Part 2: Backward glance at the 1911 Hartford Mine disaster

A mine rescue crew with oxygen helmets, circa 1920s. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

Adapted from an article originally published in the USW Local 4974’s The Miners’ Voice, January 1983.

Last week’s article discussed a fire at Negaunee’s Hartford Mine on Friday, May 5, 1911. As the situation was brought under control, they were finally able to obtain an accurate headcount. At 12:00 noon, it was confirmed that seven miners were missing.

At that point, the water was shut off and teams of rescuers into the smoke filled mine without any form of breathing protection as the oxygen masks from the Austin Mine near Gwinn had not yet arrived.

The teams were comprised of miners who had just escaped themselves from the death trap, and when the call came for volunteers to re-enter the burning mine, they had bravely stepped forward.

The crowds around the mine opening continued to grow. When the names of the seven missing miners were announced to the crowd, the air became filled with screams of anguish. The names included John Tamblyn, of the Cambria, Richard Yelland and his young son Billy, Herb Dower, Harry Wharry, August Frederickson, and finally, Ed Puske.

The rescuers descended through the Cambria and down the #1 shaft of the Hartford. Albert Webb, the man who had argued that the water would drive the smoke and gases back into the lower workings of the mine, was one of the first volunteers to go down to look for the missing miners.

The search began in the second level of the Hartford, where five of the missing men were known to have been working when the fire was first discovered.

Making their way through the utter darkness and the choking atmosphere of the mine with their dimly- lit lanterns, the rescuers came across the body of a young Finnish miner. Ed Puske was just 75 feet from the main shaft, apparently overcome by the poisonous gases as he was hurrying back to catch the #2 shaft cage.

A short time later, the bodies of Herb Dower and Harry Wharry were found, also on the second level. From the position of the bodies, it was evident that they had tried to keep alive by lying down and keeping their faces close to a small stream of water.

Dower left a wife and eight children, while Wharry, just 25 years old, was unmarried.

Over at the Cambria, John Tamblyn was found alive, but gasping convulsively for air. He was carried up to the surface, but it was apparent that he was past all medical help. In a short time, Tamblyn’s troubled breathing ceased forever.

Tamblyn, one of the best known residents of the city, left a widow.

The poisonous gases and smoke were now beginning to take their toll among the rescuers as well, as five would-be-rescuers were themselves rescued as they fell to the floor unconscious.

They were carried back to surface and rushed to the Negaunee Hospital. Further attempts to find the three other missing miners would have to wait until the oxygen helmets arrived.

The helmets from the mine rescue station in Urbana, Illinois, finally arrived the following morning, and another team of rescuers descended into the mine once again.

In less than an hour, the bodies of Richard Yelland and his son, Billy, were found and brought to the surface. Both were found in a raise between the second and third levels where they had died while trying to escape to the lower levels of the mine.

The senior Yelland was survived by a wife and 17 children.

Finally, the lifeless body of August Frederickson was found near the area where the fire had broken out on the third level. He left a wife and three children.

And so, for the third time in less than a decade, the people of Negaunee mourned the victims of yet another mining disaster, the other two being the 1902 cave-in at the Negaunee Mine which took the lives of 10 miners, and the catastrophe at the Rolling Mill Mine in 1905 in which 11 men lost their lives when the cage fell over 600 feet and crashed to the bottom of the shaft.

An inquest into the disaster began immediately. The cause of the fire will never be known, although it was suspected that a lighted candle may have somehow been thrown into the ore chute which was located just a few feet from the main shaft.

Remarkably and rather unusually for the times, after listening to the testimonies of numerous witnesses, the coroner’s jury condemned the mining company with a verdict which stated that the seven miners who died in the fire were killed largely due to the fact that the water and air which was forced into the shaft drove the smoke and gases upon the workmen.

Testimony and evidence presented during the inquest also revealed that the miners who died on the second level had become trapped as the “absence of a ladderway in the #1 shaft prevented the men from making their escape through that part of the mine.”

With the verdict “censuring” the company, widely publicized protests brought renewed attention to the unsafe conditions and circumstances under which the underground miners were being forced to work on the Marquette Iron Range. The protests ultimately resulted in new safety programs, including immediate access to oxygen rescue equipment in all the mines.

The tragic Hartford Mine fire finally ended public indifference to safety in the mines, and the mining companies were at last being forced to protect the lives of their employees.