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December 1: Coal Mine Danger

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North Dakota’s coal mines were dangerous places a century ago, when blasts and equipment accidents could be fatal. The industry had swelled in North Dakota in the 1910s. In 1920, the state had 116 mines, most of them underground. They produced nearly 879,000 tons of coal, worth more than $2.1 million. That would be more than $33 million in today’s dollars.

The 1919 Legislature established coal mining code and created the position of state coal mine inspector. Safety concerns were a major force behind that legislation, understandably so. Here is a sampling of how dangerous mining was.

In 1918 in a Beulah mine, an elevator cage struck a miner, breaking his leg in two places. He was hospitalized for over a year and a half. He sued. The case went to trial, and in 1922 a jury awarded him $20,000.

In 1919, two brothers ages 9 and 13 drowned in an open coal mine near Beach when one went wading and dropped into a deep hole. His brother tried to rescue him and also drowned. Neither boy could swim.

Later that same year, a man was nearly killed in a mine near Washburn when a 400-pound drilling stem fell 25 feet, striking him with a glancing blow. And one man was killed and three others injured when a mine near Beach caved in.

In 1921, a miner lost his leg to amputation when a mule balked while hauling coal cars at a New Salem mine. The miner tried to brace the three cars with his leg, but his leg buckled causing serious damage. Also near New Salem, a 20-year-old man lost an arm while working in a mine.

On this date in 1923, a farmer digging coal in a mine near Van Hook died when a block of coal fell and crushed him.

Days later, two men were severely burned in a mine blast south of Bismarck. One of the men later died due to his burns and from inhaling fumes.

In 1924, a man narrowly escaped death in a mine near Beach after a premature powder blast caused injuries to his face and head, and broke his shoulder blade.

Fortunately, modern coal mining is much safer.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1919, January 9. Page 1: Rail labor not asking legislation
  • The Bowbells Tribune. 1919, July 4. Page 1: Two boys drown in coal mine
  • The Washburn Leader. 1919, September 5. Page 5: Brief items
  • Grand Forks Herald. 1919, December 2. Page 6: Miner killed and three hurt at Beach
  • Grand Forks Herald. 1921, December 12. Page 21: Balky mules causes man to lose leg
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1922, January 10. Page 1: Guy Blake has good voice, is making progress
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1922, March 10. Page 1: $50,000 injury suit on trial
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1922, March 15. Page 1: Miner injured gets $19,497 verdict here
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1923, December 1. Page 1: Instantly killed by block of coal
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1923, December 7. Page 1: Burns may prove fatal
  • Mandan Daily Pioneer. 1923, December 8. Page 4: Second victim of mine blast now has chance
  • The Bismarck Tribune. 1924, June 9. Page 7: Badly injured
  • Dura, J. 2018, March 6. Coal mine inspections. Prairie Public, Dakota Datebook. Retrieved from: news.prairiepublic.org/main-street/2018-03-06/coal-mine-inspections
  • Inflation calculator: bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
  • Oihus, C.A. (1983). A history of coal mining in North Dakota, 1873-1982. North Dakota Geological Survey: Bismarck, ND

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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