lifted me out of my unpleasant state of mind, but as we returned home to the mine and to work, the feeling of dread descended upon me with greater weight.
"We were gathering at the dry about an hour early,preparatory to entering the mine at four o'clock in the afternoon. Miners sat around in groups jostling each other as they waited to enter the "hole." Suddenly I was filled again with an overwhelming desire to chuck it all and leave. It seemed as if some unseen power were holding me back."
After I had eaten my lunch I talked to some of the guys I'd been out with. Very few of them were on my shift. Tony was the only one. He was a contract miner and was quite a bit older than I was. But he said, "Red," That's what they all called me. "Red, I've got a brother-in-law in Canada that's an oil wild catter, and if you'll stay just four more weeks, my wife will be through teaching school, and I'll take you up there and get us a good job."
We got into the dry, and I said, "Damn it, I don't feel like going down. I think I'm going to have to quit." Several of them said, "Ah, don't quit." I said, "No, you've got time. There's a young fellow there that's just been hired. They haven't placed him yet."
Anyway, as Murphy dressed, I talked to this boy that took my place. His parents had lived up at Fairfax just above Carbonado where we were at. His Dad had died in the mine. He told me his uncle had promised to put him through mining engineering school. They lived back in Pennsylvania somewhere in the coal country. He said, "My Uncle will pay me all the way through school." The kid would take off and work in the mines to help keep his mother going.
Jack Flood, a veteran miner in the new seam, told me that I was taking a wise step. "I am retiring from the mines in June" he confided! "I've just stocked a chicken ranch over on the Green River Gorge."
Jim Murphy was my partner. He and I composed the haulage crew, hauling coal out of the new seam. As I shook hands with him, his face assumed that devil-may care grin that always accompanied his boisterous Irish wit. "Well, Red, when you get back to Idaho let me know how everything goes."
"I surely will Murphy," I told him. He laughed back over his shoulder, "Like Hell you will." They were on their way down. "Murphy was right. I never wrote to him because I knew a letter could not reach him. I just threw in the chips. I went right across the road. Paul Gallager, the mine superintendant of the whole mine of about three hundred and fifty miners total, said, "Well, you had a little bad luck with your foot awhile back, didn't you?" I said "Yea, it got jambed up a little bit."
He said, "The way things are, why don't you go home and I'll hold this open for you for a couple weeks. Go back and visit your folks. I'm sure you'll feel different." I said, "No, I'm quitting, I'm through with mining. I'm going home."
He said, "Okay," and had one of the girls in the office write out my check. I took the bus into Seattle. One of my first thoughts was to see a good show. I hadn't seen one in a couple of weeks or such a matter. I went into the show house and got out I think it was ten thirty or eleven in the evening.
As I emerged from the theatre, I was startled by the newsboy's cry. "Extra! Extra! Big Carbonado Mine Disaster: Seventeen Men Killed in Gas Explosion! Read all about it."
Man, I had just figured for all that time that I was going crazy, but now I felt like the good Lord had had his arm out around me. Anyway I felt like a big load was just lifted off my shoulders. My blood seemed to turn cold, and a tickling sensation played up and down my spine as I snatched a paper and glanced down the list of dead. Yes, it was our working place. Every man in the new seam had been killed instantly. Their charred bodies were recovered before midnight.
I talked with members of the rescue party later. Murphy and the young man who took my place were found dead beneath the electric switch.
I came home, and my folks hadn't heard anything of the mine incident. They knew I was working in the mine, but it wouldn't have made the headlines back in Idaho. The little paper there in Buhl only came out once a week anyway.
I had sent about half my money home but I wasn't saving my money real well. Times were tough, and sometimes you couldn't get a check cashed for two weeks. Fay had just married Nellie, and he felt real lucky just to get a job. He thought he had the whole world by the tail. He had found a job working for Earl Heidel and was making sixty dollars a month and a house to live in. He broke his leg, so I went out to work for him while his leg healed.
I got my mission call then and entered the mission home July 7, l930. I served for three years lacking two and a half months in the Oklahoma area.