Into the dismal pit he goes, By the light of the lamp that faintly shows Where the dead lie dead in mournful rows— . . .
— Damon Runyon’s poem, The One-Chance Men
Italian, Frank Millatto, was riding with the coal cars to the surface that morning, in and out of the mine. He began his third descent into the mine just after 9:00 a.m. that morning and after he reached about 2,000 feet, he stopped. Though he had neither heard nor felt anything unusual, he climbed off the cars and began to investigate the situation when he saw smoke rising toward him. He quickly returned to the surface and gave the alarm. He was the only miner on duty that day to survive.
A rescue party was quickly formed by Superintendent Cameron, the night fire boss, and rescuers had reached 1,200 feet into the mine before being driven out by smoke at 2:30 p.m. Volunteers arrived from the nearby Delagua and Berwind mines throughout the day. It did not take long to determine that the explosion had caused tons of wreckage, timbers were blown out, boulders had fallen, and tunnels were blocked. Rescuers were further hampered by lack of air, gaseous fumes, and the weight of materials that had to be carried on their backs for up to a mile to make repairs.
The Rocky Mountain News reported: “virtually every camp in Las Animas and Huerfano Counties [was] represented in the crews of volunteer first-aid men and helmet men.”
“I won’t say we found three men, but we did parts of them.” – Rescuer A. A. Uffman told a reporter
Some of the men in the mines died from gas fumes, some were crushed, and others were burned beyond recognition.
In the meantime, groups of weeping women and children and crowded around the mine entrance and waited.
It soon became obvious that no one had survived and the operation changed from rescue to recovery. The work of repair and recovery was painfully slow and laborious. Only 19 bodies had been recovered by May 1, but 101 had been recovered by the middle of the month. Some were to badly damaged to be recognized and could only be identified by the brass identification disks they carried. Mine inspector, David Reese was found on May 10. Around his body were found the parts of his Wolf key-lock safety lamp that had not been blown apart, but had been taken apart. No other body lay within a hundred feet of Reese’s
“The gloom of the catastrophe falls on all.” – The Denver Post.
The Hastings explosion was the worst mining accident in Colorado’s history. It left 64 widows and 149 fatherless children. Of the miners, 35 identified as Greek, 33 as Austrians, 27 as Americans, 14 as Italians, 13 as Mexicans, three Poles, two Welshmen, a Spaniard, and a Serbian.
Following the vigils came the funerals, sometimes as many as ten or more a day.
Investigators of the explosion were shocked when they found that the explosion had been caused by none other than the Mine Inspector, David Reese. His body was in good condition compared to others, when it was found and the glass in his lamp was not even cracked. Experts testified that “the explosion went both ways from where we found the body. . . . The explosion started with the lamp.”
Although no match was found at the site of the explosion, Reese had 22 of them on his person. Normal procedures were to search miners for matches before they entered the mine, but because of his position, Reese wasn’t searched. After deliberating for 90 minutes, the six miners who constituted the coroner’s jury found that “the cause of the explosion was by the opening of a Safety lamp, by some person; the evidence shows that the lamp was found near the body of the deceased, David Reese.”
Mining officials were flabbergasted as to why the highly regarded 34-year-old Reese, both a mine inspector and safety educator, could have made such a fatal mistake.
Asked by a juror why Reese would take the lamp apart and try to light it, Victor-American’s district superintendent, D. J. Griffith, replied: “That is something that I can’t make out, what made him to do such a thing. Of course, we thought the lamp was absolutely safe in his hands, he was a good, careful man, and absolutely practical.”
Having had much success in recent mine safety, perhaps an overconfident Reese had dropped his guard. The question, however, will never be answered.
Crews continued to recover bodies for the rest of the year.
Beyond the heartbreak of their suffering, the miners’ survivors constituted the first great test of the state’s new workers’ compensation law. In May 1917 the state industrial commission ruled that the accident required $147,650 in compensation. Dependents of U.S. citizens received $2,500, the equivalent of up to three years’ salary, while non-citizens received $800. Deceased miners without dependents were awarded a burial expense of $75.
In September 1919, James Dalrymple, Colorado State Mine Inspector, issued an order prohibiting the use of key-locked safety lamps in Colorado’s underground coal mines and afterward only safety lamps that could be lighted by an igniter without taking the lamp apart could be used.
But, hard times for Hastings were not yet over. The final casualty of the Hastings mine explosion was the Hastings mine and the town itself. By November 1917, seven months after the explosion, the mine was only partially worked and production had dropped dramatically. The company spent almost $128,000 in clearing up and reopening the mine but produced just 74,000 tons in 1917 and it never fully recovered. Previously, the Hastings mine had averaged 169,000 tons per year from 1913 through 1916, with a peak production of 218,000 tons in 1916.
In 1920 a new development called Hastings No. 5 extracted 73,000 tons but oil production began to lessen the amount of coal used by the railroads. By 1923, only 7,049 tons were extracted from the mine. The mine was then closed and the portal sealed with concrete.
By 1925, a Las Animas County business directory reported that Hasting still had a population of a thousand, including 75 miners. By 1929, the town’s population had dropped to just 300, which included just four Victor-American employees – an electrician, a mine surveyor, a tippleman, and a watchman. By 1939, the formerly busy mining camp had become a ghost town and in 1948, a business directory listed only one inhabitant.
The final cleanup of the site was completed in 1952 and the railroad tracks were removed. In February 1963, the Denver Post reported of Hastings: “a long row of dilapidated coke ovens and the foundations of a few old buildings are all that remain at the disaster site. Not even a wooden sign marks the location on the dusty road.”
Today, only a few buildings, concrete foundations, and a row of deteriorating coke ovens remain. A granite monument to the 121 men who died in the 1917 explosion marks the site.
The old townsite is located about 16 miles northwest of Trinidad, Colorado. Take I-25 north to Exit 27, and travel west on County Road 44 about three miles. Visitors will pass the Ludlow Memorial on the north side of the road, and the ghost town of Ludlow on the south before reaching the Hastings townsite.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander, August 2018
Sherard, Gerald E.; Mining Accidents United States, Canada, Australia & New Zealand