Thunder under the House:
The Hanna Mine Disasters
By TOM REA
Hanna, Wyoming, was a company town. Its dirt streets were straight and orderly. Its small houses were nearly all alike, with four rooms and a privy out back. The streets ran up the low hills away from the railroad and into the sagebrush. Front Street, a row of small stores and a boarding house, ran along the tracks’ north side.
The houses on the south side of the tracks made up Number One Town, more often just called One Town. Miners who lived in One Town all worked in the company’s Number One Mine. Two Town was the houses on the north side of the tracks, stretching up behind Front Street (at right, in the 1920s; Mary Stebner Ford's boarding house is the big building on the left). Miners in Two Town all worked in the company’s Number Two Mine. More than half the miners had families. The rest were unmarried.
One Saturday afternoon in March 1908, 17-year-old Mary Hughes was making a pudding in the kitchen of No. 77, One Town, the seventh house in the first row of houses. The kitchen was warm, and smelled of her warm pudding and the coal fire in the cook stove. Her father, Charles Hughes, watched her and tried to remember Mary’s mother’s pudding recipe. Mary’s mother had died four years earlier, before they left England. Since then, Mary had been the main cook in the family.
Today, however, Charles Hughes’ mind was as much on the coal mine underneath them as it was on Mary’s pudding. There was a fire burning in the mine.
All the mines in Hanna were underground. Main tunnels, called slopes, sloped down to side tunnels, called entries, which led off either side of them. The entries led to rooms underground. Down there it was pitch black all the time. To light his work, each man wore a little lamp on the front of his hat. Light came from the small, open flame.
The rooms had walls of solid coal, sometimes thirty feet high. Holding a hand-cranked steel drill at shoulder height, one miner drilled a hole into the coal. At the same time his mate, on the ground with a pick, worked to undercut the face--the wall of coal. Then they filled the hole with blasting powder. Then they lit a fuse, left the room, and the blast brought the face down. They loaded the loose coal onto small cars, which ran on tracks out through the entries. Some of the cars were pulled by mules. Some were hauled up the slopes by cables connected to big steam engines outside, at the top.
The fire in the mine had been burning underground for weeks. The bosses directed the miners to wall off the fire, and keep on mining the rest of the mine. Such fires happened from time to time. Usually they went out fairly soon. But by this March Saturday, the bosses decided the fire had burned long enough. Charles Hughes and most other miners from the No. 1 mine were not working because some experts had been called underground to figure out how to put the fire out.
At 3 p.m. came a sudden Boom! Mary felt the floor shake, and the dishes rattled. All her life, she remembered it as a sound like thunder under the house. Her father grabbed his coat and hat and left. The dog followed him out the door. She never saw either again.
The Union Pacific Railroad ran on coal, and needed a constant, steady supply if it was to keep on running. Coal deposits at Carbon, near Medicine Bow, at Rock Springs, and at Almy, near Evanston, had determined the railroad’s route across Wyoming in the first place. Mines opened at Carbon and Rock Springs in 1868, and in Almy in 1869. In the early years of the mines, the miners were mostly immigrants from the British Isles. Later, when the English miners went on strike, the company brought Chinese miners to Rock Springs and Almy, and Finnish miners to Carbon. Bad feelings of the Anglo miners toward the Chinese led to the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885, when 28 Chinese miners were killed. Strikes and walkouts continued as the company fought to keep wages low and the coal flowing out of the mines at the same time. (At left, Swedish miners in Hanna in 1892.)
The work itself was very dangerous. The early mines had few safety features. They often lacked extra airshafts for ventilation, extra exits in case of cave-ins, or strong enough timbers to hold up the roofs in the tunnels and rooms.
Men had to die in large groups before Wyoming realized the true danger. Mostly they died in scattered accidents, in ones and twos, but in 1881, an explosion and fire killed 38 men at a mine at Almy. Five years later, 13 more men died in the same mine, the same way. Finally, Wyoming passed a batch of safety laws. A state mine inspector would be required to inspect every Wyoming coal mine at least once every three months. Boys under 14 and women were prohibited from working underground.
Some of these same ideas were written into Wyoming’s new state constitution three years later. On the theory that fatigue was the main cause of accidents, the constitution demanded that the workday in the mines would be limited to eight hours. (The Union Pacific ignored the requirement 1907, however, when the newly organized United Mine Workers of America--the UMWA--won it for the UP miners after a labor dispute.)
Still, accidents kept happening. Sixty-two men were killed in an explosion near Evanston in 1895. Twenty-six miners were killed in a cave-in at Diamondville in Lincoln County, in February 1901. Eight months later, 22 more were killed in the same mine. The Legislature passed more laws. The state mine inspector was given the power to hire deputies. Inspections were required even after non-fatal accidents. It hardly seemed to matter.
Meanwhile the railroad got faster, busier, and more efficient. The tracks were rebuilt all across Wyoming—the curves straightened and steep grades flattened. By the end of the 1890s the mines at Carbon (below, in an undated photo) had about played out. In 1902, Carbon’s mines closed for good. The new railroad route went through Hanna, 12 miles north, where new mines had opened up earlier. Most of the miners simply moved over to Hanna, and kept right on working. But where the town of Carbon had been scattered and disorganized, with more dugouts than houses, Hanna was planned. The Union Pacific Coal Company owned everything—the houses, the store, and the boarding house. It owned the community hall. Miners could rent the houses for 12 dollars per month.
Martin Stebner, a blacksmith, came to Carbon from Germany with his wife, Amelia, and their six children in the 1880s. Bruno Stebner and his brothers went to work in the mines when they were still in their mid-teens. When the mines closed in Carbon, the Stebners moved for a few years to Cambria, a coal town near Newcastle in northeastern Wyoming.
While in Cambria, the Stebners would have heard of the worst mining disaster Wyoming ever saw. On June 30, 1903, an explosion in the Number One Mine in Hanna killed 171 men. Many of the miners the Stebners had known in Carbon were killed that day in Hanna.
While the Stebners were still in Cambria, the Hughes family arrived in Hanna from Lancashire, a coal-mining part of northwest England. Two brothers, William and Job Hughes, had come to Iowa many years earlier to mine coal. Job was killed, however, and William returned to England. Later he came back to the states, this time to Wyoming. In 1904, William's widowed brother Charles followed, bringing his family with him. (Left, the Hanna depot about 1910). Charles brought Mary and her little brother John, and their three cousins, the Mellor boys, who otherwise would have had to grow up in an orphanage in Lancashire. Charles, Mary, and John moved into a company house in Hanna. The Mellor boys earned their keep on ranches.
The Stebners left Cambria and arrived in Hanna about the same time as the Hugheses. Charles Hughes and Bruno Stebner, though they may have been 10 years or more apart in age, became good friends. Both worked in the Number One Mine, and both families lived near each other in One Town.
Year after year, knowing full well how dangerous the work was, the men kept going back down underground. The sheer difficulty of the work made them proud, made them feel like real men. The shared danger made them close comrades. These feelings combined into what the Finnish miners called sisu: a mix of courage and endurance, fierce will and burning energy. But all the ethnic groups shared something similar. The women kept their minds on their immediate tasks, careful not to worry too far beyond them. They were careful, too, never to let a miner leave the house in anger. Anger could distract a man underground, where the slightest carelessness could get him killed.
The boom that Mary Hughes and her father heard in their kitchen was the sound of the Number One Mine exploding again--the second time in five years. Big rocks and mine timbers blew out of the mine’s two entrances, followed by thick, thick dust. The main entrance was clogged, but the east entrance was still open. As Charles Hughes arrived, the men quickly organized into two groups. One group began digging to clear the main entrance. The second went down into the mine through the east entrance, looking for survivors—or bodies.
Bruno Stebner and Charles Hughes worked with the rescue party. Some hours later, Bruno was heading down the slope with a load of tools, when he encountered Charles heading up with a group of four men, carrying a heavy body. They traded places, so that the younger man could help carry the corpse. Charles headed back down into the mine with the tools. At the surface, Bruno and the other men left the body in a shack, and hurried back toward the east entrance. By now it was night. Charles by then would have been delivering tools to more rescuers, far down in the mine. Mary had finished the pudding long ago.
Boom! Came a second explosion. Eighteen men had been trapped underground by the first blast. Forty-one more were underground when the second blast came. Mary, as instructed, stayed home and waited for the news. It was Bruno who knocked on the door. Her father, he told her, was certainly killed. The two blasts left 31 new widows, and 103 children without fathers. (Below, a funeral procession heads out from Hanna to a memorial service for the miners.)
But worse was the fact that the blast wasn’t necessary. It was an avoidable accident. Under a system called “gouging,” the company mined the coal as it dug the hole. That is, the entries off the main slope were opened and mined as the slope was dug further downwards. This meant miners were always working below and beyond big rooms now empty of coal—but very likely to fill with gases that might explode at any time.
The right way to do it, mine inspector Noah Young wrote the governor of Wyoming later that month, after the explosions, would have been to dig the main slope all the way down first, and then mine back upwards. Then the abandoned rooms can be allowed to fill with water, and the miners were never below empty spaces filled with dangerous gas. Only greed led the company to begin mining coal as soon as it opened the mine. “The [coal] seam,” Young wrote the governor, “could have been worked without a single explosion.”
A few months later, Bruno and Mary were married. He looks happy and confident in their wedding photo, but she only looks young, and very sad. In July, the company reopened the mine and 27 bodies were recovered. The rest, including Charles Hughes, were left in the mine. Number One Mine was a tomb now, and stayed closed forever after that. The following April, Mary bore her first child, Charles Stebner—Charlie, the family called him. Two years later, Elsie was born, and two years after that, LeRoy. Eighty years later, when he wrote a book about his family and his town, Charlie knew his mother was happiest during those years when the children were coming.
Bruno ran a side business, fixing watches, clocks, guns—anything mechanical. He fixed the radiator on the first automobile that ever came through Hanna. And he ran the movie projector at Hanna’s old opera house. He had taught himself to read and write, and he taught Mary, who’d had so little schooling herself, the same skills.
Soon he had a much better job than mining coal. Because he was good with machines, the company put him in charge of the steam engine that pulled the cables pulling the loaded coal cars up the slope and out of the mine.
Every steam engine has a boiler, like a huge teakettle. Inside, water is heated to steam and the pressure builds up that runs the engine. From time to time the hard, scaly mineral deposits that formed on the inside of the boilers had to be cleaned out. One day, Bruno was cleaning the boiler. Somehow, a valve got turned and live steam poured into the boiler from the second boiler, next to it. In horrible pain and shock, he managed to climb back out the manhole and walk out of the building before collapsing. He was badly burned. An ambulance wagon took him home to No. 77. The company doctor did what he could for Bruno’s pain, and family members paid visits to the small, darkened bedroom. In spite of the pain, Bruno was rational and knew who everyone was.
Bruno put his hand on Charlie’s head, and smiled. Charlie cried. All his life he remembered the patchy look of the skin on his father’s hands, face, and throat, and how the man’s Adam’s apple, the skin nearly burned off it, moved as he spoke: “Charlie, you are the man of the house now. Take care of your mother.” Bruno died the next day. This was May 1914. Charlie was five years old.
Mary, a widow now with three young children, was only 23. She collected $1,000 in life insurance from a policy Bruno had bought, and the miners’ union contributed about $800. The company waived the rent on their house for a while. Along the railroad tracks, the children picked up coal to fuel the family stove.
Coal mining, meanwhile, stayed dangerous. Between 1912 and 1938, 160 more miners were killed in Wyoming in accidents involving five or more men. Others continued to be killed in ones and twos. The worst disaster in those years came in August 1923, when 99 men were killed in an explosion in a mine near Kemmerer. The Legislature continued to pass more laws strengthening safety rules and giving the inspectors more authority and reach.
After Bruno’s death, Mary ran a boarding house, full mostly of single miners. She was only five feet tall. “Little Mary” she’d been called in Lancashire, and the name came with her to Hanna. She cooked for them, she did their laundry, she packed their lunches every day. The miners drank sometimes. They gambled. They poached deer; they got in trouble. Still, she kept things running steadily, and the town over the decades came to love and admire her.
Mary married again, this time a man named Fred Ford. Charlie never much liked him. Fred Ford drank and gambled, and spent a lot of the money Mary made running the boarding house. After he died, there was more money in the family.
Charlie’s brother and sister suffered many infections. LeRoy finally died of meningitis about 1919, and Elise five years later of a kidney infection. By the time she was in her early thirties, then, Mary had lost her mother, her father, two husbands, and two children. She kept on running the boarding house. Charlie went to college, and then dental school. He became a well-respected dentist in Laramie. His son, Kenneth Stebner, retired recently as a district court judge in Rawlins, and his daughter, Marilyn Stebner Kite, is a justice on the Wyoming Supreme Court.
When Mary Ford finally retired from the boarding house, more than 300 people turned out in Hanna to bid her farewell. She moved to Laramie to live near her son Charlie, and died when she was 93 years old.
But it’s important to remember that every one of those coal-mine deaths down through the decades represents an emptiness, a big gap in a family, like the gaps left in the life of Mary Hughes Stebner Ford by the deaths of her father, two husbands, and two children. And all of Wyoming’s coal-mining towns, some gone, some struggling to get by, and one or two booming again, have big, empty places underneath them—the slopes, the entries, and the rooms, where all that coal was mined.
Groutage, Lorenzo. Wyoming Mine Run. Kemmerer, Wyoming: Published by the author, 1981. A memoir of life in the coal mines and coal towns of Lincoln County.
Stebner, Charles M. Letters to Dear Dan. Laramie: privately published, 1989. This is Charlie Stebner’s memoir about his family—Hugheses and Stebners—and about life in Hanna in the first half of the 20th century, including many photographs. It’s my main source for this account. The central figure in the book is Charlie’s mother, Mary Hughes Stebner Ford. This book is in most Wyoming libraries.
Allen, James B. The Company Town in the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966. A good general discussion, with specifics on Hanna pp. 53-57.
Anderson, Nancy. “Hanna.” Unpublished manuscript, 2007. Hanna, Wyo. Part of Anderson’s work will appear in a new book on Wyoming’s Red Desert and surroundings, edited by Annie Proulx, due from the University of Texas Press in 2008.
Kalisch, Philip A. “The Woebegone Miners of Wyoming: A History of Coal Mine Disasters in the Equality State.” Annals of Wyoming, Vol. 42 No. 2, October 1970.
Larson, T.A. History of Wyoming. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. 113-115, 142, 196, 230, 298, 336-337.
Roberts, Phil. “Frontier Wyoming’s Most Dangerous Occupation: The Quest for Mine Safety in Wyoming’s Coal Industry.” Details Wyoming coal mine disasters and government attempts at reform from the earliest days through the 20th century. This is one of many pages on University of Wyoming History Professor Phil Roberts’ useful website on Wyoming history.
In the early 1950s, the Union Pacific began burning diesel fuel in its locomotives. All the UP mines had closed in Hanna by the end of 1954. In the 1970s, however, the coal business boomed again. Hanna quadrupled in size between 1970 and 1982. Most of the coal mined then was from strip mines, but underground mines opened briefly for a few years in the early 1980s. Today, again, almost no coal is being mined in Hanna. But Wyoming produces more coal by far than any other state in the union. Between 1868 and 1968, Wyoming produced about 450 million tons of coal. In 2006, the biggest year so far, Wyoming produced 446 million tons of coal. Nearly all of that was from strip mines in the Powder River basin.
People continue to die mining coal. By far, the most deaths occur in underground mines. From 1996 to the present, eight people died in Wyoming coal mines, according to the Mine Safety and Health Adminstration of the U.S. Department of Labor. In West Virginia, 113 died; in Kentucky, 103 died, and in Virginia, 34; in Alabama, 30. In those states, most of the coal still comes from underground mines.
See also Phil Robert's general account of the history of coal mining in Wyoming.
For a more sprawling account with lots of early photos, see Wyoming Tails and Trails' pages on coal.
For a look at Wyoming’s coal industry today, see the Wyoming State Geological Survey’s coal section.
See a list of the miners killed in the 1903 disaster in Hanna, see the WyGenWeb project's page at http://www.rootsweb.com/~wymining/explosion.html.
See this site on the Hanna cemetery for links to lists of people buried there, and photos of a memorial stone for Hanna miners who were killed in the mines.
Hanna is 17 miles west of Medicine Bow, just north of U.S. Route 30. The Hanna Museum, on Front Street by the railroad tracks in Hanna, is packed with artifacts from and information on Hanna’s boom days early in the 20th century. FMI: see the museum's page maintained by the Wyoming State Historical Society, call Nancy Anderson about group visits at 307-325-6465, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call Anderson also for directions to the site of the ghost town of Carbon, 12 miles south of Hanna. Local enthusiasts have restored the Carbon Cemetery in recent years.
Photo credits: The photos of Carbon and the Hanna depot are from Wyoming Tails and Trails. The pictures of Hanna in the 1920s, the funeral procession, Bruno and Mary Stebner in 1908, and Mary and her pies, are courtesy of Kenneth and Karie Stebner, with thanks. The photo of the Swedish miners is from the Hanna Museum, with thanks to Nancy Anderson. S.J. Klaseen, on the right, was among the first Swedish arrivals in Hanna and was killed in the 1903 explosion.