Tuesday, May 1, 2012

April 27, 2012. On The Road From Cody, Wyoming, To Red Lodge, Montana.

Enjoy the scenery.
From Cody, Wyoming,
to Red Lodge, Montana.

I'm loving the clouds.

Wind must've been blowing hard
when they painted the orange strips.

 About sixty million years ago, this area was part of a vast subtropical coastal plain with major rivers flowing eastward into an inland seaway.  Between these major river systems, great thicknesses of plant material accumulated that was converted to peat and eventually buried under sand, mud, and other sediments.  Over millions of years, the increased pressure and temperature from burial compressed and baked the peat into medium grade sub-bituminous coal.  Between about 70 to 55 million years ago, tectonic forces caused dramatic deformation of the region and culminated in the formation of mountain ranges like the Beartooth, Pryor, and Big Horn Mountains.  This deformation tilted the sedimentary layers and associated coal seams in this area downward to the east.  The coal in the Bear Creek field is part of the immense Fort Union Formation, which is estimated to contain over 200 billion tons of coal in eastern and central Montana.
"Yankee Jim" George discovered the Bear Creek coal field in 1866, but it would not be commercially mined for another forty years with the arrival of the Yellowstone Park Railway.  Five companies operated coal mines in this narrow valley by 1910.  Two towns, Bearcreek and Washoe, provided living quarters and services to the multi-ethnic miners and their families.  The field contains about a dozen workable coal beds, with some seams as thick as 11 feet.  Underground coal mining peaked in the early 1920s when Bear Creek coal powered railroad locomotives, fueled the Anaconda Copper Company's smelter in anaconda, and heated homes throughout Montana.  Production gradually diminished as the railroads converted to diesel-powered locomotives and private homes began using natural gas.  Commercial coal mining in the Bear Creek field ended in 1953 when the Smith Mine closed.  Small privately operated companies provided coal to area residents for years afterwards.

This is sad.
Along the way to Red Lodge, Montana,
we stopped here -
Smith Mine Historic District.

Thirty-nine corrugated metal structures mark the site of the Smith Mine, a ghostly reminder of a once vibrant mining district. The Montana Coal and Iron Company (MCI) began developing the Smith Mine in earnest after the arrival of the Montana, Wyoming, and Southern Railroad, producing 8000 tons of high-grade coal in 1907.  MCI electrified its operation by 1915, completely mechanizing it by 1929.  Throughout the 1930s, the company continued to invest in new equipment, building a new crushing plant, elevator, cleaning plant, coal shed and scales, electrical substation, and other above-ground structures to support the underground operation.  By 1943, miners working three shifts a day, six days a week produced almost 500,000 tons of coal annually, "to meet coal needs for a nation at war."  Investments in safety lagged behind other improvements, however, and in the 1940s many Smith miners still used open flame carbide headlamps (as opposed to safer electric lamps).  The highly gaseous mine also lacked good ventilation or rock-dusting equipment to control coal dust.  On February 27, 1943, this proved a deadly combination, when a methane gas explosion in Smith Mine #3 killed seventy-four miners (and later one rescuer) in the worst coal mining disaster in Montana history.  Only three of the men working that day survived.  Although MCI closed the Number 3 adit after the explosion, it continued to work its other mines, raking in record profits through 1945.  Declining demand, lower quality coal, competition from diesel and natural gas, and bad management led to the operation's closure in 1953.

The Smith Mine is the site of the worst underground coal mine disaster in Montana history.  The decaying buildings across the coulee are a memorial to the 74 men who died in the mine on the morning of February 27, 1943.  Smoke pouring from the entrance to the No. 3 vein was the first indication of trouble.  "There's something wrong down here.  I'm getting out," the hoist operator called up.  He and two nearby miners were the last men to leave the mine alive.

The families of the men trapped underground anxiously waited as rescue crews from as far away as Butte and Cascade County worked around the clock to clear debris and search for survivors.  There were none.  Some men died as a result of a violent explosion, but most fell victim to the deadly methane gasses released by the blast.  The tragedy sparked investigations at the state and national levels that resulted in improvements in mine safety.

Today's marker of the Smith Mine Disaster follows a simpler one left by two miners trapped underground after the explosion, waiting for the poisonous gas they knew would come.

"Walter & Johnny.  Good-bye.
Wives and daughters.
We died an easy death.
Love from us both.
Be good."

We enter Red Lodge, Montana.
And the first place we see is Rocky Fork Juniper.
I love this artwork.

We stayed at this same Comfort Inn
about two years ago on our first trip out west.

This time, we took a little trip through town.

I love local color.


Stay tuned for the BEST MEAL
Rosie has had yet.
In Red Lodge, MT.,
at the Red Lodge Cafe.
Yes, you heard me correctly.
WHOO HOO!! !!!!!!
Two weeks on the road today.
It's Friday, April 27.
We left on Friday, April 13.

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