Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A tragic avalanche etched in the valley?s history

Seventeen died when avalanche hit 90 years ago

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy Chris Millspaugh, regional history librarian, The Community Library, Ketchum-- Men digging through avalanche debris looking for victims and survivors of Feb. 26, 1917, North Star mine disaster.

"Appalling Calamity."

The massive headline in the Feb. 26, 1917, Wood River Daily Times said it all in bold type after 17 miners died when a massive avalanche reduced several buildings at the North Star mine, near the community of Triumph out East Fork, to rubble.

Fifteen men died outright, 16 were injured and one was missing, the sub headline of the article stated. The office, storehouse, compressor, boiler rooms and a two-story bunkhouse were destroyed when the avalanche struck at about 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 25.

The avalanche rumbled down the northeast side of the hill and hit the buildings, "smashing them into kindling wood (and) carrying them and their contents across the ravine and down the gulch," the newspaper reported.

"Abner Donnelly, who was sleeping in the boarding house, heard the unmistakable rumbling of the avalanche, which hardly missed it, but carried away the steps and shook the structure. Calling to Mrs. Fraser and Mrs. Powers to run for the cellar he heard the crashing of timbers and the moaning of men caught in the grip of the snow and debris. Hastily donning trousers, overcoat he went out to the scene of the wreck," the next-day account said.

The women did not make it to the cellar because Mrs. Fraser fainted and was then helped down to the mill by Mrs. Powers.

Donnelly and three other men ran down the gulch to the mill for help. "Despite the snow, into which they sank to their waists at every step, they made the mill in ten minutes. After briefly telling them of the tragedy whose awfulness was still unascertained tho (sic) suspected, all the men at the mill started to the mine with shovel or axes," the Times reported.

Historical photos of the rescue effort on file at The Community Library in Ketchum show men digging through a rubble of strewn timbers that apparently used to be the bunkhouse.

According to the newspaper accounts, the Bell telephone line was out so a call was put in to the Hailey Electric Light works using the phone line of the mine's owner, the Federal Mining & Smelting Co. The mine's superintendent "was urged to send all the physicians and the able-bodied men available to the scene of the tragedy."

By 9 a.m. on the day of the avalanche 90 to 100 men were trying to extricate trapped miners. "Men's heads and arms and legs were protruding from the snow and timbers and other debris, in which were clothing and suitcases and other personal belongings."

At 2:30 p.m. the mine's general manager ordered a halt to rescue operations for fear of additional slides. "Willie Hewitt was pulled out of the snow unhurt. He was, however, half frozen and immediately left for Hailey to tell his mother of his escapes."

Several victims dug themselves out. "E.C. Jones was at first believed to be insane. When his head was uncovered he began to sing Casey Jones and other topical songs. He, however, is one of the less seriously injured."

Surviving the avalanche seemed to have a lot to do with where the men were sleeping when it hit the bunkhouse. "Those asleep on the second floor seem to have escaped serious injury while all the killed and seriously wounded slept on the first floor. When the avalanche struck the building the structure collapsed and the walls and second floor and all the contents of both floors were hurled down the gulch."

In a follow-up article on Feb. 27, the paper said three separate slides joined to form the avalanche. One slide came from the east, another from the north and one from the northwest.

The mining company sent two men on skis from Ketchum to Boyle Mountain to inform James Hearn of his brother John's death. John Hearn was from Fairfield. "The men went on ski and they have a fairly open road for about ten miles with here and there a bad place; but the last three or four miles are dangerous."

In sad detail the printed reports outline who died and by whom they were survived.

"Of the dead John Fleming leaves a wife and two children, Emmett P. Russell a wife and child, Philip Welch is survived by his mother, two sisters and three brothers, and Sam LaBarge by a wife and one child...The company has done all it could to locate the relatives of the dead or injured, and it is to pay all expenses of treatment of the survivors and for the funerals of the dead."

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