It was a normal Tuesday morning in the Union Pacific Coal Company mining town of Hanna, Wyoming, when disaster struck on June 30, 1903. It was about 10:30 in the morning when coal gas in the Hanna No. 1 mine caught fire and the resulting explosion imprisoned about 200 men underground. Miners not on shift, family members, and people from the surrounding communities rushed to help. Forty-six men were able to escape because they happened to be near an air shaft when the explosion occurred. Many others closer to the blast would have died instantly and others still would have suffocated before rescuers could reach them. In total, 169 miners lost their lives in the Hanna No. 1 mine that day. It remains Wyoming’s deadliest mine disaster.
The Story of Hanna
The area now known as Hanna was originally named Chimney Springs. In 1889, the Union Pacific Railway Coal Department (renamed the Union Pacific Coal Company the following year), opened the first mine at Hanna. Like the other Union Pacific owned coal mining towns, Hanna was a melting pot of various American and international cultures due to the company’s widespread recruiting practices.
The first Union Pacific Coal Company (UPCC) mines were opened in 1868, and the towns surrounding them and their successors were built haphazardly with housing placed close to the mine openings for ease of getting workers to the mines. Hanna was the first planned town built by the UPCC, with neat rows of identical company houses. Regardless of how the towns were planned or built, however, they mostly functioned as company towns with many of the goods and services (including housing) all owned by the company.
Local historian Nancy Anderson summed up the history of Hanna’s mines in her article, “A Brief History of Hanna, Wyoming” on WyoHistory.org: “From its inception in 1890 until the closing of its Hanna mines in 1954, the Union Pacific Coal Company opened six mines, some mere prospect holes, others long-lived collieries.” Though the last coal mine closed in the 1950s, a little over 800 people still live in Hanna today.
Wyoming’s Deadliest Mine Disaster
Within thirty minutes of the mine explosion, the Carbon County Commissioners hired a special train to send all physicians from Rawlins to aid in the recovery effort and provide medical assistance. Once in Hanna, the physicians were taken directly to the scene where fellow miners and community members were desperately trying to dig out their entombed colleagues and loved ones. It was slow going due to the force of the explosion, which threw debris—even large timbers—hundreds of feet from the mine opening. In addition to the men who were trapped underground, about 45 mules and horses kept in the mine stable inside the mine entrance were also trapped. The underground fire continued to burn for days, making recovery even more difficult.
By July 2, twenty-three men who had died from a resulting cave-in were found, some partially buried, at entry No. 17 but by the following day, mine bosses and rescuers alike, including about thirty “experienced fire fighters” who came from Rock Springs to assist, had given up hope of recovering any miners alive. They determined the burning stables at entry no. 17 had ignited the vein of coal and it was impossible to extinguish it. Great billows of black smoke were described in the newspapers. The smoke from the burning coal and the mine gas still present made it incredibly dangerous and nearly impossible to continue the recovery efforts, but they continued nonetheless. The newspapers reported that the 4th of July was “scarcely noticed” as they worked to contain the fire. Efforts to recover bodies would continue for months.
The Laramie Boomerang also pointed out in their July 1, 1903 front page story that many of the men who died were married, which meant they left a large number of widows and fatherless children when they were killed. After a survey of the town, one newspaper reported that about 600 children were left fatherless. Because so many of the miners were immigrants, some of these children were left without any living relatives in the United States or relatives at all. The Rawlins Republican reported on July 1, 1903 that it was “pitiful to see the women and children weeping and wailing about the mouth of the mine, begging for a word about their loved ones.”
Private donations were collected for the families as far as the East Coast. The company provided clothes and train cars full of coffins. However, Nancy Anderson also pointed out that the company “was condemned for refusing to compensate survivors beyond a meager amount for burial expenses. The explosion and ensuing publicity also brought national attention to dangers in Wyoming mines and increased state government concern for mine safety. Unions insisted on greater compensation for dependents of miners killed in such mishaps.”
Only a few images of Hanna from this time period are currently held by the American Heritage Center. The two photographs featured here are from the Samuel H. Knight papers (Collection # 400044). S.H. Knight was an early professor of geology at the University of Wyoming and ran the university’s Geology Museum. He took many photos documenting UW and Laramie buildings, events, and people. He also took photos around Wyoming related to his work as a geologist. The Hanna mine and the Hanna Basin are featured in several photos from this collection.
Post contributed by AHC Public History Educator Brigida Blasi.
Anderson, Nancy. “A Brief History of Hanna, Wyoming.” WyoHistory.org. November 8, 2014.
Roberts, Phil. “The Most Dangerous Occupation: The Quest for Safety in Wyoming’s Coal Mines,” WyoHistory.org. November 8, 2014.
Leathers, Bob. “The June 30, 1903 Explosion,” Hanna Basin Museum. Accessed June 23, 2022.
“213 Men Entombed,” The Rawlins Republican, July 1, 1903.
“Abandon Hope for Miners,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 3, 1903.
“Disaster at Hanna,” The Laramie Boomerang, July 1, 1903.
“Fire Interferes with Work,” The Rawlins Republican, July 4, 1903.
“Fire Raging in Hanna Mine,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 2, 1903.
“Frightful Disaster,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader, June 30, 1903.
“Great Progress at Hanna,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 6, 1903.
“Will Not Abandon Mine,” Wyoming Tribune, July 5, 1903.