The worst mining accident in Michigans history.

MARQUETTE COUNTY, MI – Many of them hailed from Finland and Sweden, while others came from hearty French-Canadian stock. Some arrived from tiny towns in the Upper Peninsula that were no more than specks on a map.

Their thick accents mingled inside the walls of mine shafts deep within the Marquette Iron Range.

They were husbands and fathers, brothers and uncles, each earning wages for those

But on Nov. 3, 1926, all but one of the 52 men working in the Barnes-Hecker Iron Mine were killed within minutes. They were trapped in a torrential flood of water, mud and quicksand in what remains the worst mining disaster in Michigan’s history.


Nov. 3, 1926: Hour-by-hour look at Michigan’s worst mining disaster

On the tragedy’s 90th anniversary, a handful of U.P. cities have declared today a day of remembrance. Church bells will ring out, once for each of the men lost below ground.

The deadly chain of events began around 11:25 a.m. that day – just about the time some of the miner’s children normally began to arrive above ground, carrying their fathers’ lunch pails.

The tragedy left 42 wives without husbands, 132 children without fathers and an entire community in despair. The mine eventually closed forever. Forty-one of the bodies were never recovered and remain entombed underground at the Ely Township site.


The Barnes-Hecker mine was located in Marquette County’s Ely Township in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The mine site is now on private property.
The story of the tragedy is unknown to many, even in Michigan. Many of the victims’ direct descendants have died, and those with a connection to the disaster often purposely avoid talking about it.

But thanks to a grassroots effort between descendants of those killed in the mine and local historians, Nov. 3, 2016 has been designated as Barnes-Hecker Remembrance Day. Special events, documentaries and speakers have combined to mark the occasion.

“It seems to me that it’s a story that really hasn’t been talked about,” said Gary Perela, whose great uncles both perished that day. “The anniversary sure is bringing out a lot of emotion. It’s sort of like a family reunion. I’ve been able to put some of the pieces together.”

Going Underground Located just outside of Ishpeming, the Barnes-Hecker mine was owned by the Ohio-based Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company (now known as Cliffs Natural Resources).

Divided into three levels at 600, 800 and 1,000 feet, its main shaft reached a maximum depth of 1,060 feet. That’s where an escape tunnel to the adjacent Morris Mine was located.

On the day of the tragedy, one miner was in the process of routine dynamiting when the explosion broke into a large cavity in the mine’s rock, which ripped upward to the soft “overburden” area above.

This led to a cave-in, which drained a nearby lake.

“This deluge burst into the shaft, trapping everyone on the two levels below it, and within 15 minutes had flooded the mine to 185 feet below the surface,” according to a journal article written by Robert M. Neil, former corporate safety director for Cleveland-Cliffs.

Just one man, 22-year-old Wilford Wills, was able to escape by remarkably climbing 800 feet in 14 minutes.

Wills and another miner had heard the explosion, and felt the resulting blast of air that extinguished their carbide hat lamps, according to information later presented during the coroner’s inquest.

Wills and his partner warned other men nearby, then began to climb a ladder to the surface.

“Wills, in the lead, climbed frantically on the wet, muddy ladder. His gloves kept slipping on the rungs, so he tore them off with his teeth as he climbed. Three other men desperately began climbing the ladder behind him,” according to Neil’s journal article.

“As the men climbed for their lives, the rising maelstrom of water boiling up the shaft overtook them, knocking all except Wills off the ladder and to their deaths. Wills, totally exhausted, continued to climb.”

Once at the top, he collapsed with severe leg cramps and had to be revived with smelling salts.

The Lost Men

Among the 51 men killed, each had a story. Each had something to live for above ground. They included:

– Walter Tippett, who was working his first day at Barnes-Hecker.

– George and Richard Lampshire had just received word of a new opportunity at a different mine. They were nearing the end of their last day.

– Making one of his infrequent visits was William E. Hill, the Marquette County mine inspector who had been re-elected to his office the previous day.

– Louis Joseph Trudell, the son of a Canadian immigrant, didn’t make it out, either. He had recently transferred to Barnes-Hecker, which was fairly new and considered one of the safest mines in Marquette County at the time.

Trudell saw the mine as having more longevity compared to some of the older facilities in the region.

“My dad once told me a story about that day,” said Clifford Trudell Jr., Louis’ grandson. “There was a store five or six miles from the mine that he was at. And on that day a truck came through since there had been an accident at the mine.”

“My dad ran home and ran up the stairs to tell his dad that there was trouble at the mine and that he didn’t have to go to work, but his dad wasn’t there. He had changed shifts with another guy who needed to go to the doctor.”

Shortly after the cave-in, Barnes-Hecker Superintendent Charles J. Stakel ordered the crews of the adjoining Morris and Lloyd mines be hoisted to surface, fearing a duplicate disaster because of the connected shafts.

According to area historians, Stakel had planned to go underground into Barnes–Hecker that day.

However, his wife reminded him that she had an appointment in town and would need their car. Since the Barnes–Hecker was two and a half miles away, he decided to walk the half mile to the Morris Mine instead.

The Aftermath

Ten of the bodies were recovered from the mine. But after weeks of effort to restore the mine shaft and to retrieve the rest of the bodies, Cleveland-Cliffs made the decision to abandon the mine on Nov. 20, 1926. It was permanently sealed and remains a grave for those lost.


Many families stayed silent about men lost in Michigan’s worst mining disaster

“I’m connected to it on a personal basis,” said Jack Perela, whose grandmother’s brothers were lost in the mine. “I later worked in the Morris Mine on the sixth level, which was connected to the bottom level of the former Barnes-Hecker. I had the distinction of putting my hands on the old dam knowing that my great uncles were on the other side.”

The mine site is now shrouded in heavy tree cover. The once-destructive swamp from which water came rushing in sits calmly in view nearby.

The land is private property, only accessible to descendants on special occasions. And a stone memorial with the names of all those lost that day stands resolutely on the concrete shaft cap, a silent sentry to their final resting place.
By Brandon Champion | bchampio@mlive.com

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on November 03, 2016 at 9:00 AM, updated November 03, 2016 at 1:42 PM

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. DailyMusings
    Nov 03, 2016 @ 20:42:52

    such a sad and awful thing to have happened. Now hidden by foliage.

    Reply

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