Black Diamond Historical Society | Remembering the 1910 Lawson Mine disaster | Slide Show

Editors note: the following article was written by Ken Jensen for the Black Diamond Historical Socitey. The society has organized a memorial service Sunday, Nov. 7, marking the 100 anniversary of the Lawson Mine disaster.

Mine disasters

In the history of the Green River coal fields, there were three major mining disasters: Franklin, Aug. 24, 1894, where 37 miners were suffocated in a coal mine fire – the worst coal-mining disaster in King County; Ravensdale, Nov. 16, 1915, where 31 men perished in a coal mine explosion and 100 years ago the Lawson Mine explosion that took the lives of 16 men Nov. 6, 1910.

“It happened on Sunday,” remembered Black Diamond Historical Society co-founder Carl Steiert in Black Diamond: Mining the Memories. “It was maintenance men that got it. Had it been at full capacity, the miners would have been in there, too.”

Regina Marckx Whitehill, another Black Diamond pioneer, remembered the big explosion, too. “Dad had worked every Sunday for weeks and weeks, but that particular Sunday, he said, ‘I’m just not going to work today. I’m going to rest for a day.’” The man who took her dad’s place was never found.

The cause of the explosion was never determined, the damage to the mine being so severe that rescuers were unable to make their way to the lowest levels. Five men are still there—entombed at the bottom of the mine under tons of coal and debris.

Newspapers accounts of the day best described the destruction with one word: “Volcanic....”

Eugene Lawson

Eugene Lawson – the man for whom the mine, Lawson Street and Lawson Hill were named – was something of an enigma. Born in 1858 in Texas, Lawson entered the picture in Black Diamond when he bought what would become the Lawson Mine in 1895. He sold the mine three years later to the Pacific Coast Coal Company, in what turned out to be an extreme case of good timing.

Lawson returned to the scene in 1903-04 on behalf of the Pacific Coast Coal Company to broker a $1.1 million deal to sell the Black Diamond Coal Company’s assets – its mines, land and the entire town – to his employer, all from the comforts of his home in nearby Franklin. A lengthy lawsuit over his commission from that sale, which was settled in Lawson’s favor in 1910, was the last he was heard from in these parts. He died in Seattle in 1937.

The Lawson Mine was a troubled mine from the beginning. The presence of methane gas, known at the time as “after-damp”, and spontaneous combustion made for a bad combination. The original water level entrance was located on the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad’s mainline to Franklin. Today it is the route of Old Lawson Road. The main entrance to the mine was at the end of current-day Botts Drive on Lawson Hill. The Lawson Mine, along with mines 12 and 7 (near Lake 12) and the numerous Franklin mines in sections 18 and 19, formed a horseshoe of sorts, all chasing the McKay seam, which was an extremely rich coal vein that averaged more than four feet across.

After-damp was such a problem at the Lawson Mine in December 1899, the Pacific Coast Coal Company, owners of the mine by this time, banned the use of open miners’ lights in favor of lights with a magnetic locking device that prevented them from being opened inside the mine. The miners objected and walked off the job, but the company prevailed.

According to the Report of the State Inspector of Coal Mines for the years 1901-1902, the company made significant investments in the safety of the mine.

"The workings are ventilated by two fans, a 10-foot double inlet cyclone fan on the south airway and an 8-foot single inlet Capell fan on the north, making two separate and distinct ventilating systems.... This mine throws off considerable gas, but is well ventilated, each fan having displacing capacity of 80,000 cubic feet of air per minute. A pipe system is laid through the mine for sprinkling dust."

But mistakes or ill advised shortcuts happen, even in the safest of mines, and Lawson wasn’t considered particularly safe.

Oct. 1, 1902

A case in point is when 11 men lost their lives in the 1902 Lawson Mine explosion. The cause was two shots of dynamite were fired, one right after the other. Definitely an unsafe practice, especially for a mine with a history of after-damp. According to official reports, the first shot loosened the coal and released methane gas and dust into the air. The second shot set the methane gas on fire, and that ignited the explosive coal dust, which exploded.

In a cruel twist of fate, just eight years later, another explosion, much more violent, would rip out the heart of the small community of Lawson, effectively wiping it off the map.

The town of Lawson

The town of Lawson, also known as MacKay or McKay, was established in 1896 when 50 miners’ homes were built on and around Botts Drive. Also constructed nearby was the Lawson store, a Finnish meeting house, and a school to serve the burgeoning community.

The mine and its bunkers were served by a spur of the Bruce Branch. The Bruce Branch split from the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad mainline at First Avenue, running its length to the south before crossing over today’s state Route 169. It then doubled back on itself, snaking north down Fifth Avenue and behind today’s Lawson Hill Estates before crossing current-day Lawson Street eastward to Botts Drive. The spur ran the length of Botts Drive to the mine entrance, while the branch line continued to its terminus, which was the town of Bruce, located between mines 12 and 7.

Nearing the end of its useful life by 1910, the four upper levels of the Lawson Mine had been played out. At more than 2,200 feet deep, it was already one of the deepest in the world. Its lower levels were proving problematic to mine due to faults and steep slopes, not to mention being expensive and labor intensive. About 150 men were employed in the mine at the time.

And there were a dozen fires burning in the upper levels. The fires were walled in with concrete—some of those walls supposedly 14 feet thick. These portions of the mine were never visited....

November 6, 1910

“With a roar that was heard for miles, gas in the Lawson mine exploded at 6:40 a.m.,” reported The Seattle Star.

"[The] disaster was one of the most heartrending in the black history of coal mining in this state. From an explosive standpoint, it was the worst. It was volcanic in its intensity, the mouth of the mine discharging timbers, piping, dinner buckets, and the miners’ clothing as if they were shot from a gigantic cannon. High into the air the debris shot. Huge timbers and piping that weighed half a ton rained down on the hillside for a radius of a quarter mile, crashing through roofs and stripping branches from trees."

Arvila Martna, Louis Marino and Louis Krantz, who were standing at the top of the slope, “were caught in the rain of debris that spurted from the mine and were knocked prostrate by flying timbers, receiving injuries of a serious nature,” reported The White River Journal.

"Everyone knew instantly what had happened. But before a rescue party could enter the mine, they had to wait ... and wait. Hour after hour, the sounds of rock and earth could be heard crashing below. The first rescue party tried to make its way down an air shaft, but were stopped by a mass of rock. It took until 10 p.m. before they could get to the first level of the mine."

Gas in 38 1/2 breast. Other places all clear. 6 a.m.

That was the report of John Van, the night fire boss, just minutes before the explosion. Eleven men from the morning shift were headed down the mouth of the mine that morning, while five men from the night shift waited at the bottom. According to The Seattle Star’s report, Krantz, who was standing at the mine’s entrance, “positively declares that the explosion was caused by gas on the sixth level,” noting a fire there several times.

"For the eleven men on the way down into the bowels of the mine—their fate was sealed. But for the five men down on the sixth level...."

Rescuers gave up hope of finding the five alive, reported the Nov. 9 edition of The Seattle Star. Two search parties, working from both ends of the mine, could get no farther than the third level before they encountered the deadly after-damp. “Even had the five miners on the sixth level escaped death when the terrific explosion occurred, their lives must have been snuffed out by the fatal after-damp.” All was certain when workers detected the unmistakable odor of death.

“It’s all over, boys,” said the foreman, dropping his spade for the moment. “They’re dead, all right, now.”

“The minute they got them out, they buried them,” remembered Cecil Gwylm Robinson in Mining the Memories. “It wasn’t good to keep them around any longer. They buried them even at night. From our front porch we could see them going to the cemetery with the torch lights.” On Nov. 14, The Seattle Star reported that 1,500 people turned out for one funeral; last rites were conducted at the not yet dedicated St. Barbara Catholic Church. The procession stretched from the then tiny church on Lawson Hill to the Black Diamond Cemetery as eight of the miners were buried in one grave.

For the miners among the living, many gathered at the Black Diamond Saloon, which is now Baker Street Books, to share a drink and recall “the old tales of mine horrors,” reported the Seattle P-I. “The latest comer from the scene of the horror, any man who had a far-fetched part in it, has gained a fleeting dignity and standing in the community.”

Cause unknown

Common practice at the mine was to search miners for matches before allowing them to descend into the mine, a search that supposedly wasn’t performed on that fateful Nov. 6. That was one of the theories put forth by the Pacific Coast Coal Company. Another, reported in the official investigative report, was “that the overlying strata caved and caused concussion enough of itself to wreck the mine, or that a cave forced out a large body of gas, the concussion or compression damaging one of the miner’s safety lamps, and gas being ignited in this manner.” The miners always believed, however, that one of the long burning fires caused the explosion.

The mine was abandoned by the Pacific Coast Coal Company following the explosion and deemed too expensive to repair.

Lawson on the move

Once a thriving community, now the pieces of the town were being picked up and moved to more suitable locations, which was a common practice at the time. The Lawson Store was moved to the Black Diamond business district around 1911 or 1912, where it became the Pacific Coast Coal Company General Merchandise Store. It occupied a spot on Railroad Avenue for 50 years between today’s Smokehouse and More and Baker Street Books until the mid 1960s.

And many of the miners’ homes from Lawson found a new home and were moved to today’s Lawson Street. Black Diamond Historical Society director “Doc” Botts, whose home stands near the entrance to Lawson Hills Estates, said his house was moved to its present location in 1914 or 1915. Most of the other houses were moved around the same time.

Mining did continue in and around the Lawson Mine during the late 1930s up until the eve of World War II. According to society's archivist JoAnne Matsumura, Frank Hann and a partner, a Mr. Ring, had a mine that went toward Old Lawson, as did Ed Johnson. The Johnson Coal Mine went in and “pulled the pillars” of the Lawson Mine. This was a process where the pillars of coal holding up the roof of the mine are removed, letting the mine collapse on itself as you work your way out of the seam.

Today, the area where the mine was located is owned by YarrowBay and is part of the Lawson Hills development that will eventually bring 1,200 new homes to the area. In preparation for the development, the previous owner, Palmer Coking Coal Company, removed 65,000 cubic yards of coal slag near the site of the old Lawson Mine bunkers just last year. The slag was transported to the Franklin area, where it was used to help reclaim the Fulton Coal Mine, which operated in the 1950s.

One hundred years of history in Lawson and what the next one hundred will bring, with all the plans for massive development in our sleepy community, is anyone’s guess.

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