Explosion in the Blue Canyon Coal Mine in Whatcom County kills 23 miners on April 8, 1895.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 5/03/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20552

On April 8, 1895, a firedamp (methane gas) explosion kills 23 miners in the Blue Canyon Coal Mine located on the southeast shore of Lake Whatcom, about 10 miles southeast of Bellingham. Only two of the 25 men working underground when the explosion occurred survive. It is ranked as the fifth worst coal-mining disaster in Washington state history.

The Blue Canyon Coal Mine

The Blue Canyon Coal Mine, located at the southeast end of Lake Whatcom in Whatcom County, opened in March 1891. It stayed in operation until November 1919 when competition from other mines in the Bellingham area, as well as oil's increased popularity as a fuel, made the business unprofitable. Prior to World War I (1914-1918) the company's biggest client was the U.S. Navy, which favored high-grade, soft bituminous coal, as was produced by the Blue Canyon Mining Company, to heat the boilers of its fleet of warships patrolling in the North Pacific.

In 1895 the Blue Canyon mine's access was an 800-foot tunnel, pitched into the hill at a 22-degree angle as it followed the coal seam. It led to a 1,000-foot-long gangway (a tunnel through which mining carts were hauled by mules) that ran parallel to the seam. At intervals along the gangway, 26 rooms had been cut or blasted into the coal bed perpendicular to the gangway. The coal was shoveled down chutes into mining carts, hauled out of the mine, and dumped into an 800-foot-long chute leading down the hillside to bunkers, where it was stored until loaded into hopper cars for transport by barge to Silver Beach at the north end of the lake. From Silver Beach, the Bellingham Bay & Eastern Railway hauled the hopper cars down to the Blue Canyon wharf and coal bunkers, located below Sehome Hill at the foot of Palm Street on Bellingham Bay, where the colliers moored.

The Explosion

On Monday, April 8, 1895, 25 miners were underground in the Blue Canyon mine extracting coal from eight rooms. At 2:45 p.m. just before shift change, there was an explosion in the gangway at the working face of the coal seam. By happenstance, two workers barely escaped being killed; miner James Kerns and mule-driver Edward Gellon.

Kerns was at work in a room with his partner, Benjamin Morgan, when the explosion occurred. Kerns and Morgan survived the blast uninjured and scrambled down the coal chute into the gangway, but as soon as they reached the gangway their safety lamps went out due to lack of oxygen. Morgan fell in the dark and perished, but somehow Kerns managed to grope his way over bodies and piles of coal into the main tunnel. There was an air shaft near the intersection of the gangway and tunnel and Kerns was able to reach fresh air before being overcome by the toxic afterdamp (a mixture of gases, principally carbon dioxide and nitrogen, but little oxygen, that remains after a mine fire or an explosion of firedamp).

By chance, when the explosion happened, mule-driver Gellon had just moved behind a large support timber in the gangway to allow a string of mining carts to pass. He escaped the direct force of the blast, but the mule and driver that passed him were knocked down and killed. Uninjured, Gellon avoided being asphyxiated and managed to escape from the mine.

At the mine entrance, Kerns and Gellon encountered the next shift of miners climbing up the steep canyon from the bunkhouse below and told them what had happened. As soon as the fire-boss checked the mine for gas and other dangers, the rescue work began. Water-powered fans that sent fresh air down the airways had dispersed the afterdamp, making it relatively safe for the miners to enter the tunnel. The first body they found was that of George Roberts, the mule-driver who had passed Gellon in the gangway. The three mining carts the dead mule had been pulling had been blown off the track. From there to the coal face at the end of the gangway, a distance of approximately 800 feet, dead bodies were scattered along the floor near the chutes leading from the rooms. One by one, the bodies were removed from the mine and taken to the blacksmith shop near the tunnel entrance. After being cleaned up at the bunkhouse, the miners' remains were put on the barge for Silver Beach and taken to New Whatcom (now Bellingham) for disposition.

The Inquest

On Thursday morning, April 10, 1895, a coroner's inquest was held at the courthouse in New Whatcom to investigate the cause of the deaths of 23 miners at the Blue Canyon Coal Mine. The only witness called to testify was Washington State Mine Inspector David Edmunds (1857-1900) of Seattle, who had examined the scene of the accident on Wednesday, April 9. The jury found that the miners were killed accidentally by a detonation of firedamp ignited by means unknown. The Blue Canyon Coal Mining Company, the firm that owned the mine, was found not at fault.

On this same day, all the businesses and banks in New Whatcom and Fairhaven were closed from noon until 3:00 p.m. for the funeral of the deceased miners, held at Bayview Cemetery. Six of the miners killed had been married, two with children. Seventeen of the men were single with no known relatives or close friends. Twelve of the victims were buried together in Section C of the cemetery and seven in Section A nearby. Four of the victims were claimed by surviving relatives and at company expense taken elsewhere in Washington for burial. The Blue Canyon Coal Mining Company had a black-marble monument erected, listing the names of the 23 men who died in the disaster. Today (2018) the monument sits in Section C at Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham.

The Cause

In his later report to the Washington State Mining Bureau, Inspector Edmunds said that a borehole had been drilled improperly in bottom rock at the coal face of the gangway, charged with dynamite, and fired. The blast apparently ignited a hidden pocket of methane, which killed the seven miners working there. Feeling the concussion, the miners working in the rooms above made the fatal error of immediately evacuating into the gangway, where they were asphyxiated by the afterdamp. It was evident that had the miners not panicked they would have survived the event. Blue Canyon was a small mine and the gas in the gangway was quickly ventilated, enabling a rescue party to enter shortly after the detonation.

In its last years of operation the Blue Canyon Coal Mine generated only enough product to supply the local market in Bellingham. The upper workings became exhausted and the Whatcom County Coal Company, then leasing the mine from Blue Canyon, was not disposed to undertake the expense of exploring for coal seams at lower levels. In November 1919 the mine was closed. On Tuesday, July 20, 1920, the Blue Canyon coal bunkers, situated on the Lake Whatcom shoreline, were set ablaze by cinders from a passing Northern Pacific Railway locomotive and destroyed. It proved to be the death knell for the Blue Canyon Mining Company, as the bunkers were uninsured and would have cost $75,000 to rebuild.

The Dead

Andrew Anderson, age 35
Martin L. Bloom, age 28
Charles Carlson, age 28
Edward P. Chase, age 40
Thomas Conlin, age 25
Philip Dinkle, age 25
William Evans, age 40
Alexander Hendrickson, age 30
David Y. Jones, age 38 (mine superintendent)
James Kirkby, age 36
Lucas Latoka, age 25
William Lyster, age 30
James J. McAndrew, age 40
James D. McNulty, age 42
Benjamin Morgan, age 55
John A. Morgan, age 50
Samuel Olsen, age 30
Carl A. Ramberg, age 30
Henry Ravet, age 28
George Roberts, age 20
Charles P. Sivertson, age 30
John Z. Williams, age 46
Michael Zelinski, age 40


Sources:

"Fire Damp Explosion," San Francisco Chronicle, April 9, 1895, p. 4; "Death in the Pit," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 9, 1895, p. 1; "Met Death in a Mine," Pullman Herald, April 13, 1895, p. 2; "A Terrible Death," Tacoma Daily News, April 9, 1895, p. 4; "The Victims Buried," Ibid., April 12, 1895, p. 1; "Killed in the Mine," Morning Olympian, April 9, 1895, p. 4; "Inquest at New Whatcom," The Daily Olympian, April 12, 1895, p. 1; "Blue Canyon Coal Mine Soon to Be Closed," Bellingham Herald, October 29, 1919, p. 1; "Old Coal Bunkers at Blue Canyon Are Destroyed," Ibid., July, 22, 1920, p. 1.


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