SMITH MINE DISASTER

When traveling Montana secondary highway 308 east of Red Lodge, one can see series of old, corrugated steel buildings along the northern side of the road.  There is a roadside sign that describes the worst coal mining accident in Montana's history.  On the morning of February 27th, 1943, an explosion occurred nearly 7,000 feet below the Earth's surface.  The explosion was caused by a build up of methane gas, but what caused it to detonate is unknown.  At the time, it was commonplace for miners to smoke while working.  77 miners were working that morning, but only 3 survived the day's events.  The explosion was so deep that people in the nearby communities didn't feel anything, but only noticed something was wrong when a strange smoke and smell came wafting out of the mouth of the mine.  Rescuers came from nearby mines as well as from a special rescue unit from Butte.  Family members rushed to the mine to assist with the rescue, but the fumes were so poisonous that rescuers could only stand five minutes at a time in the mine.  The Red Cross established an emergency hospital in Red Lodge which was staffed by student volunteers from the local high school. Over 100 rescuers suffered injuries and exposure to fumes.  The number of casualties rose to 75.  A handful of miners made it far enough to last an hour and half after the explosion.  Reports tell of miners who wrote messages to their families with chalk.  One message read, “Good bye wifes and daughters.  We died an easy death.  Love from us both.  Be good.”  After the disaster, the mine never reopened.  Population in the area dropped significantly, and even today it is a fraction of what it was back then.    

Kayde Kaiser |University of Montana | Geography Department