Seventh Room of the Thirtieth Entry:
Frontier No. 1 Mine Explosion 1923
The town and local residents of Kemmerer and Frontier suffered a great tragedy in the dark depths of the local coalmine. The Frontier Mine No. 1 explosion on 14 August 1923 killed ninety-nine miners  ultimately affecting the entire community. The mine explosion had an impact on the community in various ways and on various levels. On a personal level, many individuals lost family members, friends and neighbors. Many women found themselves widows, children suddenly became fatherless, and parents lost their sons. Some families experienced losses in several generations. The community was influenced economically from the large dollar amounts received from the state compensation funds. Co-workers of the dead miners suffered and some could not return to work in the mines. The whole community felt the effects of the disaster and they pulled together. The impact of this accident even reached into other Wyoming towns and into other countries. The loss of ninety-nine miners in the small community had a definite impact. Even today the aftermath of this coal mining disaster lingers.
Coal mining has had an important presence in the history of Wyoming and especially in the towns of Kemmerer and Frontier. The early mining operations of the Kemmerer Coal Company first brought miners and their families to the southwestern Wyoming area. Frontier began as a coal company town and consisted of company houses rented to the local miners. Kemmerer, located on the Ham's Fork River about a quarter of a mile from Frontier, began as an independent town from the coal mine. The Kemmerer Coal Company founded an began operations in the Frontier Mine No. 1 in 1897  and the town of Kemmerer Incorporated in January 1899.
The coal bed that the Kemmerer Coal Company founded and began operations in eventually became known as the main Kemmerer coal bed. From the Geological Survey of Wyoming, the main Kemmerer Coal bed description states,
This coal bed, variously called Kemmerer No. 1 or Frontier No. 1, is the thickest and most persistent coal bed in the Kemmerer Coal Group. Stratigraphically, the Main Kemmerer bed lies 200 to 250 feet below the top of the Frontier Formation at least in the south-central portion of the coal field.
By 1923, twenty-six years after the mine opened, it reached into the earth over a mile and had over thirty entries. The local miners believed that the mine had become so large that it was difficult to convey the air properly. Eventually, the mine's reputation diminished, because the miners began finding many pockets of gas. In fact, the local miners stared calling it a 'hot mine.' Mr. Orko (James) Niemi relates, "My dad says that Frontier mine's going to blow up. I think everybody that worked there said it was going to blow up someday." Before 1923 the mine had no major accidents and employed about 250 men. The majority of the miners worked during the day producing 600 to 700 tons of coal.
On Tuesday, 14 August 1923, 136 men reported to work in the Frontier Number One mine. Ordinarily, 250 miners would have reported for work, but about 125 men took a holiday that day. At approximately 8:30 a.m., after the second trip car carried miners into the mine, a terrible explosion took place. The town of Frontier knew something had happened from the dense smoke coming out of the large mine fans. The influence of the accident began immediately. One hundred and thirty-five men had reported to work that morning and only thirty-six came out alive. Ninety-nine miners perished. According to the corner's inquest, "The explosion was caused by gas in No. 7 room 30 entry, same being ignited by fire boss when relighting his safety lamp, all victims of the explosion thereby meeting their death." This accident became the second worst mining disaster in the state of Wyoming.
Rescue teams initiated efforts while residents of the communities gathered at the mine entrance. About a hundred miners answered the call to rescue and to help with the recovery of the dead. These miners came from surrounding mines including Cumberland, Glencoe and Diamondville to help. The relief crew included men who had the day off work, but ordinarily would have worked in the Frontier mine that fateful day. P.J. Quealy and Tom Jiacoletti directed the rescue operations. Trip after trip went into the mine clearing debris and looking for survivors or bodies of the dead. They did not go into the mine to rescue strangers, they went in the mine to rescue fellow miners. Rescue teams successfully saved the lives of thirty-seven men  and recovered the bodies of ninety-nine men. Rescue efforts for survivors took a total of forty hours , but they continued their work recovering the remaining bodies of the deceased miners over several days.
About a thousand people had gathered at the mouth of the mine by noon, on the day of the accident. The Kemmerer Camera reported, "Within a short time all roads and paths from the town to the mine were filled with wives, children, and friends of the imprisoned men." Citizens of the community banded together both in grief and in necessity to care for its own. The women of the community made meals, hot coffee and fed the rescuers. Others fed the families who lost loved ones. Men in the communities, many coal miners themselves, lent their manual labor in the rescue efforts and in the digging of the graves. The Kemmerer Republican reported, "For every task, and there were many, that was presented following the tragic affair, there were volunteers without number..." The whole community was involved. Local physicians and nurses responded by offering their services at the mine. The black smith shop was changed into a first aid station where several miners were treated.
Volunteers, including many miners, had to help dig graves in the local cemetery for burial. Several hundred men worked in shifts preparing graves for the deceased miners. Most of the graves held eight coffins each. In addition to the large graves, throughout the cemetery, private graves in family plots needed digging. The Kemmerer Republican reported, "It is a grewsome (sic) sight at the City cemetery, this morning, with a hundred rough boxes awaiting the coffins this afternoon. Great credit is due the volunteer grave diggers, most of whom are fellow-workers of the dead."
The two local funeral parlors, Fitzpatrick and Embree, had a difficult time handling the sudden influx of business. The mortuaries needed volunteers to assist in transporting the bodies from the Frontier mine to Kemmerer and in preparing the bodies for burial. Many of the dead could not be embalmed, because of the limited number of undertakers, so they used another method to preserve the bodies. Between the alternative method of embalming and the hot August weather, burial had to take place immediately. Another factor relating to the mortuaries had to do with space. The funeral homes did not have enough room to hold the large number of deceased miners. The local I.O.O.F Hall improvised as a morgue to accommodate the large number of bodies. The Wyoming Press describes the scene, "Stretched out on the floor at the I.O.O.F hall at Kemmerer were the dead. They were laid out in two rows, their bodies covered only by a sheet. In another room the miners were being stripped of their work clothes and the bodies washed and a third row of the dead was being added to as fast as the workers could accomplish their awful task."
Reports by several sources, maintain that the undertakers greed combined with the large ordeal had unfortunate consequences. Apparently, in their hurry they carelessly stacked the bodies on the waiting trucks. Upon leaving the mine, one of the trucks hurried over the railroad tracks causing several bodies to fall from the truck on the way to Kemmerer. Whether carelessness, greed, or because of the enormous task, this incident put this particular funeral parlor out of business. This carelessness during the Frontier mine accident caused this funeral homes' ultimate demise.
A community memorial service was held in Kemmerer in Triangle Park. The Kemmerer Republican newspaper describes:
All of Kemmerer bowed its head in sorrow last Friday and Saturday as the victims of the mine explosion were tenderly laid at final rest, and it was a great relief to all when the last body, the last reminder of the awful tragedy, was laid away. It really was a three-day funeral, as nine caskets were lowered Thursday the second day after the explosion, 63 Friday, the day of the community services; 10 were shipped to out-of-town points, and 17 were buried Saturday.
This first had account goes on to state, "It was a funeral different. The soul of the community seemed enshrouded in grief, and many tears were shed not only for the departed, but for their grief-stricken widows and children, who presented a pitiable sight." These two newspaper accounts summarize and give us a first-hand account of the impact on the community at the time of the event.
The day of the community memorial services, Mayor Smith, requested that local businesses close their doors at one o'clock and remain closed until four o'clock in the afternoon on Friday, 17 August 1923. All local businesses complied with the request out of respect to the victims and their families. Kemmerer businesses reached out, helped the families, and supported the community in several ways. Businesses donated burial clothing for the miners and they gave generous discounts for clothing and supplies need for the families. Many local businesses ran public messages of condolence in the local newspapers at the time of the accident. Dr. M.J. Goldberg from the area cancelled all outstanding medical bills for the afflicted families. Reports said that several of these account totaled over one hundred dollars. The Preston Milling Company sent a letter of sympathy for the families and enclosed a check for $25. These examples show the concern and care that local businesses felt for their community members.
The families of the miners suffered a great loss. Women suddenly found themselves widows and children lost their fathers. Many families suffered losses of multiple family members. The Lupcho family lost their father, and two sons. Mrs. Marion Pernice lost her husband, father, cousin and uncle. Mrs. Matt Erickson lost her husband and son in the accident. The Kemmerer Republican reported that, "Scarcely a home in Frontier Tuesday that wasn't bereft of a loved one. At one place there were seven cabins in a row, where husbands and fathers had left Tuesday morning, never to return." The greatest effect of the Frontier Mine accident was felt by families.
According to the 1920 United States Federal Census report, Kemmerer had a population of 1,542 people and Frontier had a population of 647 people. Using these numbers the Frontier Mine No. 1 explosion that killed 99 men represented over 4% of the combined total population of both Kemmerer and Frontier. Six families lived in Kemmerer, forty-one families in Frontier, eighteen families lived in Italy and an unreported number of families in Japan. The explosion created 53 widows and ninety-seven "dependent" children fatherless. Individual families received very little in compensation compared to the losses that they suffered, but considering the large number of settlements and the total dollar amounts it definitely had an impact on the economic condition of the city that cannot be overlooked. Compensation requested began immediately following the burial of the deceased miners. In the towns of Kemmerer and Frontier, a sudden influx of settlement money totaling $133,070.01 arrived within nine days of the accident. This amount only consisted of 33 checks with remaining settlements to come. Under Wyoming's Workmen's Compensation Law, each widow would received $2,000 while children received differing amounts, depending upon their age, not to exceed $3,600. If any of the children had mental or physical disabilities, they would receive the maximum amount of compensation received by the families totaled $250,000. This large amount of money entering into economy of Kemmerer and Frontier had a definite financial impact on the community.
The Kemmerer Camera reported that the economy of the area was good and that a local company had a difficult time keeping in a new ranges. This article reflects the impact on the economy from the compensation funds received in the community.
Many of the miner's families found that the compensation money only went so far and for others they had to wait a few months before they received compensation, so some families needed to supplement their income. Some of the women took in laundry, sewing or other odd jobs. Other women went to work in the local Kemmerer cafes. According to hearsay and rumors, other women participated in moonshine while other widows quickly remarried, although none of this can be substantiated. Widows living in Frontier lived in company owned cabins. The widows no longer having anyone employed by the mine had to move. This would explain why some of the deceased miner's sons went to work in the coal mine after such a tragedy struck their family; so that their families could maintain their housing.
In addition to the local economic effects, the Frontier Mine No. 1 disaster immediately dipped into Wyoming Workmen's Compensation Fund. According to an article written about the compensation fund of Wyoming, Edmond L. Escolas writes, "The new bill provided compensation for industrial accidents and deaths regardless of fault and with a minimum of legal formality. It became law upon signature of the Governor of Wyoming on February 27, 1915." Just eight years later, the Frontier Mine No. 1 accident charged the new industrial law with an estimated amount of $250,000. All compensation requests from the Frontier mine explosion were filed within seven days of the accident. The Kemmerer Republican reported the impact of the disaster upon the state fund by stating that the accident became, "Unequaled in the history of workmen's compensation." Such a large sum of money withdrawn from the compensation fund certainly had an influence on Wyoming's compensation fund.
The mine explosion of 1923 affected Kemmerer Coal Company in three ways. First, the accident disrupted mining operations of the coal company, and the mining corporation lost about a third of their employees. Two weeks after the accident the mine was ready for operations to begin. However, a third of the employees had been killed in the accident or had quit so the company was forced to hire new men. It took a total of six months after the explosion for the company to attain full operation. Second, came the concern and anxiety of the Kemmerer Coal Company management. Mr. P.J. Quealy, vice president and general manager, of the Kemmerer Coal Comapny, helped organize and direct rescue efforts on the day of the explosion. In his book, Dr. Glen Barrett writes,
Quealy stayed at the mine all day and through the night. He brought the workers some bonded whiskey, and sandwiches, on miner recalled. Quealy was so upset he was in tears and on the verge of breaking down completely. When the first bodies were being placed in a truck, Quealy stepped over and told the volunteers who were stacking the bodies, 'remember these are men, not logs.' The mine manager and the miners who held responsible positions were emotionally upset...
This example of Mr. Quealy's concern for the miners and his emotional turbulence reveals how this accident must have influenced all of the coal company's management. John S. Kemmerer, another owner, arrived from New York when he heard about the accident. Evelyn George Peterson fondly remembers that the Kemmerer Coal, "Company would have been there to help." The third manner in which the Kemmerer Coal Company felt the effects of the Frontier Mine No. 1 accident was financial. Usually the coal companies paid $50 toward burial expenses of a miner killed while working in the miens, with the remaining amount being assessed to the local union members. However, since the local union had only a handful of survivors the company paid over $100 for each burial. The Kemmerer Coal Company paid an estimated amount of $10,000. In addition, the company had to repay the Wyoming Workmen's compensation Fund the amount paid to the dependents of the victims. Although the company had the option of monthly repayments, the estimated $250,000 must have taken a financial toll on the company.
Far reaching effects included the national organizations of the United Mine Workers of America and the American Red Cross. Officials of the United Mine Workers of America sent a total amount of $10,000 to assist the families of the victims. They appointed W.H. Roberts, Tom Conroy and Tony Babish to a committee to handle and disburse these funds. The money went to feed and clothe the widows and the children. The relief monies helped the families until they received compensation from the state. The Red Cross organization also, responded to the call and aided families in any way that they could. The Red Cross received and dispersed donated fund from many organizations and local businesses. They sent Wyoming Field Representative, Thomas M. Temple, to Kemmerer to investigate family conditions and to help alleviate any unnecessary suffering of the afflicted families. Mrs. Steinkrauss of the Cheyenne Chapter of the Red Cross also came to Kemmerer to offer assistance. The Red Cross chapters in Green River, Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlings, Rock Springs, and other Wyoming Chapters pledged their resources to the stricken families.
The Frontier Mine No. 1 explosion had a ripple effect across the globe. The miners killed in the accident were from many different areas. In some cases, the miners lived in Kemmerer or Frontier, while their families lived in other areas. Therefore, along with local Wyoming communities, the communities of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania; Montpelier, Idaho; and Weston, Colorado lost relatives. In addition, seventeen Japanese miners died and 37 Italians died in the accident,  thus, sending grief into other parts of the world.
Even people not directly involved were affected by the mine accident. Thomas P. Cullen of Rock Springs, Wyoming, recalls this in his memoirs:
There has always been a spirit of comaraderie (sic) among miners. This was impressed on me when I listened to Pa reading account of rescue operations at a coalmine (sic) explosion at Frontier, in the Kemmerer, Wyoming area August 14, 1923 that cost the lives of 99 miners. Pa was seated at our kitchen table reading aloud to Mom and from time to time his voice faltered with emotion. He choked up as he read accounts of brother volunteering to go into the gas-filled mine to attempt the rescue of their brothers.
I believe the paper Pa was reading was an extra edition put out on short notice when first reports of the explosion were received at Rock Springs. Pa's reading was interrupted by frequent expressions such as, "God help us!" and "Dear me!" from Mom.
I was too young to realize the tragic impact on the families of those involved in the disaster, but I learned that day that miners cared for one another and fully recognized the dangers they were all exposed to in their daily work.
This sentiment rippled throughout household in the state of Wyoming as well as across the globe. Once again, miners realized the dangers that awaited them everyday at work. Mr. J. T. Bird of Evanston worked fifty years in the coalmines of Wyoming and came to Kemmerer when he heard the news. The Evanston newspaper reported, "Mr. Bird's heart went out to the bereaved of Kemmerer and Frontier." Mr. H. Yokoyama, editor of the Rocky Mountain Times, a Japanese newspaper for the Salt Lake City area, traveled to Kemmerer to pay his final respects to his fellow citizens.
The Frontier Mine No. 1 re-opened two weeks after the explosion. The regular mining crew returned to work in the mine, but a few resigned unable to work where the accident had killed their family members and fellow miners. For example, N.J. Watkins, a repairman in the mine, resigned after thirteen years of employment with the mine. George Head a Frontier No. 1 miner recalls his return to the mine after the accident, "Going back really didn't bother me, except as I'd walk down on the slope I'd remember where I picked up one of my friends. Something like that you don't ever forget." This reiterates the difficulty encountered by the miners to return to the mine.
The Frontier Mine No. 1 explosion influenced directly Kemmerer's economics, the local residents, and the local coal mines. For example, after the explosion, the Frontier Mine began to enforce strict safety measures. These measures included no smoking in the mine and all miners were searched for anything ignitable. The Kemmerer Coal Company also adopted use of a new safety lamp that could not be opened. Another direct result of the accident relates to the residents of Kemmerer in 1923. Those who lived through the events, could vividly recall specific details pertaining to the event. This reveals the impression it had on the community and its individuals in 1923. Another direct result of the accident was the impact the mine accident had on the populace. With over 4% of the male population killed, marriages in Lincoln County dropped from 71 in 1923 to a mere 45 in 1924.
Indirectly, the consequence of the Frontier Mine No. 1 explosion rippled in several different directions. On aspect was the indirect relationship of new mining laws passed in 1925 by the Wyoming legislature. Another indirect aspect is that 77 years after the accident, the influence of the disaster is still obvious. When one mentions the 1923 mine accident, local Kemmerer residents nod their heads with familiarity of the event. In addition, the 99 graves in the local city cemetery is a constant reminder of the 1923 mine explosion. The effects of the Frontier Mine No. 1 explosion ultimately changed the entire community then and now.
Unpublished, by Janet Roberts Lott, 2000.
1923 2 320-396 71 8
1924 2 399-445 45 2
1925 2 446-511 65 1
1926 2 512-578 62 4
County Clerk's Office
Certificates of Marriage Licenses
Lincoln County Certificates of Marriages, Lincoln county Clerk's Office. Book Number 2. Unpublished.
year book # pages licenses issued not returned
1920 2 51-142 88 4
1921 2 145-228 80 21922 2 229-319 84 6
1923 2 320-396 71 8
1924 2 399-445 45 2
1925 2 446-511 65 1
1926 2 512-578 62 4
Please note: I am only including the odd number sources. If you want the even number sources please contact me. This will prevent plagiarism.
1. Kemmerer (Wyoming) Camera, 17 august 1923.
3. Barrett, Dr. Glen. Kemmerer, Wyoming The Founding of an Independent coal Town 1897-1902 (Kemmerer: Quealy Services, Inc. 1975), 25.
5. Kemmerer (Wyoming) Camera, 17 august 1923.
7. Niemi, Orko (James). Interview with Lucille J. Porsche, Kemmerer, Wyoming. Not dated, unpublished. This interview is on file at the Fossil Country musuem, Kemmerer, Wyoming.
9. Kalisch, Philip A. "The Woebegone Miners of Wyoming: A History of Coal Mine Disasters in the Equality State," The Annals of Wyoming 42 (October 1970); 241.
11. Groutage, Lorenzo. Wyoming Mine Run. (Kemmerer, Wyoming, 1981), page 5. On June 30, 1903 the Hanna No. 1 mine explosion killed 169 men.
13. Kemmerer (Wyoming) Camera, 17 august 1923.
15. Kemmerer (Wyoming) Camera, 17 august 1923.
17.The Wyoming (Evanston) Press, 18 August 1923.
19. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 24 August 1923.
21. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 24 August 1923.
23. Wyoming State Archives. United States Federal Census Report of 1920.
25. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 24 August 1923.
27. Kemmerer (Wyoming) Camera, 17 august 1923.
29. Escolas, L. Edmond. "The Rise of Workmen's Compensation in Wyoming." Annals of Wyoming, 35 (April 1963): 174-200.
31. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 24 August 1923.
33. Groutage, Lorenzo. Wyoming Mine Run. (Kemmerer, Wyoming, 1981), page 17.
35. Peterson, Evelyn George. Inverview with Linda simnacher. Unpublished. 23 July 1991.
37. The Wyoming Times, 31 August 1923.
39. Kemmerer (Wyoming) Camera, 17 august 1923.
41. Cullen, Thomas P. Rock Springs: Growing Up in a Wyoming Town: 1915-1938. (Portland, Oregon, 1995) 80.
43. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 24 August 1923.
45. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 24 August 1923.
48. The Kemmerer (Wyoming) Republican, 21 September 1923.
49. Lincoln County Certificates of Marriages, Lincoln county Clerk's Office. Book Number 2. Unpublished.