Lafayette area coal mine fatalities, 1887-1956

One of the most hazardous vocations on record, early coal mining was nothing more than men with picks undercutting hundreds of feet of rock to extract a narrow seam of coal. The room-and-pillar system for removing coal was highly productive, but very dangerous. Some coal was left in place to support the rock layers, and thousands of wood timbers were used to brace the rock above the voids so that the coal could be loaded. Dislodging the coal involved a miner bringing his own keg of black powder into the mine, which when packed into drilled holes could detonate prematurely or not at all. Miners worked separate rooms sometimes miles from the main shaft, which meant little supervision. Add to this the pay-per-ton wages wherein a miner often overlooked his own safety so that as much coal as possible could be loaded.

What could possibly go wrong?

From 1890 to 1894, American bituminous coal miners were killed at almost twice the rate of their British counterparts: 2.52 fatalities per thousand workers per year in the U.S. versus 1.61 per thousand workers. Only the fatality rate for 19th-century railroad workers, 6.45 fatalities per thousand workers in 1895, surpassed the rate of mining fatalities. High railroad worker fatality rates were attributed to workers being required to stand between cars to couple and uncouple them.

During Lafayette’s coal mining era, from 1887 to 1956, the town’s most dangerous mine by far was the Cannon/Otis, which averaged one death per 43,000 tons of coal mined during its 10-year history. The Spencer/Simpson mine averaged one death per 330,000 tons of coal mined and the Columbine mine averaged one death per 318,000 tons of coal mined.

In dozens of Lafayette oral history interviews conducted in the 1970s and 1980s by the late Effie Amicarella and others, an oft-asked question of long-passed coal miners was whether they enjoyed their work. Some didn’t mind the work because the weather at the coal face was predictable. The temperature 200 feet below the surface was a consistent 50 degrees, which was warm on cold winter days, and cool on hotter spring days.

Other miners hated the job because coal dust was ever present, it was dark except for the light generated by a helmet lamp — first an oil lamp then in later years an electric carbide lamp — and the work was back breaking. Up until 1900, pick mining relied on a miner hand-digging and undercutting the coal face while laying in dampness on his side. When undercutting machines run by compressed air started being used after 1900, the undercutting got easier, but the loading of the coal into a coal car still relied on a shovel and the muscles and strong back of a miner.

What miners feared most was being overcome by or igniting mine gas, also known as “firedamp.” Northern Field coal mines were recognized as being less prone to “gassiness,” and accident reports from area mines reflected that most injuries and deaths were due to rock fall and coal car mishaps versus suffocation or mine gas explosions. Gas did accumulate in Boulder and Weld county coal mines, just not in the same heavy concentration as Las Animas county and other southern Colorado coal mines.

Lafayette-area mine fatalities; deaths attributed to workplace accidents including fall of coal and rock, coal car accidents, suffocation and falls down the shaft.

Columbine mine: 22
Centennial mine: 16
Spencer/Simpson mine: 14
Standard mine: 13
Black Diamond: 7
Otis/Cannon mine: 3
Mitchell mine: 3
Capitol mine: 2
Vulcan mine: 2
New Baker mine: 1
Pluto mine: 1
Strathmore mine: 1
Gladstone mine: 1
Big Lake mine: 1
Vaughn mine: 1

Total deaths: 88

Source: “Colorado Mine Accident Index, Fatalities 1884-1981,” Sherard Collection, Colorado School of Mines, 2014.