Legacy of Fire

the productive Osceola Mine, famous not for profit but for disaster

The Osceola Mine was one of the more productive and profitable mines along the Keweenaw Peninsula, mined for over 30 years without prolonged cessation. During that time it produced over 190 million pounds of copper and paid dividends to its investors of over $14 million (over $160 million today). While impressive, these statistics are hardly remembered today. Instead Osceola’s infamy lies not in it profitable nature, but instead for its location as the worst mining disaster in Copper Country history. For here, at the No. 3 shaft, 30 men and boys lost their lives in a matter of hours.

In the morning hours of September 7 1895, a small fire was discovered at the 27th level of the No. 3 shaft. While stopes and drifts of a mine are generally protected from fires due to the lack of flammable materials along their lengths, shafts were another story all together. Along the shaft ran lengths of combustive materials like timbers, ladders, and railroad ties. Paired with the strong drafts that ran up and down these underground chimneys the possibility of a devastating fire becomes all too apparent.

Fortunately the No. 3 shaft also carried the mine’s pump, and a convenient water line was already installed up the length of the shaft. All that would be needed was a hose to connect to it, and the mine captain when above ground to get one. Unfortunately, the fire had chosen the worst possible spot to flare up. For here was an area of bad ground and the area had been shored up with a generous amount of timbers, with a pile of more timbers sitting nearby. It didn’t take long for the whole thing to go up in flames.

smoke billows out of Osceola No. 3 – the source of the fire

Before the mine captain could return with the much-needed hose, the first had gotten out of hand and in the process reversed the normal air flow of the No.3. Instead of a down-cast shaft (which brings fresh air down into the mine) the air flow reversed due to the hot gases accumulating at its bottom. Now smoke billowed up and out of the shaft making any attempt to enter it impossible. The situation had went from bad to worse.

At this point there was over 200 men working underground, and the captain knew that they had to be evacuated quickly. He sent men down the outlying shafts (No. 1 and No. 5) to warn as many people as possible to get out. He then ordered the hoists to slowly run skips up and down all the shafts to allow men to scramble on to safety.

But underground there was no such sense of alarm or urgency. While many workers took heed of the warnings, others simply ignored them. Many of these were experienced workers, who managed to survive many years underground without injury. They knew that the fire would not spread through the stopes or drifts, and also knew the the timbers in the No. 3 shaft were too damp to catch fire. They also knew that the nearby No. 4 was a downcast shaft and would continue to bring fresh air down into the mine. Some took their time to leave, others simply sat down to eat their lunch. Their lack of urgency would seal their fate.

High above them at the upper levels of the mine, a disaster was in the works. Smoke sent up the No 3 shaft from the fire was finding its way across old drifts and stopes at the top of the mine. Soon it found its way into the nearby downcast No. 4. Instead of taking fresh air underground, the Shaft instead sent thick smoke down into the depths of the mine. Soon the workers eating lunch found themselves enveloped by smoke. They quickly tried to make it up the No. 4 to safety but the smoke being brought down it was too thick. Most made it up to the 7th level, some made it as far as the 4th, but all of them suffocated in the end.

anxious families and workers gathered around Osceola No. 4

On the surface the billowing clouds of black smoke pouring from the head-frames of the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 shafts sent a disturbing signal to the townspeople. Soon groups of worried wives and children gathered around the shafts to wait for their loved ones to appear. As skip-load after skip-load of workers made it to the surface the crowd thinned as their loved ones made it out alive. But as time went on, the workers coming to the surface began to decrease, until no more would appear. For those still waiting hope quickly faded as more time passed without their loved ones. Now only smoke was emerging from the shafts.

In the end 30 workers lost their lives: 19 miners, 5 trammers, 1 laborer, 4 boys, and a mine captain. The fire had destroyed 21 levels along the No. 3, and closed the mine for ten days. It would forever be known as the largest mining disaster along the copper range, and would provide the Osceola Mine with a lasting legacy beyond its impressive production numbers.

tomorrow on explorer: the ruins of Osceola No. 3

3 comments

  1. Like dcclark said, Larry Lankton’s “Cradle to Grave” has a great section on this fire. He mentions how the damage to the mine would of been considerably less if they had acted sooner in sealing off the shafts. But with the familes standing around, and act on the companies part to do that would of seemed heartless and cruel. Letting the fire burn and destroy a good deal of the No. 3 shaft could be considered a public relations move in today’s corporate world.

  2. The Osceola shafts were definitely covered (by heavy, sealed doors) in an effort to smother the fire — that’s how most big mine fires were put out. However, the shafts weren’t covered until several hours after the fire started. Lankton spends a lot of time writing about that, and how the manager was certain that nobody could have made it out just a few minutes after the fire was started — but he kept the shafts open just in case, to avoid the potential liability.

  3. I read somewhere (Boom Copper I think) that they actually capped the shaft in an effort to smother the flames much to the horror of onlookers. But like you said, the smoke was way too thick to send anyone down to rescue any trapped miners.

    It may have been a different mine though.

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