On January 24, 1884, the Jokerville Mine outside of Crested Butte was full of methane gas and exploded, killing fifty-nine workers. As the third-deadliest mine disaster in Colorado history, the Jokerville explosion demonstrated the dangers of coal mining, even as coal was an essential industry for the state at the time. Over time, disasters like Jokerville helped convince Colorado miners to embrace unions such as the Western Federation of Miners, which started organizing in the state in the 1890s.
Crested Butte began in 1878 as a supply depot for the silver mines of Gunnison County. In 1880, though, high-quality coal beds were found nearby, the kind that could produce coke—a higher-carbon, hotter-burning fuel. Industrialist William Jackson Palmer had just formed Colorado Coal and Iron (CC&I), the predecessor to the goliath Colorado Fuel and Iron, and he saw Crested Butte’s coal as an integral part of his plan to open a steelworks in Pueblo. Palmer extended his Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to Crested Butte, and in 1881 the remote mountain outpost became a booming coal town.
On November 24, 1881, CC&I opened the Crested Butte Mine about one mile west of town. By September it was known as the Jokerville Mine and was among the most productive in the area. By 1883 it boasted fifty coke ovens, where the raw coal was superheated into coke. That coke was hauled off by rail to Pueblo, where it powered the creation of steel.
Working in coal mines like the Jokerville was dirty and dangerous. Miners inhaled coal dust all day long, which led to the devastating respiratory disease known as black lung. Shafts could collapse or flood. Flammable methane gas released from coal beds often built up in the mines, and each morning an inspector had to check the air quality before work could begin.
Miners braved all these hazards for twelve to fourteen hours and two dollars a day. Even children worked the mine—the youngest employees at the Jokerville were two twelve-year-olds, William Neath and Tommy Lyle.
During a routine inspection in December 1883, state mine inspector John McNeil observed that the mine appeared to be “well ventilated” and “everything was in proper order”—though he still considered “the Crested Butte mine a very dangerous one.”
On the frigid morning of January 24, 1884, fire boss Luke Richardson finished his daily inspection of the Jokerville Mine. He found the mine clear of gas except for one chamber—number eighteen, on the second level. Richardson told the miners it was safe to go to work even though the partition in the gassy chamber had to be repaired to prevent buildup in the rest of the mine. Workers had already begun their shifts as Richardson left to get materials for the repair.
It was then that Richardson heard the sickening sound of a blast that shredded the mine entrance. The explosion instantly killed the two boys who worked near the mine opening, as well as Neath’s older brother, seventeen-year-old Morgan Neath.
Thinking the explosion was much smaller than it was, Richardson ran into the mine with his lamp and immediately came across the body of another worker, John Rutherford. Then, ten more workers came struggling out of the deeper reaches of the mine; they survived the blast but were choking on the “after-damp”—gas that lingered after the explosion. All ten made it out safely, including worker John Angus, who had been injured in the blast. The other survivors set to work repairing the ventilation fan damaged by the explosion; nobody could enter the mine to recover bodies until the toxic air was cleared.
When Colorado mine inspector McNeil arrived the next day, he took control of the cleanup and recovery of the dead. On the mine’s first level, he encountered a grisly scene:
Some of the bodies on the main level . . . had been exposed to the full force of the blast, and in several cases arms and legs were found broken and bodies otherwise battered by being thrown against the jagged walls.
Moving past the “carcasses of nine mules,” McNeil followed the air-intake route deeper into the mine and found “eighteen of the missing bodies huddled and piled in little groups in indiscriminate confusion.” McNeil observed that the “men had evidently been making their escape before the deadly after-damp checked their attempt, when but a few hundred feet from air.” It took nearly a week to recover all fifty-nine bodies.
When he heard of the blast, Palmer, the mine’s owner, immediately sent a telegram with $1,000 to be divided among the families of the deceased miners. The company also paid for transportation and burial of the bodies.
McNeil’s interviews with survivors suggested that the blast was the result of at least some negligence on the part of Richardson, the fire boss. Garvin Dickson, a twenty-four-year coal mining veteran, said that John Anderson, the miner working in the gas-filled chamber the morning of January 24, “did not know much about gas.” Still, Richardson allowed Anderson to attempt the repairs to the chamber partition, according to Dickson. This contradicted Richardson’s own story that he was just getting his tools to make the repairs when the explosion happened.
In his final inspection statement, McNeil wrote that he thought “there had been carelessness to cause such an accident, but could not locate it; it is difficult for the most expert miner to locate carelessness after an explosion.” He further noted that “if Anderson had allowed the fire-boss to have preceded him [into the mine], the fire-boss . . . would have done the self-same thing . . . thus the accident might have happened at the fire-boss’ hands.”
The explosion shuttered the Jokerville Mine for a year, until another entrance was dug out about a half-mile west of the blown-out one. The mine remained productive through 1891, when a labor strike disrupted activities. The mine closed in 1895 after a larger coal seam was found nearby.
The explosion garnered national attention, with in-depth articles published in the New York Times and Harper’s, but neither the media coverage nor McNeil’s report spurred any reforms of a dangerous industry. Accidents like the Jokerville blast, though unfortunate, were generally acknowledged to be part of the risk of mining at the time. The danger of such disasters did, however, play a role in making miners more open to unions that started organizing in Colorado mining towns at the end of the nineteenth century.
In the early 1990s, Crested Butte residents put up a plaque with an incomplete list of the names of the miners killed in the disaster. In September 2017, the town placed a new granite memorial in the Crested Butte cemetery with the full list of fallen miners.
Today, the Jokerville Mine disaster is a reminder that men, and sometimes boys, often paid the ultimate price for an industry that powered railroads, smelters, steelworks, and even heated homes in Denver. In this way, modern Colorado was born out of the daily sacrifices of coal miners throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.