Experience leads to fatal mistakes

Copper Country's past and people

Sept. 7, 1895, started out like any other day in the Osceola mine, south of the legendary Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. While some labor unrest occurred this year at various mines, at the Osceola, most of the men were content with their company. The mine enjoyed a good safety record, was well timbered when and where necessary. Most of the timbering was in the shafts in the form of lagging, or planks covering the ceiling (hanging wall) to protect the shaft from rock falls. The wood in the shafts was kept constantly damp as a safety measure against fire. In addition to the safety record, the men had just received a pay increase in August. The mine was huge, consisting of 11 shafts that year, and the day shift consisted of more than 200 men working underground.

On this September morning, things happened that could not be explained, then or now.

It started around 11:30 a.m. in the Number 3 Shaft, on the 27th level, about a half-mile underground. A small fire was discovered in the shaft, in the lagging of all places. Lagging was a term for timber planks set in the roof, or back, of the shaft to prevent rock from falling into the shaft. Captain Richard Trembath, shift boss, and a small party of men began fighting the fire with water buckets.

At 51 years old, Trembath was an experienced miner, having grown up in mines. Trembath was born in Penhallow, Cornwall, on June 11, 1844, where his father, William, was a miner in a time when men took their boys to work underground at an early age. Richard was the only son of six children. Richard Trembath had seen mine fires before, and he was not yet overly concerned.

Richard Edwards, another Osceola mining captain, approached the shaft, and found Trembath and his men fighting the fire. Edwards felt that a hose was needed to fight this fire, and we went to the surface to get one. Number 3 Shaft contained the pumps for keeping the mine unwatered, and Edwards’ plan was to connect the hose to the pump-works. When he tried to re-enter the mine through the Number 4 Shaft, however, there he met a number of men who had just come up, and they told him it was impossible to access the mine from either the Number 4 or the Number 3 Shafts.

Edwards, like Trembath, had seen mine fires before, and he immediately sent men down Numbers 1, 2, and 5 Shafts to warn whoever they could find to get out of the mine immediately. He also had the hoist men run skips slowly up and down Numbers 4 and 5 Shafts so men underground could use them to get to the surface. Skips were kept running in the Number 5 Shaft until 3 p.m., bringing up load after load of men.

Meanwhile, underground, as Trembath and his party continued to fight the fire, some men calmly sat down to eat lunch. The timbers in the shaft were damp and would impede the fire; there was no timbering in the stopes near the shaft to catch fire; if things got out of hand, they could always escape through the Number 4 Shaft, because that shaft was downcast, meaning air flowed down the shaft rather than up. Besides, it was lunchtime. What they did not grasp at the time, however, was that because of the heat and gases generated by the fire, Number 3, generally a downcast shaft, had become upcast, carrying smoke through the upper levels of the mine, where it then flowed back down through the Number 4 Shaft.

Mine superintendent William Parnell arrived at the surface of the No. 3 around 1:30, while the skips in Number 5 Shaft were bringing men out of the mine. Although Parnell personally believed that anyone still in the mine was dead by 3:00, he waited until 4:30 to order the shafts capped and sealed to smother the fire.

While attempts had been made to enter the mine before, it was not until Thursday, September 12, that the shafts were clear of smoke and gases, and rescue workers could enter the mine to search for the victims, which by now, was known to number 30. Most of the bodies were found in and around the Number 4 Shaft.

Trembath was found on a ladder on the 14th level. The position of his body suggested he was trying to reach a bell rope to signal to the hoist operator. In addition to Trembath, rescuers recovered the bodies of 19 miners, one laborer, five trammers, and four boys, scattered between the 17th and 4th levels. The boys were each 16 years old, and the oldest miner was 60.

While the official cause of the fire was never determined, it was the opinion of several experienced mining men, including Captain Richard Edwards, leader of the first search team, that the fire was the result of arson. The theory received much coverage in the national press. The fire had started in the lagging of the shaft, which was above miners’ heads, out of reach of candles or lamps.

It would have been impossible for a miner to toss a discarded candle upward, rather than down the shaft. In addition, there were no rags or other flammable items near the area where the fire began. There was no plausible explanation for a fire beginning in the only place where there was extensive timbering in the entire shaft. Shaft Number 3 had burned from the 27th level up to the sixth.

A coroner’s inquest that examined 12 witnesses of the fire revealed that there was no timbering in the drifts or stopes of the mine, so the fire could only have started where Trembath had discovered it.