Destruction of the Belcher Shaft
Progress of the Flames
The Big Bonanza
by Dan DeQuille
of the Territorial Enterprise
About two o'clock on the afternoon of October 30, 1874 the air shaft of the Belcher mine took fire and was totally destroyed. The shaft was not completed at the time of the accident, but went down to a depth of a thousand feet below the surface. It was twelve by six feet in width, divided into two compartments, and substantially timbered from top to bottom. It had cost between $30,000 and $40,000 and was designed to ventilate and cool the lower levels of the mines--those at the depth of fifteen hundred and sixteen hundred feet.
As soon as the fire was discovered, the miners working below were notified, and all were safely hoisted out of the mine, It being found impossible to save the shaft, all connection between it and other parts of the mine was cut off and the fire allowed to have its way.
The fire was first discovered by persons down in the mine, but it soon made itself manifest of the surface, in the dense volume of smoke of inky blackness that rose from the mouth of the shaft and ascended to a perpendicular height of three or four hundred feet. This large column of smoke was one of the grandest sights imaginable. The air was perfectly calm, and the smoke assumed the form of huge balloons rolling upward, one over the other. This ominous cloud of smoke was visible for many miles in all directions and filled the hearts of all beholders with terror. The steam whistle at the Belcher hoisting works, near at hand, sent forth its long-drawn wail --the fire signal-- as soon as the first black puffs of smoke rose above the surface of the ground, Instantly the whistles of dozens of mills and hoisting--works joined in, and the whole air was rent for half an hour with their steady unceasing shrieks. All who saw the awful pall of smoike rise up and hang over the mine feared the worst, and all who had husbands, fathers, brothers, or friends at work in the Belcher, hastened to the mine.
Firemen from Gold Hill and Virginia, with steamers and hand engines, soon swarmed the place, but were not allowed to throw water into the shaft -- the effects of this had been seen at the last fire in the Yellow-Jacket mine. There were houses to save, all about the shaft, and to this work the attention of the firemen was turned. To attempt to describe the wretchedness and despair of the women and children gathered round the shaft and looking upon the awful column of smoke would be futile, and to the imagination of the reader may be left their joy on being told that all who had been in the mine were safe upon the surface.
After the great column of smoke had rolled upward from the mouth of the shaft for twenty minutes or more, and when a great crowd was collected about the spot, there came a flash, as of lightning, there was a dull, heavy report, which was heard at the distance of a mile, and a sheet of flame shot upward to the height of nearly five hundred feet.
Instantly the dark column of smoke was gone--was consumed in the tall pillar of fire. The flame then gradually fell back to a height of about sixty feet, and to this height it continued to rush for over an hour, with a roar that could be heard at the distance of half a mile. Pieces of flaming wood and live coals larger than a man's hand were shot sixty feet into the air and fell in such showers that they covered the ground on all sides and rolled by bushels from the roofs of buildings in the neighborhood. At a distance the burning shaft bore a striking resemblance to an active volcano. The draught through it was the same that would be seen on the surface in a burning chimney a thousand feet in height.
At this critical juncture it was decided to go below and close all of the drifts leading from the burning shaft. The main hoisting shaft and works stood at a distance of one hundred yards from the air shaft, and in the buildings at this point were collected the miners who had just escaped from the lower levels. Showers of live coals were falling upon the roofs of all the buildings about and over the main working shaft, and a score of men engaged in pouring water over them could hardly prevent them from taking fire. In the hoisting works the engineers stood at their posts awaiting orders. A rope had been stretched about the mouth of the main shaft to keep back the crowd, and within the circle of this rope stood thirty or forty miners, also awaiting orders. The cage was below with two or three officers of the mine, who had gone down to ascertain the situation in the neighborhood of the bottom of the burning shaft. All were anxiously awaiting some news from these men, as since the escape of the miners from the lower levels, they were the first who had ventured back into the underground regions.
Presently a cage -- a three-decker-- came up and stopped at the mouth of the shaft. On its lower deck stood an underground foreman. As the cage stopped, this official said: " I want eighteen men to go down to the thousand-foot level with me." The men knew that on the level mentioned was the bottom of the perpendicular portion of the burning air-shaft, but they did not know the situation at that point, nor did they know what they would be asked to do on arriving at their destination. Yet no sooner had the call for volunteers been made than there was a rush of men to the cage.
The lower compartment was instantly filled. The engineer, who stood with his hand on the lever of his engine, dropped the cage till the second compartment stood level with the floor, and this had no sooner been done than it was filled with men. The same was the case when the last compartment came down; indeed, there was a quiet struggle among the men for a place on the cage, though few words were spoken. As the six men were taking their places on the last section of the cage, a young man pulled one of them off and took his place, saying: "No, John, you've got a family."
The men were all brave, determined-looking fellows. The faces of all were calm and firm-- not a cheek was pale. While the men were filling the cage, as it hung in the mouth of the shaft, I said to a friend: "Those are all fine, brave men. See with what nerve they step upon that cage to go down into the burning mine! It may be that some of these men will never reach the surface alive, yet not one shows a sign of fear."
" Very true," said my friend, " but I don't think there is any real danger down there. The fire is confined to the air-shaft; all around it is safe enough."
" Men never go into a mine at any time, " said I, " but they are in danger; and when there is anything wrong in the mine the danger is vastly increased -- particularly when there is a fire in any of the lower levels."
" Well, but what can happen to these men?" asked the gentlemen. " these men," said I, " will probably come out all right, if no cave shall occur in the burning shaft while they are below; but it will now soon be time for the caving to begin. The timbers must soon begin to weaken."
" Well, what would be the result of a cave in the shaft?"
" It would close up the shaft and suddenly send poisonous gases through the lower levels."
Leaving the shaft and the works soon after the men had descended on their dangerous mission a thousand feet below the surface of the earth, we returned to the town of Gold Hill.
As we entered the main street of the town, we turned and looked in the direction of the burning shaft, half a mile away. No sign of flame was visible, but there rolled up from the mouth of the shaft a great inky cloud of smoke.
" See, " cried my companion, " the fire has gone out! It is all smoke now!'
" There has been a cave in the shaft ! " said I, and in less than half a minute the column of flame again darted into the air to the height of sixty or eighty feet, and instantly all the smoke disappeared.
Now let us see what happened in the mine at that time. After the fire broke out in the air-shaft, the draft, which had always before been downward into the mine (contrary to the general expectation when it was made}, changed and rushed fiercely upwards. The draft in the main shaft at the hoisting works, one hundred yards distant, which had before been upward, was instantly changed, and in it there was found a strong downward suction. This allowed the men who went below to approach quite near to the bottom of the burning shaft. They were set to work at tearing out the woodwork and pulliing up the car- tracks in a drift connecting with the air-shaft at the thousand-foot level, preparatory to filling it with a bulkhead of rocks and earth in order to cut off its connection with other parts of the mine.
While they were at this work the cave occurred in the shaft. When the mass of rocks and earth composing the cave fell down through the shaft -- perhaps a distance of five hundred feet -- it forced back, down into the mine, and out through the drift in which the miners were at work, a vast tongue of flame as fierce as that from a blow-pipe -- forced back upon the men all the heat and flame there was in the lower part of the shaft when it fell.
This deluge of fire lasted but the fraction of a minute, when it was all sucked back into the shaft by the draft, but while it lasted, it was fierce as the flames of a furnace. The men working in the drift were naked from the waist upward, and below wore nothing but cotton overalls. In a moment the flames were upon them, and all were terribly burned, notwithstanding that they threw themselves flat upon the ground. In some instances their overalls were licked from their bodies -- turned to ashes in an instant.
Nine of the eighteen men we saw so bravely descend into the burning mine were hoisted out, scarred and crisped, their clothes burnt from their bodies, and the skin peeling off in great flakes wherever they were touched. One man was brought up dead. He was not found till the next day, when his dead body was discovered at the bottom of a winze into which he had fallen while fleeing before the flames. All of those burned finally recovered, but several not for many weeks. When the first squad of men was disabled, others bravely took their place in the drift and finally succeeded in completing a substantial bulkhead, thus saving the mine. Though several caves occurred and drove them from their work, none were so disastrous as the first -- the mass of rock in the bottom of the shaft doubtless preventing a free outpouring of flame.
Although this fire occurred in October 1874, in May 1875, when a new shaft was being constructed, great masses of rocks still almost at a white heat were encountered by the workmen. These lay at the bottom of the old shaft, and there was no burning timber, charcoal, or fire among them, but they were so hot as to set on fire the timbers the miners were trying to set up in the drift run by them, and in order to work at all it was found necessary to carry a line of hose into the place and play a stream of water upon the rocks.
When we find so small a mass of rocks as can be contained in the bottom of a shaft remaining red-hot for eight months, should we be incredulous on being assured by men of science that the center of the earth, once a molten mass of rock, still remains in a molten state after untold ages?
Bridget E. Smith, editor & publisher
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Published in Portland, Oregon