Leigh Karchner

New Port Richey, United States

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Artist's Description

February 27, 1943 began on an optimistic
note for most families in Bearcreek, Washoe
and Red Lodge. The bright sun reflecting off
a light covering of new snow gave most
people living in the shadows of the
Beartooth Mountains a trusting view of the

It was Saturday, and the kids were out from
underfoot early that morning, not wanting to
miss a minute of sunny escape from school.
In addition, it was payday for the Smith Mine
workers. The men would return home that
evening with pay for their toil.

Little did the residents of the three communities
suspect that morning that their lives would soon
be changed forever. The miners knew the danger of their profession. That knowledge was likely in the back of their minds each time they descended beneath the surface of the earth. Their wives shared that knowledge; the thought of their husbands being injured or even killed likely crossed their minds each day they left for work. But the magnitude of the impending disaster was almost beyond comprehension.

The men began work at 8 a.m. Seventy-seven men entered the mine that morning; some into the earth 8,000 feet, on Seam Number Three. Only three would come out alive.

The explosion inside the mine took place at about 9:37 a.m. Shortly after, the mine’s siren was wailing and smoke was billowing from the mine entrance. As if acting on cue, threatening clouds begin filling the sky and the temperature began to drop. That glorious Saturday morning had indeed darkened.

Three men near the entrance of the mine managed to get out. According to the book “Red Lodge Saga of a Western Area” by Shirley Zupan and Harry J. Owens, the three, Alex Hawthorne, Willard Reid and Eli Houtonen, felt unusual pressure in their ears with no sound. A terrible wind came at them from inside the mine, blowing debris. Hawthorne reached a phone and sent word that something was wrong, and that he was coming out. He was then overcome by gas. Reid and Houtonen were knocked off their feet by the force of the wind. Reid managed to get up and tried to waken Houtonen. Guided by Reid’s lamp, rescue men found the three and took them above ground. The three survived the explosion; 74 others did not.

All mines operating in the area that day were closed as workers rushed to take part in a rescue effort. Those miners not working hurried to the mine to help look for their fellow workers. Meanwhile, wives, brothers, sisters, parents and children of the entombed miners kept a vigil outside the mine.

In the beginning, many held out hope their loved ones might have found a spot in the mine where they would be shielded from the explosion and gasses. Onlookers admired the calmness of the waiting, praying families, and of the rescue workers. But as time passed and lifeless bodies were carried out a few at a time, it became obvious the likelihood of finding more survivors was slight. It wasn’t until eight days later that the last body was brought to the surface.

Later, in April, a coroner’s inquest involving witnesses and state and federal mine bureau investigators concluded the men had lost their lives due to concussion and gas poisoning caused by gas and dust explosion.
Fifty-eight women were widowed by the disaster, 125 children left fatherless. One Bearcreek woman lost 11 relatives. Six of eight Bearcreek High School seniors lost their fathers.

It was not only the survivors who were left devastated by the explosion. The disaster eventually forced an end to the local coal mining industry. The faces of the towns of Bearcreek and Washoe changed forever, almost vanishing altogether. Homes were torn down, abandoned, plowed under or moved to nearby Red Lodge and Belfry.

Thousands of tons of coal remain beneath the reclaimed hills around Bearcreek. Today, in 2005, the rusted buildings of the Smith Mine stand by the highway as a monument to those who lost their lives beneath the sage covered hills, to their brave survivors, and to the courageous rescuers.

Read more of this historic landmark at

To view some fantastic western art, click here, WESTERN ART.

For prints, please visit our website, WESTERN ART.

For western gifts and collectibles, please visit our online store, Buffalo Trader Online. Please click here: WESTERN DECOR.

Artwork Comments

  • MichelleR
  • SharonGonzalez
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