Dangers of Mining: The Castle Gate Explosion
Updated: Jun 12, 2019
Located about 3 miles up the canyon from Helper lies the land that was once inhabited by the residents of Castle Gate--a mining town in Carbon County, Utah. Named for the rock formations resembling a castle, Castle Gate is surrounded by dominating cliffs and mountains. The community was culturally diverse with families from Greece, Italy, Great Britain, Japan, Austria, and America. A number of African-American families also lived in Castle Gate. Despite differences in race and culture, it was a close, tight-knit community.
Initially coal was booming, but by 1924 the shortage in demand for coal forced the Castle Gate Mine to close their Tunnel #1. The mine offices had to choose whom to lay off and who to allow to keep working. Due to the familial responsibilities of the married men, most of those who were laid off were single men. Though angry at the time, the young men would soon be grateful for their seemingly awful fate.
It was the morning of March 8, 1924. It had been 24 years since the mining disaster in Winter Quarters near Scofield, Utah. The Winter Quarters Mine explosion had killed over 200 men and remains, to this day, one of the deadliest mine disasters in America. Most of the residents lost fathers, brothers, and sons. After the disaster, many relocated to Castle Gate for better opportunities.
As breakfast ended, except for a few men heeding “strange” premonitions to stay home, most kissed their wife and children good-bye as they headed to work for the day--unaware of the deadly devastation that would occur in a less than an hour.
Something must be mentioned regarding coal dust. It is extremely flammable. If too much of it saturates the air, it can become like a powder keg. After the Winter Quarters mine disaster, where the coal dust hadn’t been controlled, rules and regulations were formed to keep the miners at Castle Gate safe. One such procedure was at the end of a shift, miners were supposed to water down the coal dust. The purpose was to settle the dust, thus decreasing the possibility of an explosion. It has been reported the shift workers prior to the morning shift on March 8 didn’t water down the dust as they were supposed to.
Early into the shift, the fire boss detected gas. As he climbed up to investigate, his head lamp (it was illuminated by fire back then) blew out. As he lit a match to relight his lamp, the combination of gas and coal dust caused a massive explosion. A large number of men were killed in this initial blast. The force of the blast caused the remaining men’s head lamps to blow out. As men tried to light their lamps, an additional two explosions occurred. The force of the blast was intense. Some claimed that the timbers used to sure-up the mines were blown out 1500 feet away from the mine opening. Others say that the timbers may have even been thrown as far as a mile away. The force of the explosion killed every single man in the mine. There was no chance of survival. At the sound of the explosions, the community ran to the mine, shocked at the scene. Attempts to find survivors was fruitless. One rescue worker was killed during the effort, totaling 172 lives lost. It took 9 days to remove the bodies---many of which were merely pieces. Witnesses say that the smell of burning flesh lingered for a long time---some even having to bury their clothes because they had absorbed the smell of death. 417 women and children were left husband-less and fatherless. Nearly every family in the town lost and husband or father. No family would ever recover. Can you imagine? Losing not only your own loved ones but nearly every other man you know? The magnitude of sorrow, devastation, and heartache is something that can’t be comprehended.
At the time of the Winter Quarters disaster in 1900, the government had no plan in place to help the ruined families. After that disaster, compensation was demanded for future losses. As such, the families in Castle Gate were given $16 a week for six years. Though, it should be mentioned that an African American woman was denied compensation for her and her children because she was not legally married to her husband. She was disgracefully left to her own demise. A woman by the name of Annie D. Palmer, a social worker, was also sent to Castle Gate by the state of Utah to assist the families. She served as an advocate to the families for 12 years.
Many of the women, especially those from Greece, broken and destitute, returned to their homelands. Other woman stayed in Utah with relatives, remarried, or began to work in order to provide for their families. The woman who remarried were no longer compensated financially by the government.
Despite the tragedy, Castle Gate remained until the 1970’s. Once the mine officially closed, residents were relocated to various areas.
Their homes were literally moved from the canyon to areas in Kennilworth and Helper. Most were moved to The Castle Gate Subdivision in Helper. A few of the residents currently living in those homes were children in Castle Gate and recall the days of living in the canyon. There is a marker in the subdivision to memorialize the history.
There is not much evidence left of Castle Gate. But, what does remain is the Castle Gate Cemetery…a forgotten cemetery that is giving way to the elements. Through the weeds and grasses, one can still see dozens of white crosses---denoting the burial grounds of the fallen miners. Other miners were buried in the Helper Cemetery and the Price Cemetery.
The trials and struggles and resilience of the families in Castle Gate can still be felt. The influence of European immigration can still be seen in Helper and Price. Disasters can bring a community together or destroy all unity. As an observer, I dare say that the former was the method of choice. The women of Castle Gate experienced a loss that simply cannot be understood by an observer, but they forged a path of resilience that their posterity can be proud of.