Books, montana, Uncategorized

A Review

On the Bookshelf
Goodbye Wifes and Daughters

Book chronicles the lives of those left behind 
after Montana’s worst coal mine disaster

By: Barbara Theroux
Fact & Fiction 
for Headwaters News
Feb. 25, 2010

Nobody ever took responsibility for the Bearcreek disaster, and the families didn’t get any compensation for their pain. All those people died, and even more grieved, but it was as if they didn’t matter. That sense outraged me more than anything else. All people matter. I hope this story will be a reminder of how much.

– From the introduction of Susan Kushner Resnick’s 
“Goodbye Wifes and Daughters

On Saturday, February 27, 1943, nearly 80 men descended into the Smith coal mine in Bearcreek , Montana. Only three came out alive. “Goodbye wifes and daughters . . .” wrote two of the miners as they died.

As I started reading Resnick’s book I kept asking one question–Why am I not familiar with this disaster? And wondering one thought—Why does this kind of disaster keep happening?

The story of that tragic day and its aftermath unfolds in this book through the eyes of those wives and daughters–women who lost their husbands, fathers, and sons, livelihoods, neighbors and homes. The tragedy at Smith Mine became Montana ‘s worst coal mine disaster, sparking investigations at the state and national level.

Susan Kushner Resnick felt the fascination of how the surviving women managed to continue after facing such loss; the need to share their heroic stories; the anger at those who let it happen; and the hope the someday history would stop repeating itself.

She chronicles the missteps and questionable ethics of the mine’s managers; the efforts of an earnest federal mine inspector and the mine union’s president, who tried in vain to make the mine safer; and the heroism of the men who battled for nine days to rescue the trapped miners.

In the 1920’s, Bearcreek, Montana was new. It was wild, with 11 saloons and not one church. It was like all mining towns or coal camps with brothels, fistfights and rollicking parties.

At the time of the disaster, Bearcreek had grown but it was not a company town. The firm that owned the Smith Mine, Montana Coal and Iron, did not rule the community.

The residents of Bearcreek were free to shop and sleep where they wanted. There were two hotels, rows of profitable businesses, a hospital and a bank. During its glory days almost two thousand people lived in Bearcreek. But the 1943 disaster destroyed a community—it killed 75 men, leaving 58 widows and 125 fatherless children.

“When a man in a small town dies, the community usually rallies around his wife and children. The women bring cakes and hot casseroles, wipe the kitchen counters, and make sure the mourners try to get some sleep. The men do their best to fill in for the departed, offering to fix loose screen doors or mow the overgrown lawns come spring. But when everyone in the community is grief-stricken, there is no one to hold up the weak, no one to distract them from their emptiness and take care of the details.”

Resnick sets the time and the scene. It was war time and getting coal out of the ground was the priority, not clean air or the health of the miners. The week of the disaster, people were waiting to register for the newest ration books.

An article in the Billings Gazette about the Bearcreek High School’s basketball success, began by describing the all-American spirit of the mining town.

The table of contents of Resnick’s book reads like an outline, with precise topics including: The Romance, The Inspection, The Teenagers, The Panic, The Wait, The Grief, The Blame, The Survivors. Many of the chapter’s first lines set the mood:

“She should have thrown salt over her shoulder.”

“Gerard Arnold had never seen such a dangerous mine.”

“It’s hard to think about boys when you’re trying to write a newspaper article.”

“Everybody would remember the weather.”

With the background in place, the history unfolds. In November 1942, Gerald Arnold, the federal mine inspector, came to perform a long overdue inspection on the Smith Mine. 

The Smith was the first mine in the state to be inspected because it was the gassiest—more methane than normal seeped out of the coal. Arnold met with W.R. Freeman and his younger brother James—W.R. was the face of Montana Coal and Iron, James was the general manager.

“There is simply too much gas in this mine, he told them. Further, they would have to get rid of everything that could ignite it, especially the cigarettes and the open lights. They’d have to start searching the men to make sure they weren’t sneaking in cigarettes. And they’d have to order closed lights for every miner. Sure, that might take some time, given all the war-related red tape, so while they waited, the foremen would have to examine every place men wearing fire on theirforeheads worked, several times a day, to make sure the rooms were gas free. The foremen would have to start carrying safety lamps with them constantly, and signing daily gas reports, to prove that someone in charge was paying attention to the fluctuations.

James Freeman didn’t like what he was hearing. This guy made it sound as is his mine was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Copies of Arnold’s report were sent to Ed Davies, the state mine inspector, as well as to Tony Boyle, the district president of the United Mine Workers of America, and the report was to be posted at the mine for all the workers to see.

One month before the disaster, Davies visited the mine. But everyone knew the inspector was coming so they spent the days before his visit clearing out the gas and making the mine appear safe. Davies saw no reason to have the State Industrial Accident Board shut the mine. The board issued a safety inspection certificate on February 23, 1943–just four days before the disaster.

Another warning came from Dr John Oleinik who had been treating more and more miners with symptoms of gas inhalation. He analyzed blood samples and found carbon monoxide levels of 27.5 percent, some even as high as 37 percent.

In addition to the gas safety concerns, the last mine rescue training had been in 1930 and the company barely had any rescue equipment .

“Arnold had noted during the inspection that four blankets, two stretchers, and some dressing materials were they only first-aid supplies in the mine. The company kept five self-contained oxygen packs in a supply house, but they hadn’t been used or maintained in years. They kept two gas masks at the mine, but the canisters that made them useful were damaged.”

After the disaster, the people of Bearcreek embarked on surviving. Children went back to school, starting on a Saturday to make up for the days lost. The high schoolers had a free day, but that Saturday was to have been the day of the Senior ball. There were no decorations in the gym, no dancing, no wearing of the prom dresses. The ball had been cancelled due to sorrow.

Social Security officers were doing all they could to help the women win their benefits as quickly as possible. The federal War Manpower Commission was encouraging women with children older than 14 to get a job. Patriotism could not supply a paycheck; could not pay for college; could not keep people in Bearcreek.

In April, an inquest was held to determine how the men died and whether anyone was responsible for their deaths. During questioning it was revealed that the mine was indeed gassy, that many had known that fact and that the mining practices were unsafe.

After six hours the nine jurors concluded the men “met their deaths due to concussion and to gas poisoning caused by gas and dust explosion” and recommended new state mining laws, but did not charge anyone with a crime.

The governor also appointed a committee to investigate. Their report attacked the mine operators, the state inspector and the state itself, but again, no blame was given to Montana Coal and Iron.

Not one of the women widowed by the Smith Mine disaster ever received compensation from the company. The Smith closed for good two years later due to financial strain.


Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of theBookstore at the University of Montana.

1 Comments

  1. Unfortunately these horrible dasasters continue happening! I always ask a question why? Why not to learn from our own mistakes, why we still leave the relatives of those who have to work for everybody get power or heat lonely on the earth?!

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