Between 1896 and 1918, the Vulcan Mine in Garfield County exploded three times, killing a total of eighty-five workers. The successive blasts prompted action from labor unions and politicians to make coal mines safer. At the site of the Vulcan Mine today, there remains an active underground coal fire that was lit in the mine’s first explosion on February 18, 1896. It is one of more than two dozen active coal fires in the area of New Castle, which all began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the 1890s, Garfield County was a hub of coal production in Colorado. By 1896 ten coal mines operated throughout the county, employing more than 450 workers. As early as 1893, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) owned and operated the Vulcan Mine near present-day New Castle, along the Colorado Midland Railway about two miles south of the Colorado River. The local industry’s nexus was Carbondale, an aptly named rail town north of Aspen. In mines like the Vulcan, miners from Sweden, Austria, Great Britain, Mexico, and a dozen other nations worked fourteen- to sixteen-hour days in dangerous conditions for paltry wages paid in scrip, a kind of company cash that was valid only at company stores. The company stores were often the lone source of food and supplies in the area, ensuring that most wages were returned to the company.
These grievances often led to strikes, like the one that occurred at the Vulcan Mine in October 1893, and prompted miners to join unions such as the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) or the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).
Safety at the Vulcan Mine
Coal seams naturally emit methane, a flammable gas. In the 1890s, inspectors checked coal mines daily for signs of gas buildup, including odors and dead animals. Miners also used Davy Lamps, long-wicked lamps that prevented gas buildup by burning it. But these precautions could not avert every disaster; in 1884 the Jokerville Mine in Crested Butte blew up after miners were given the postinspection all-clear.
To avoid explosions, miners and managers also used a process called dampening, in which water was sprayed in mines to remove flammable coal dust from the air. If dampening was not done, the air could ignite, leading to an explosion if methane was present.
During an ATSF inspection at the Vulcan Mine on September 20, 1895, foreman James Harrison was “satisfied that everything was well conditioned.” He observed the mine to be “well timbered” and was optimistic that an additional ventilation fan, installed in October, would improve the mine’s air quality and safety. It appeared to have helped; even after the deadly explosion the next year, state mining inspector David Griffiths wrote that he considered the mine to be “in good and safe condition, and there was no accumulation of gas and dust.”
No matter how safe managers thought the Vulcan to be, the mine proved otherwise for the first time on February 18, 1896. At 11:27 am, an earth-shaking explosion killed all forty-nine men at work that day, including Harrison and miners from nine different nations. state mine inspector Griffiths knew the time of the explosion in part because “on the body of one of the men a watch was found that had evidently stopped instantly, owing to the violence of the explosion.” Describing the aftermath, Griffiths wrote, “every man in the mine died instantly . . . the fans located on the surface . . . were blown to pieces,” and “every wooden stopping and door in the mine was broken . . . shattered like matchwood.”
Although there were several theories about why the mine exploded, Griffiths could not pinpoint the exact cause and was not convinced it could have been prevented. In his annual report for 1896–97, he advocated for new laws “for the health and safety of our miners.” He recommended the appointment of a board expressly for that purpose, with equal representation for miners and management. It is not known whether Griffiths’s suggestions affected state policy, but by 1901 the state did have a “legislative investigating committee” that traveled to coal fields where labor disputes were ongoing or imminent.
After the 1896 blast, the ATSF leased the Vulcan and the rest of its mines to Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I), one of the largest coal producers in the nation. By 1913 the Vulcan was being operated by the Coryell Mine Leasing Company. That year, on December 16, another explosion at the mine took the lives of thirty-seven workers. Unlike the first explosion, gas was not part of the cause; state mine inspector James Dalrymple found that “flame and dust” were to blame. Although he found fault in workers’ use of open lamps at the tops of the chutes, Dalrymple concluded that operators had violated mining-law provisions calling for proper dampening.
More than a year later, a coroner’s jury agreed, ruling that “the explosion was due to negligence of the mine owners,” who did not keep the “mine property properly sprinkled to prevent the accumulation of dust.” In March 1914, the Coryell Company agreed to pay $1,000 to the families of each of the victims. Eventually, the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, CF&I’s chief rival in the state’s coal industry, acquired the Vulcan Mine.
The final deadly blast in the history of the Vulcan Mine occurred at 7:30 pm on November 4, 1918. Three men—Robert Wilkes, Cad Davis, and Milton Bell—were killed, and four others were injured. The large explosion came after workers had been cleaning and repairing various parts of the mine that had been damaged in several smaller explosions. This time, the mine was too dangerous for deputy state mine inspector James Graham to enter, so he had to rely on the accounts of witnesses, most prominently mine foreman Morgan Williams. After receiving Williams’s statement, Graham concluded that “the accident was caused by an accumulation of explosive gases in Rooms 22 to 26 coming in contact with fire.”
The mine was sealed off after the deadly blast, but it kept exploding “at intervals of several hours.” After claiming the lives of eighty-nine men in three major explosions and causing countless other injuries, the volatile Vulcan Mine was closed for good. Coal production in general began to decline during this period, as the metal mining industry it served also tapered off. Oil eventually replaced coal as the dominant energy source in the state.
The reopening of the Vulcan Mine after the first and second deadly explosions shows that Colorado’s coal mine operators truly had little regard for miner safety; if they did, they would have provided better ventilation and reconsidered practices like the pay-by-weight policy, which paid miners per ton of coal mined instead of time. The result of this was that miners spent more time digging coal instead of shoring up safety features or paying attention to warning signs of explosions. Labor unions such as the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) consistently listed the weight payment system as a grievance during strikes. Eventually, unions won abolition of this system, even though hundreds of miners had already died in accidents and explosions.
The Vulcan Mine explosions also helped make the modern landscape around New Castle. Even though its mines have not operated for nearly a century, the area is still the site of some two dozen underground coal fires, lit by explosions in the coal industry’s heyday. These burns, which can be identified by the lack of snow in certain areas during winter, are normally self-contained but can sometimes erupt into bigger blazes; in 2002 a fire sparked by a burning coal seam destroyed thirty houses in New Castle.
The Vulcan explosions also help track the evolution of mine safety and labor history. As the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth, procedures like dampening became part of state mining law, and more workers joined labor unions that called for increased corporate responsibility for miners’ safety. The massive casualties of explosions at the Vulcan and other coal mines show why labor unions became so popular. They also tally with the high price Coloradans paid for cheap coal in the early twentieth century.