Just seven miles east of Hayden on U.S. Highway 40, most of us quickly and unknowingly drive right through the middle of what was once Mount Harris, a coal mining town of about 1,500. Upon its demise in 1958 when the mines closed, it suffered the indignity of being completely erased from its original location.
Mount Harris was a company town for two separate coal mines, and prior to 1935, three mines operated in the vicinity (Mack). The Harris mine was on the south side of the Yampa River, and these miners also resided on the south side. The Wadge Mine (named for original homesteader James Wadge), owned by Victor-American Coal, was on the north side of the river, and these workers correspondingly lived just north of today’s Highway 40. The third mine, nicknamed the “‘the P.K.” for its parent company, Pinnacle-Kemmerer Coal Company, was also north of the highway and east of Wolf Creek, but was shut down in 1935.
The town was dominated by a large sandrock building housing a grocery store, drugstore, post office, pool hall, barbershop, furniture store, hardware store and company offices. Uniformly white painted homes were neatly laid out on both sides of the highway. The town also hosted its own school district.
These facts alone make Mount Harris important to the early economic development of our area. However, the disaster and death of 34 miners at the Wadge on Jan. 27, 1942, anchors Mount Harris in the larger story of the American industrial worker, and the uncertainties they faced in this era.
About 10:30 p.m., four men working roughly 3,000 feet into the mine felt a low “thud” rise from the bowels of the mine where the majority of the night shift was working. Reacting quickly, the men scrambled to the air shaft running parallel to the main tunnel and escaped just ahead of the rising heat, dust and “blackdamp” (carbon monoxide gas). Alerted to the explosion, the mine’s steam whistle let off a series of blasts, rudely awakening the town to the unfolding tragedy (Steamboat Pilot, 1/29/42).
Men, women and children gathered at the mine portal, just a ¼ mile northwest of town, praying and hoping for a saving miracle. But no miracle was in the offing. As fans cleared dust and fumes, rescue teams made their way into the Wadge. Slowly, they began to recover 34 charred and scorched corpses. Within two days, all the bodies were recovered and placed in the makeshift morgue at the movie theater for identification and burial by family members.
Almost 81 years later, the shockwave of sudden loss that moved through the valley is hard to comprehend. The mines and schools were shut down. Sporting events in the Yampa Valley were canceled. The Cable family lost three brothers — Ralph, Ross and Ray — all in their 30s. Twenty-four of the men were married, and 43 children lost a father (HaydenHeritageCenter.org). In terms of lives lost, The Wadge explosion is ranked as the eighth-worst mining accident in Colorado history.
Six men from Craig were part of the night shift, and their obituaries reveal a startling lack of experience. The most experienced, Frank Shepherd, had worked at the Wadge for two years, but the other five had only been employed one month or less (Craig Empire Courier, 2/4/42).
Investigations into the cause of the disaster determined methane gas had been detected and reported yet ignored by several bosses. A poorly placed blower fan meant to disperse the gas actually pushed it into the working area of the night crew. Most likely a spark from the fan ignited the volatile mix of methane, oxygen and dust (Steamboat Pilot, 4/9/42, and Mack).
Within a few weeks, the Wadge reopened and continued operations until it closed in 1951. In 1958, the Mount Harris mine followed suit, and the town was completely dismantled. Houses were auctioned off and moved to locations throughout the Yampa Valley. Everything else was either demolished or repurposed elsewhere, and then … Mount Harris simply ceased to exist.
Today, a simple historical marker just off Highway 40 commemorates the miners, wives and families that lived at Mount Harris. These memories also live on in books and exhibits at our local museums. But to really feel the life and times surrounding Mount Harris we just need to slow down, ponder and use our imagination.