The Hastings Mine Explosion was the deadliest mining disaster in Colorado history. Caused by the misguided striking of a match in the Hastings coal mine north of Trinidad on April 27, 1917, the blast killed 121 coal miners; one other worker died of overexertion while trying to recover the bodies. Even in an era when mine accidents were tragically common, the number of casualties in the Hastings blast was extraordinary, reflecting the high human cost of one of the state’s most profitable industries.
As was typical in mining disasters of the early twentieth century, the victims of the Hastings explosion were mostly European immigrants and from other marginalized groups, indicating the type of people that Colorado’s business community and public were willing to sacrifice in order to have warm homes and a robust economy. Disasters like the Hastings Explosion, which is generally left out of Colorado history books, remind today’s Coloradans that economic prosperity often comes with a human toll that is not always visible.
Coal was Colorado’s most important commodity in the early twentieth century. It fueled the gold- and silver-mining industries, propelled railroads, heated brick kilns for construction, and warmed hundreds of homes in cities such as Denver. In 1917 Colorado had 238 coal mines operating throughout the state, most of which were divided between three companies: Colorado Fuel and Iron, the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, and Victor American Fuel Company. That year, the state’s coal mines produced a total of some 12.5 million tons of coal, an increase of nearly 2 million tons from the previous year.
Working in coal mines was dirty and dangerous. Even in the 1910s, when strikes and violent labor conflicts such as the Ludlow Massacre rocked the state’s coalfields, workers had made minimal gains in either pay or workplace safety. They still worked up to twelve hours a day, six days a week. They inhaled coal dust all day long, which led to the devastating respiratory disease known as black lung. Mine shafts could collapse or flood. Rockslides and fires were also common; in 1917 the state mine inspector reported that sixty-six miners died from routine accidents, including “falls of rock, falls of coal, mine cars and motors, explosives,” and “electricity.”
In addition, methane and other flammable gases released from coal beds often built up in the mines. Each morning an inspector had to check the air quality with safety lamps before work could begin; flames in safety lamps burned differently when held close to flammable gases. If mine inspection was not done properly, explosions could occur, such as when the Jokerville Mine exploded near Crested Butte in 1884 or when the Vulcan Mine in Garfield County blew up three times between 1896 and 1918.
The Hastings Mine
Coal mining near Hastings, in Las Animas County, began in the 1870s, and expanded after a rail connection arrived in 1889. A second seam of the coal mine was opened in 1912. Although productive, the mine was known to be volatile; in his report on the Hastings explosion, US Bureau of Mines inspector C. A. Herbert noted that “large quantities of gas are given off at all times from both the floor and coal.” This hazard led to several blasts at the mine before 1917, prompting the company to install “fans and air chutes sufficiently that it was thought to be safe.”
Explosion and Aftermath
For reasons still unknown, around 9:30 am on the snowy morning of April 17, 1917, Hastings Mine inspector David H. Reese took apart his safety lamp and struck a match to relight it, “causing an explosion that spread with great violence throughout almost the entire mine.” Incredibly, despite the size of the blast, “not a sound was heard outside.” Although up to 125 were feared dead, officials held out hope that some miners had survived the blast.
Recovery of bodies was a slow process that took many days, owing to the dangerous conditions that lingered in the mine. It soon became clear from these conditions, which included, according to the deputy state inspector of coal mines, “destruction of stoppings and falls of rock . . . and all the workings below the fourth north being full of gas,” that there would be no survivors. The first body was brought out of the mine around 9 am on April 28; the body of mine inspector David H. Reese was not pulled out until May 10. Gathering the bodies was no easy task, as shown by the death of rescue worker Walter Kerr, who died of heart failure while carrying a body out of the mine (Kerr’s family was awarded compensation in the amount of $8 per week for six years).
The majority of the 121 miners killed were Austrian, Greek, Black, Italian, Mexican, or Polish, and most were between the ages of twenty and forty. In the days after the blast, a shaken crowd of hundreds gathered around the wrecked mine, including wives and children of the deceased. Newspapers related the shock and grief of those who lost loved ones. Wrote the Montrose Daily Press, “Up the snowclad hill trudged at intervals thru [sic] the day a long line of figures, mourning women in whose hearts the spark of hope had died.” The wife and daughter of a Mexican miner sat nearly motionless outside the mine for hours, peering into the blackness, their faces twisted with “the fear and the longing, and the sadness that shown in their big liquid brown eyes.”
Near Reese’s body, which was notably untouched by flame or “violence,” was the inspector’s disassembled safety lamp. Twenty-two matches were found in Reese’s pocket, according to the deputy state inspector’s report, and “matches and tobacco” were reportedly removed from other bodies as well. These details shocked mining officials; matches were not supposed to be allowed in such a volatile mine, and it was the inspector’s job to search miners for them. Moreover, Reese was a highly regarded inspector who knew well the risks of open flames in mines; he had overseen a rescue effort after a smaller explosion at the Hastings in 1912. To this day, nobody has offered a plausible explanation for Reese’s flouting of such obvious safety protocols.
The state of Colorado began a workmen’s compensation program in 1915. Program records from the years after the Hastings blast show that at least sixteen families of the miners were each paid $75 for funeral expenses. As a result of his tragic mistake, the state reduced compensation to Reese’s family by 50 percent.
Industrial disasters such as the Hastings explosion reveal the true costs of cheap energy in Colorado, a problem that has not gone away. Today’s oil and gas industry is reliant not on coal but on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a controversial drilling process that produces a wealth of energy but also can cause negative health effects in surrounding communities. In addition, although they are not as common as they were in early twentieth-century coal mines, industrial accidents on fracking sites still happen relatively frequently. The sacrifices made by those workers as well as residents near oil and gas developments allow everyone in the state to have cheap energy in the twenty-first century.