|Silver bars, Coeur d'Alene District. Hecla Mining Company.|
The Sunshine Mine traces its “lineage” back to the Yankee Lode, claimed by the Blake Brothers in 1884. Official documents indicate that the Sunshine Mining Company was incorporated in November, 1906. The company reorganized in 1918, with new officers. Conflicting accounts make it somewhat unclear exactly when the Company acquired rights to the Yankee Lode, but they had certainly done so by 1921.
The Company’s operations attained only modest success until the discovery of a deep-level silver bonanza in the early 1930s. Over the following decades, miners drilled and blasted deeper into the ridge, extracting fabulous amounts of the metal. In 1972, the Company had over 400 men who worked underground, split into three round-the-clock shifts.
Miners figured the money made up for the known risks. The official U. S. minimum wage was $1.60 an hour, or $64 for a forty-hour week. In the mines, even a “common” laborer could make $250 a week. Rock bursts, cave-ins, and equipment mishaps all took their toll … but no one worried about fire: “hard-rock mines don’t burn.”
Flashes in strained electrical gear happened fairly often, and blasting was part of the work. Miners accepted the resulting smoke streams as normal. However, by around 11:40 on the morning of the 2nd, groups of miners in many parts of the mine knew that this was no ordinary, short-lived flare-up. Men hurried out, helping those who were affected. Later, a survivor, in re-living the moment, said, “The smoke was so think … sometimes you actually can’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Unfortunately, within an hour, perhaps half the underground crewmen were already dead or dying.
Around 1 o’clock, teams headed back down and rescued a few men. After that, they found only bodies until two final survivors came up a week later. In the end, 91 miners died from the combination of smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning. Today, not far off the Interstate, visitors can read the names of the victims, posted on the base of a Disaster Memorial statue.
Frame captured from NIOSH video.
In 2002, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a video that provides an overview of the disaster. In addition to historic still photos, the video includes on-location reenactments and interviews with over two dozen survivors. Video: You Are My Sunshine.
|References: Derek Rance, Dr. K. Warren Geiger, Technical Report on the Sunshine Mine, Behre Dolbear & Company, Inc., Denver, Colorado (2007).|
|Gregg Olsen, The Deep Dark:Disaster and Redemption in America’s Richest Silver Mine, Crown Publishers, New York (2005).|
|Sunshine Mine Fire, United States Mine Rescue Association, Uniontown, Pennsylvania|
|"Sunshine Mining Company," Manuscript Group 275, Special Collections, University of Idaho (1995).|