John Wayne is famously credited for having said “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.” I was reminded of this quotation while doing some research on mining fatalities in Arizona’s Territorial days and the years following Statehood. As many folks know, the Vulture Mine was the richest gold strike in the state’s history, and it put Wickenburg on the map in 1863. Mining is a dangerous business of course, and it remained so in spite of continued efforts to impose tougher mining codes. Two accidents at the Vulture Mine illustrate why the combination of “stupid” and “mining” are virtually guaranteed to produce fatal results.
In one incident, (December, 1913), a worker decided to take a short cut through an underground chamber at the end of his shift — even though blasting was in progress. He reasoned (incorrectly) that he could reach the surface more quickly by cutting through the Number 3 Stope after the first round of blasts had occurred, but before the second round went off. His sense of timing was every bit as poor as his judgment. He lived for two days, but they just couldn’t stop the bleeding.
The second incident occurred in 1923 and involved the unhealthy combination of stupidity and greed. Seven miners, whose names are not recorded, sneaked into the mine at night to engage in personal enrichment.
If you are not familiar with hard rock mining terminology, a stope is an open chamber that remains after valuable ores have been removed. Stopes could become quite large if the ore deposit was substantial. If the native rock was of sufficient strength the chamber would not be reinforced with timbers for reasons of economy. Instead, the stope would be supported by columns of native rock. The larger the stope was the more columns were needed to prevent collapse.
The seven larcenous workers planned to chip away some of the rich gold ore in the columns and make their escape with as much fortune as they could load onto a dozen burros. The column or columns they selected that night must have been particularly rich in gold. In their greed they removed so much ore that the entire stope collapsed; killing them and the burros. Their grave marker is a large depression on the surface known as a glory hole.
Sadly, most fatalities in Arizona’s underground mines were not self-inflicted by foolish people. The 1912 report of the Mine Inspector covered a period of only six and one half months. During that span of time 33 serious injuries and 28 fatalities occurred in the mines. The first full year of reporting was in 1913, which saw 70 serious injuries and 66 fatalities.
How one injury qualified as “serious” and another injury might not could have been a bit too subjective for the legislators, and this deficiency was addressed the following year. The public began to see just how dangerous it was to work in the mines – or at least in some of them.
By the end of the ninth year of record-keeping (1920), 561 fatalities and 7119 injuries had been reported. The potential for injury or death was, it seemed, everywhere. A random sampling of fatalities from this period is shown below; with the cause of death listed verbatim.
- Ramaldo Carillo – Detroit Copper Company: While blasting a round of holes he had difficulty in lighting the last hole and the first hole exploded while he was still at the last.
- Roy Jacobson – Copper Queen Mine: Crushed by cage and then fell down shaft.
- Augustine Camache – Little Daisy Mine: Overcome by gas, fell in water and drowned.
- Teolindo Estevez – Gold Road Mine: Drilled into a missed hole.
- P. Padillo – Vulture Mines: When going off shift he went through No 3 stope where blasting was going on. First round of holes had gone off and as he started going through this stope the second round went off.
- Charles Jenkins and Agapito Gutierrez – Arizona Copper Company: Failed to open air valve after blasting and Gutierrez was overcome by gas. Jenkins went down to rescue him and was also overcome.
- Francis L. Dupen – Miami Copper: Fell off a cage to about 350 feet below.
- Moises Lastra – Detroit Copper: Was being lowered in a bucket when the engineer noticed the bell cord shake and stopped the bucket. Went down to investigate and found Lastra’s body at the bottom of shaft.
- Jose V. Garcia – Arizona Copper Company: While climbing into car, came in contact with trolley wires.
- W.M. Roberts – Calumet & Arizona: Stepped on cage while in motion. He was caught between cage and station bar, and almost decapitated.
- Joe Pianti – Iron Cap Copper: Fell from 500 foot level to 800 foot level.
- E.E. Sargent – Iron Cap Copper: Crushed between (ore) car and timbers.
- Batiste Guizzetti – Inspiration Consolidated: Sufficated [sic] in raise.
- E. A. Stevens, T. Sandovol & A. Cardello – Arizona Copper Company: Repairing bulkhead at fire. Burned.
- Frank J. Perks – Walnut Creek Mining Company: Caught by flywheel and drawn through base of engine and flywheel.
A review of the injuries and fatalities shows that the difference between the quick and the dead was often only a matter of inches or seconds. To be sure, some of these incidents were the result of carelessness by the victim or a fellow worker; but the lack of safety training, the use of unsafe equipment, dangerous procedures and the ineffective shoring of underground spaces were far more significant factors. The top ten causes of death in Arizona mines from 1912 through 1920 include:
- Falling rock or timbers: 168 deaths resulted from miners being struck or crushed by falling rock (not cave-ins). This includes rocks, boulders and slabs falling from the roof or side of a stope or drift, rocks falling down chutes or raises, falling timbers, or similar circumstances.
- Fall of mine worker: 104 deaths came from falls by miners. This includes falling out of cages or buckets that were being raised or lowered in a shaft, slipping and falling into shafts, winzes or down ore chutes, or being knocked off a piece of equipment and falling.
- Explosions of powder or dynamite: 70 miners were killed during this period by premature or delayed explosions. Many of these can be attributed to defective fuses.
- Crushed by equipment: 64 deaths resulted from the mine worker being crushed by equipment. This includes derailment of trains or ore cars, being caught under or run over by engines, being crushed between two ore cars, between a moving piece of equipment and a tunnel wall, or by a cage or bucket in a shaft.
- Cave-ins: 36 fatalities resulted from the complete collapse of the roof and/or walls of a stope or drift. Death may have been caused by crushing or suffocation while buried under debris.
- Missed Hole: 28 miners were killed when they drilled or picked into a hole that had been charged with blasting powder or dynamite. In these cases, the charge had not exploded when all of the holes were set off.
- Electrocution: 26 fatalities came from contact with bare electrical wires. Typically, these deaths were from contact with an overhead trolley wire.
- Suffocation: 15 miners died from suffocation caused by gases, unventilated spaces after blasting, dust, or having been trapped in a confined area.
- Falling equipment: 11 miners were killed by buckets, cages or other equipment that fell down a shaft, striking them.
- Air blast: 5 fatalities occurred in a single incident involving an air blast. Details are not available, but this may have been a concussive shock wave.
The remaining 34 fatalities were caused by collisions (4), steam or gas explosions (3), fire (3) and a variety of decidedly bizarre accidents, including one miner who was impaled on his pick. In the ten years that followed, from 1921 through 1930, another 357 miners would die in accidents and 6,388 would be injured. Not surprisingly, the major causes of death did not change appreciably in that decade. The total reported deaths and injuries for the period between May 15, 1912 and November 30, 1930: 918 fatalities and 13,507 injuries.
The graph titled “Mine Fatalities” illustrates both year to year (red line) and cumulative (blue line) deaths during this period. If the death toll seemed to moderate in the years leading up to 1930 it was due more to a decrease in the number of men employed by the mines rather than to substantive improvements in safety. In fact, the rate of injury and death (as a percentage of the work force) would usually spike in years that experienced a sharp reduction in the number of mine workers.
Although reporting was mandatory after Statehood, it does not mean that all accidents were reported by the mines or tabulated by the Mine Inspector. On May 17, two days after the Inspector’s office was established, Francisco Vargas fell into an open cut at the Coronado Mine, suffering a concussion and drowned. His death was not reported. Was this an oversight? Perhaps – but there was ample time to collect this statistic before the end of the reporting period. 
The worst disaster to ever occur at the Coronado Mine also went unreported. A derailment at the Coronado Incline took nine lives at 4:00 pm on August 13, 1913, but was not included in the statistics for that year. The baby gauge locomotive was transporting ore and workers from the Matilda Shaft to the top of the Incline, which gained 1,500 feet of elevation over a distance of only 3,300 feet. Death certificates indicate the men were thrown from the car(s) and crushed.
Another notable example includes the seven men who produced the Glory Hole at the Vulture Mine. Those deaths may not have been counted because the workers were stealing gold and their actions caused the collapse.
 There had already been six fatalities at the Arizona Copper Company workings between January 1 and May 13, 1912. These were not reported because they preceded creation of the State Mine Inspector office.
Last 5 posts by Allan Hall
- Wickenburg Hospitality Comes in Many Forms - December 15th, 2010
- Calliandra Eriophylla is Native to the Wickenburg Area - December 9th, 2010
- Goodbye, Old Bridge - November 29th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part III: Preserving the "Whispering Ranch" Mine - March 25th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part II: Protective Closures - March 10th, 2010