Events

The great escape at Ironwood

Upper Peninsula miners line up for a group photo outside the Caspian Mine during World War I. Michigan iron was a key war resource.

In September 1926, a mine shaft at Ironwood, in the Upper Peninsula, collapsed and imprisoned 46 men. Forty-three survived more than five days underground in what still is considered one for the greatest mine rescues.  Here are excerpts from Kendrick Kimball’s account of the rescue that was published in The Detroit News on Sept. 30, 1926:
IRONWOOD, Mich. —The 43 men who were entombed 129 hours inthe Pabst Iron Mine were sleeping peacefully in the Grandview Hospital at daybreak today andby night most of them will be back with their families with the long underground ordeal ofsuffering and privation but a memory.
Grief has turned to joy over the rescue of the 43 men, the last of whomreached the surface at 11:22 o’clock last night. Today this mining town is in the midst of athanksgiving celebration in which everyone is taking a part.
When the steel door of the cage of H shaft was thrown open at 9:22 andSamuel F. Sinkelma, the first man to be rescued, stepped forth, it was the signal for thecelebration to begin. A roar of welcome greeted Sinkelma, father of eight children, from the5,000 persons gathered about the shaft. Hats were thrown into the air, camera flares lighted thevicinity, automobile horns were blown and in the downtown section, storekeepers closed theirplaces of business and joined the paraders behind the Ironwood municipal band.
The second man to appear from the cage was Thomas Trewartha, shiftboss. Thereafter the entombed miners, who were found upon the eighth level by a rescue party inthe afternoon, were brought to the ground in small squads. Trewartha came with eightcompanions. The rescued men descended G shaft of the Pabst mine from the eighth to thetwentieth level, climbing down the ladderway, with sturdy miners beneath them as support, andby an indirect route were led out of the bottom of the mine to the H shaft, where the cageawaited them.

ImageRescuers dig through the rubble of the collapsed shaft toward the trapped miners.

Image


As soon as they appeared from below, the miners were taken to the firstaid car of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, where they were given stimulants. Then they were speededto the hospital, after they had an opportunity to greet their families. Trewartha was the last to goto the hospital and he went there to “be with his men” not because he wanted more medicalattention, he said.
Scenes of great confusion were enacted as the miners came out of thecage. Wives, mothers and children leaped into their arms. Sons and brothers rushed forward toshake hands. The men, bearded and haggard, and wrapped in blankets, broke down withemotion. One miner carried his year-old child to the rescue car and would not part with her.Another would not leave the side of his wife. A third, although he shivered from the cold, jerkedhimself away from the men supporting him to kiss his mother.

Changing technology and economic conditions led to the abandonment of deep-shaft mines. But strip-miners continue to pull ore from the region’s rich iron deposits.


“We knew it was only a matter of time before we would be rescued,” saidJacob Luoma. “We expected rescue by Saturday. We could hear the drilling and blasting youknow, and we were conserving our strength to the last.”
The miners devised various means of spending their time, Luoma said.Sometimes they sang songs or popular tunes, to impart cheer to the weaker men, whose couragehad begun to desert them, or to keep up their own. Sometimes they joined with Leonard Uren,Salvation Army worker and a miner for many years, in hymns. Sometimes they sat around in acircle and discussed politics and in their solemn moments they talked of religion.
“Some of us prayed, too,” said Luoma. “It made us feel better to pray.”
The men pooled their lunches, which had been partially eaten before thecave-in of the shaft Friday noon, and Trewartha rationed out the food in small bits, a square inchof bread or cake at a time. But it lasted a little more than a day and then the birch bark teabecame the only food.

The U.P. mines provided work for thousands, including the railroad workers who laid the tracks and hauled the ore to waiting ships.


Several other miners said, “It wasn’t bad, you get sick from hunger afterthe first day or so and then it doesn’t bother you afterwards. You just get weaker, that’s all. Wedidn’t dare think of food, however. Yes, we will be back at work in a couple of days.”
The rescue of the 43 men will live for years as one of the heroic epics ofthe Gogebic Range. The rescue party consisted of Oscar Olson, chief mining engineer; Harry W.Byrne, mining captain; George Hawes, safety expert and Matt Wicklund, a miner. Hawes wasthe first to reach them. Trewartha greeted him and then shouted back into the passageway,”Yoho–boys–wake up–they’re here.” There came exclamations of surprise, wild yells ofexaltation, as sleeping men, who had awakened with a start, scrambled to their feet and madetheir way to the shaft station, tottering from their weakness.
“What do you need the worst, boys?” asked Olson.
“Tobacco,” responded the miners, and Hawes produced a cigar. He gave itto one of the men, who lit it with a borrowed match. In a twinkling seven men were smoking thecigar, passing it from one to another.

Oldest mine: The old Jackson Mine was the first iron mine to open during the boom years in Michigan’s U.P.


Ironwood went wild with joy when shortly after 2 p.m. it became knownthat the miners had been reached and were alive and well. Half the population started for themines. The Red Ore road leading to H shaft was choked with automobiles and men and womenstreamed over the open fields from every direction. Extra police were called out to keep thecrowds out of the roped area round the
shaft. Women were predominant in the crowds, many of them themothers, sisters and wives of the entombed men. Some wept, some laughed hysterically andsome turned their faces upward in thanksgiving. Others strove to shake the hands of Hawes,Byrne and Wicklund.
D. G. Kerr, vice president of the U.S. Steel Corporation, owners of theOliver Iron Mining Co., and D. E. Sutherland, superintendent of the mine, soon went to theshaft, both grinning from ear to ear. Sutherland’s eyes were damp and his mouth quivered withemotion.
“You don’t know how relieved I am that the men are safe,” he said. “I feel10 years younger.”

Image

Ironwood miners prepare to change shifts on the 14th level of the mine.

 


Perhaps the happiest man in Ironwood was Michael Collins, countymining inspector for the last six years. Collins, whose duty it is to inspect the shaft, was blamedfor the disaster by relatives and friends of the miners, and the old man took the censure verymuch to heart. Dozens of persons came to his home to upbraid him and threats of violence weremade repeatedly. Police guarded the home from time to time as the crowds became menacing,and Harry Collins, the inspector’s son and game warden for this district, spent his nights on thefront steps with a deer rifle in his hands.
Statements from the miners that the shaft had been in poor condition for ayear and that repairs had been neglected, caused John B. Chapple, managing editor of theAshland Daily Press in Wisconsin to ask for a Federal investigation of the cave in. He wrote:
“The Daily Press further declares that fatal accidents in Gogebic Countyin the last 30 years have totaled more than 500, or an average roughly of one life for every250,000 to 300,000 tons of ore mined.”

Image

Families wait outside the Pabst Mine for word of the trapped miners.