Roslyn Mine disaster (October 3, 1909): The Official Investigative Report of the Washington State Inspector of Coal Mines

  • Posted 12/12/2009
  • Essay 9182

This People's History presents the full official investigative report prepared by the state Inspector of Coal Mines after an explosion at the Roslyn Mine on October 3, 1909 claimed the lives of 10 miners. Another Roslyn mine had earlier been the scene of the state's worst mine disaster, an 1892 explosion and fire that killed 45 men. This report on the 1909 disaster was contributed by Bill Kombol, manager of Palmer Coking Coal Co.

State Inspector of Coal Mines
Fourteenth Biennial Report for the Period Ending December 31, 1910
By D. C. Botting, Inspector

Roslyn Mine Explosion

On Sunday, Oct. 3rd 1909, at about 12:45 p.m., an explosion occurred in Mine No. 4, or the shaft, of the Northwestern Improvement Co., at Roslyn, in which ten men lost their lives.

The flames burst out of No. 4 shaft in a pillar, the height of which is variously estimated at from 150 to 400 feet, setting fire to the head frame, tipple, snowsheds, etc., and completely destroying them. The power-house and other structures near the shaft were fired, as were numerous buildings scattered about the town, and it was with difficulty that further loss of surface property was prevented. No flame or smoke issued from the return airways. The fans were not damaged, but they stopped because of the strong draught up the shaft caused by the first outrush of flame, which fired the shaft timbers and thus caused the natural ventilation to work against the fans. The fans were almost immediately reversed, with the idea that this would assist in getting the fire in the shaft under control and prevent it from working into the mine.

At the time of the explosion there were five men working on the tipple and near the head frame at No. 4 shaft. All five lost their lives. The bodies of two of them were never recovered, and it is supposed were burned in the ruins. The remaining three were thrown a considerable distance, the clothes were burned completely off the bodies of two of them, and they were identified with difficulty. There were also five men in the mine who were killed.

On Sunday night, Oct. 3rd, a rescue party entered the No. 1 slope and attempted to reach the shaft bottom. It was found that the slope had been blocked by a cave, so the party returned to the surface and attempted to descend slope No. 2. They had gone a distance of 3,000 feet when two of them were overcome by after-damp and re-enforcements were required to bring them to the surface. On Monday evening the two Draeger helmets from the A-Y-P Exposition arrived, but since the men who brought them had never used them in the mines, the management would not permit their use.  Numerous other attempts were made to gain entrance into the mine.  Finally by bratticing down No. 1 slope to the fifth east level, then sealing off the slope and sending all the air to the east side, the ventilation on this side was good enough to explore. A route to the mule stables was found through the old workings between the fifth east and eight east. This was a very difficult route, for before the explosion the places had caved tightly and it was impossible to get through. Finally a possible, but extremely rough way, was discovered. In many places the roof was in such a condition that there was great danger of its falling should the slightest disturbance occur. In fact it did fall, subsequently, and one party was entombed about half an hour, finally digging themselves out.

From the barn the party bratticed down the airway to the tenth east and thence out to slope No. 1. They had reached this point when Dr. Holmes and H. M. Wolflin, of the U.S. Geological Survey, arrived.  This was on the evening of the 8th.

On Thursday evening a party of six comprised of Thomas, Corey, Hale, Morris, Wolflin, and State Inspector of Coal Mines D. C. Botting, equipped with three Draeger machines (two of these had single oxygen cylinders and were good for but one hour each) and Wolfe safety lamps, entered Slope No. 1. This party proceeded by way of the old works to the mule barn on the eight level.  Here Thomas and Wolflin put the helmets on and went as far as possible in the direction of the shaft. Opposite the pump-house they were stopped by caves and returned to the party without having seen any evidence of fire. The party then proceeded down the airway to the tenth and out to the slope. Here it joined the bratticing party.

Both parties followed the air down the slope to the eleventh west. As the current was good at this point and part of the air was traveling down the slope, a small party was sent down to the twelfth east pump-room. Here the body of the pumpman, Jones, was found. The bratticing party took the body to the surface and the other party returned to the eleventh west. Wolflin, Thomas and Botting then put on the helmets, and, followed at a distance of 50 to 100 feet by Corey and Hale, proceeded to the eleventh west entry to a point just beyond No. 1 room of the third battery. Here they encountered bad air and the men without helmets were compelled to retreat a short distance to good air and await the return of the helmeted men. The latter proceeded only a distance of four or five hundred feet when enough gas to greatly disturb the safety lamps was encountered and they were compelled to turn back for fear of losing their lights. Since there was very little oxygen left in the machines, and they carried no electric lights, they returned to the surface. A bratticing party was sent in to take the air to the point reached by the helmetmen.

On the following evening a party of seven, including Corey, Wolflin, and Inspector Botting, entered the mine through the eleventh west aircourse to a point opposite No. 1 room on the third battery. Here they encountered bad air, and Corey, Wolflin and Botting, all helmeted, went up near the face where the two tracklayers had been at work. They found their bodies lying from 30 to 50 feet from their working places. As there was a trip of cars between them and the remainder of the party and the entry was almost blocked by falls at several points, no attempt was made by the helmet party to get the bodies to the surface. The next morning the bratticing was brought up to them and they were recovered without the use of helmets.

While the explosion spread into Mines No. 1 and No. 2 to some extent, the evidences of greatest violence were found in Mine No. 4 below the seventh level. The tremendous concussion and the subsequent burning out of the timbers caused the shaft to collapse and probably set fire to the coal at the bottom. A large stream of water was turned down the shaft as soon after the explosion as possible and was kept running for about 48 hours until the smoke had subsided.  Numerous caves occurred throughout Mine No. 4, No. 1 slope was completely blocked between the seventh and eighth levels and these levels, together with the ninth east and west, the eleventh west and twelfth east, were so nearly blocked in the immediate vicinity of east slope that it was impossible to find an entrance into the parts of the mine most affected by the explosion, until some day had passed. Numerous very heavy falls occurred between No. 1 slope and the shaft, so that the bottom of the west side of the shaft was not reached until a week after the explosion.

In this as in many other similar cases the cause and the point of origin is hard to determine. It was shown at the inquest that the regular examination of the old works had been made by the fire-bosses on Saturday, the day before the explosion, and no unusual conditions had been noticed. No shots had been fired since the shotlighter had made his rounds the evening before the explosion. The fire-bosses testified that they had made their regular rounds Sunday morning before the explosion and found all places clear with the exception of the fourteenth level west, where some gas was found. This gas they cleaned out before leaving the mine.  It was shown at the inquest that a short time before leaving the mine on the morning of the explosion, one of the fire-bosses took two electrician into the fourteenth west to show them the action of gas in a safety lamp, and, although they tested in several places, not enough gas to give cap in safety lamp was found. This proves that the mine atmosphere was in fairly good condition. The ventilating current was normal. The fire-bosses on their rounds has oiled all the auxiliary fans and found them in good condition, as were also the outside fans. I feel justified in concluding that there was no body of gas in the mine large enough to cause an explosion of such violence.  The coal dust carried the flame after the ignition started and there is little room for doubt that this was essentially a dust explosion, regardless of the cause of its origin.

In attempting to determine the cause of the explosion the following possibilities were presented and discussed:

     First.  That it was purely a dust explosion caused by a blown-out shot that had smouldered from the time the shot lighter had made his rounds on Saturday night until the time of the explosion, 12:45 p.m. on Sunday.

     This seemed unlikely from the first, and on investigation no evidence of a blown-out shot was found. Furthermore the shot lighter testified that without any question every shot that he lit that night went off very shortly afterwards and that he returned and examined the places and found them in good condition.

     Second.  That it was a dust explosion caused by a small gas explosion originated by one of the men who were killed. This was disproved by the fact that all of the men were found near their working places with no evidences of fire about them.

     Third.  That sparking electric equipment came in contact with a small body of gas, igniting it and thus starting a dust explosion. This seems the most plausible theory. The mine was so badly wrecked that it was practically impossible to trace the direction in which the explosion had traveled. The evidence showed that it had travelled down and back and in many places on different entries it was found to have traveled both in and out at very short intervals. At the inquest it was found that the men working in the pillars of the third battery of the eleventh west entry had removed their tools before leaving Saturday night, expecting that a cave-in would occur before they would return to work Monday morning. On investigation it was found that this cave had occurred.  These rooms had been holed to the tenth west air course some distance out-bye, from an auxiliary fan that was placed in the tenth west air course; the air traveled up these rooms into the tenth west air course through the fan and out through slope No. 2. Usually the gas in the mine comes from the roof, and it is possible that when the cave occurred in the third battery of the eleventh west, a quantity of gas was liberated. This gas passed through the tenth west fan and was probably ignited by a flash from the motor, or by a short circuit on the wires which brought the current to the fan motor.

The disturbance along the west entry out-bye from the fan toward No. 1 slope was very slight, but just a short distance inside of fan it was very violent, and the only part of the mine which shows unmistakable evidence of flame is in the vicinity of the fan.


Aaron Isaacson, Laborer. age  26, Danish, married, 3 children, body not recovered.               
Otis Newhouse, Outside foreman, age 38, American, married, no children, body recovered.
J. E. Jones, Pumpman, age 20, American, unmarried, body recovered.
Carl Berger, Carpenter, age 48, Danish, married, no children, body not recovered.
Wm. Arundell, Miner, age 44, English, married, four children, body not recovered.
James Gurrell, Laborer, age 50, American, married, three children, body recovered.
Phillip Posovich, Track layer, age 30, Austrian, married, three children, body recovered.
Dominick Pomotich, Track layer, age 33, Austrian, married, four children, body recovered.
Daniel Hardy, Track layer, age 60, English, married, no children, body recovered April 2, 1910. 
Dominick Bartolero, Track layer, age 42, Italian, married, four children, body recovered  April 16, 1910.

Following is the text of the verdict of the coroner’s jury:

Roslyn, Wash., October 14, 1909

We, the jury impaneled to inquire into the cause of the death of William Arundell, Otis Newhousen, James Gurrell, Phillip Pozarich, George Tomatich and John E. Jones, find that they came to their death by an explosion of fire damp in mine No. 4 of the Northwestern Improvement Company, located at Roslyn, Washington, on the third day of October, 1909.  From all the testimony given, the cause of said explosion is unknown.

    (Signed)    T.B. Wright, Foreman;
                     Jas. R. Sharing,
                     E.L. Simmons,
                     Wm. Browitt,
                     Thos. Caldwell,
                     Wm. R. Jones.    

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You