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Remembering a disastrous day

September 5, 2011
By Kurt Hauglie ( , The Daily Mining Gazette

OSCEOLA TOWNSHIP - The Osceola Mine fire of Sept. 7, 1895, proved the dangers of mining can sometimes be minimized by the people who face the most harm from the dangers.

The death toll from the fire - the cause of which is still unknown - reached 30, including four boys. It stands as the greatest loss of life in a single accident during the copper-mining era in the Copper Country.

Allan Johnson, former Michigan Technological University professor who taught in the mining engineering department, said the fire started in the Osceola Mine shaft No. 3 in Osceola Township south of Calumet not far from what is now U.S. 41.

"It was an upcast timber shaft," he said. "It would have been just like a chimney."

The design of the shaft and the fact it contained a large number of timbers and other wooden structures, Johnson said, were factors leading to the high number of deaths in the mine.

"It was the worst disaster in the Copper Country," he said.

Most of the miners who died, Johnson said, succumbed to smoke or gas inhalation. The smoke and gas eventually reached the No. 4 shaft, which was a downcast shaft, meaning smoke and gas were drawn into the shaft.

According to the Houghton County Mine Inspector's report of the fire, "At about 11:30 a.m. while the whole of the day shift men were under ground fire was discovered in No. 3 Shaft at the 27th level. Capt. Richard Trembath with a party of men trying to extinguish the fire which had caught in the lagging at the back of the shaft. As there is no timber in the drifts or stopes of this mine it seems that this is the only place that a fire could possibly have caught. How it originated is and probably always be a mystery. The only solution seems to be that it must have caught form a candle or snuff thrown there carelessly by some of the men or boys."

The report states, also, the mine skips, which were used to bring out ore, were in constant use to bring out miners from shafts 4 and 5.

Johnson said because fires were not uncommon in mines, and most were put out quickly, according to newspaper accounts at the time, many of the more than 200 miners in the shafts appeared to be unconcerned, and in fact some were seen by other miners leaving the shaft to be standing or sitting smoking their pipes.

Johnson said the mine made a lot of money for its investors and owners, the Osceola Mining Company.

"It was a very productive lode," he said. "Through 1904, it paid dividends of $4,247,300."

Norman Gruber, whose great-grandfather died in the Osceola Mine fire, said his great-grandfather married his great-grandmother in Cornwall, England before the two came to the Copper Country. It's uncertain, but his great-grandfather may have worked in Central Mine before moving to the Osceola Mine.

Gruber said he got a little bit of information about the fire from his mother.

When it became certain the fire could not be put out, Gruber said mine owners decided to take a drastic measure in an attempt to suffocate it.

"They covered over the shaft while there were still miners in there to put out the fire," he said.

While many of the 30 miners who died were found in the No. 4 shaft, Gruber said he doesn't know where his great-grandfather was found.

Because of the fire, Gruber said his grandfather decided to forego a career as a miner.

"As a result of that, my grandfather would never work underground," he said.

Instead, Gruber said his grandfather worked for the mine in above ground jobs, and eventually became a streetcar conductor during the Great Depression.

Gruber said his great-grandfather and great-grandmother, who died a year after her husband of a heart attack, are buried in Lake View Cemetery in Osceola Township, and he likes to visit them regularly.

"I stop by once a year," he said.



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