A bygone disaster

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It is a well-known fact that miners engage in dangerous work. Explosions, poisonous gases, fire and collapsing tunnels go hand in hand with their occupation.

The large coal mining town of Dawson, between Raton and Cimarron, experienced two of the worst mining disasters in New Mexico history.

The first occurred in 1913 when a dynamite charge misfired, causing a massive explosion that killed 263 workers. Ten years later, coal dust ignited in a second mine, leading to the deaths of 123 men.

William Baxter, who is quite familiar with the Cerillos Mining District and the adjacent gold placers in the Ortiz Mountains of central Santa Fe County, recently tipped me off to a tragedy that I had never heard of.

The incident took place at the White Ash Coal Mine three miles south of the town of Cerrillos on Feb. 27, 1895. I searched the historical literature on mining known to me, but could find no mention of the White Ash or its great misfortune.

From period newspapers, however, I was able to piece together what happened. At noon on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 1895, a phone message from the Cerrillos Rustler, the leading paper of the district, was received in the offices of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The report provided only a few spare details of “the shocking and appalling disaster at the White Ash Mine.”

Miners, the exact number as yet unknown, were working inside when a spark must have touched off deadly coal gas that produced the explosion.

At once a pillar of smoke rose above the mouth of the tunnel, alerting the populations of Cerrillos and Madrid. Men from both communities rushed to offer assistance.

They found intense excitement at the White Ash settlement. Wives of miners, many with babies in arms and small children clinging to their skirts, had hurried to the mine entrance, praying that their loved ones had been spared.

The chaotic scene, according to one observer, was “heartrending in the extreme.”

Compounding the magnitude of the horror and grief was the plain fact that intense smoke, dust and noxious vapors issuing from the mine blocked it for 10 hours following the blast, stalling all attempts to begin a rescue.

The Denver Times, drawing upon an Associated Press report, adds a few details not seen elsewhere. It stated that some of the rescuers who tried were quickly overcome by smoke as they attempted to reach the miners in the fourth chamber, where it was believed most of the men were located.

The Denver Times initially indicated that 40 individuals had been entombed, but afterward in a retraction reduced the number to 20, that being the estimate given by spokesmen actually on the ground.

Another press item declared that United States Cole Mine Inspector Col. J.W. Fleming of Silver City had arrived in Cerrillos the night before the calamity and the following morning had gone to inspect the White Ash.

“Fears are expressed lest he was in the mine at the time of the explosion.” Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

One other small detail from the Denver paper: The White Ash mine, it divulged, was owned by the Santa Fe Railway Company.

Within 24 hours the air had cleared sufficiently for a party to reach the fourth chamber. It found 25 men dead, including one with a French name, Jules Deserant, who lay with his two sons.

However, another 11 had been discovered alive in a separate chamber, but more remained unaccounted for.

Three days after the accident, the New Mexican announced in a bold headline: “Cerrillos in Mourning.” It offered a detailed account of “the impressive exercises attending the funerals of the dead miners.”

One has to wonder why a woeful event of this nature, although fully reported in the press, has failed to find a place in the history books. Or have I just overlooked it?