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Sans Bois Mine

U.S. Industrialists; Steel Corp Execs, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie & Andrew Mellon Owned, Profited from Sans Bois Mine, Responsible for 1912 Explosion

Pictured: Sans Bois Mine

Research and Writing by:
David Roberts



This article delves into the historical and socio-economic impact of the Sans Bois Mine disaster in McCurtain, Oklahoma. It explores the town's origins, the rise of the mining industry under the influence of industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and the catastrophic mine explosion of 1912. By examining primary accounts, corporate records, and historical overviews, this study reveals the profound effects of the disaster on McCurtain's community, landscape, and legacy.


In the heart of Haskell County, Oklahoma, lies the town of McCurtain — a place whose history is as rich as the coal seams that run beneath its soil. From its inception as a modest tent town in the wake of the 1889 Indian Territory Land Run, McCurtain's trajectory has been indelibly shaped by the fortunes and misfortunes of the mining industry. This narrative is not just one of economic growth and industrial development, but also of profound tragedy, resilience, and transformation. At the epicenter of this historical tapestry is the Sans Bois Mine disaster of 1912, an event that not only devastated the community but also left an indelible mark on the broader narrative of early 20th-century American industrialization.

This article seeks to unravel the complex threads of McCurtain's past, focusing particularly on the events leading up to and following the catastrophic mine explosion. Key to understanding this history is the figure of Henry Clay Frick, a prominent industrialist whose influence extended deep into the workings of the Sans Bois Mining Company. Frick, acting upon direction from his colleague Andrew Mellon, was first urged to buy Semple railroad in Ohio. Frick's business acumen and strategic maneuvering played a crucial role in the town's early growth, yet his and others' corporate practices also set the stage for one of the most heart-wrenching disasters in the mining industry.

Through a careful examination of historical records, corporate documents, and eyewitness accounts, this study aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the Sans Bois Mine disaster within the larger context of McCurtain's history. It will explore the town's early development, the rise of the mining industry under Frick's influence, the details of the 1912 explosion, and the lasting impacts of this event on the community and the region.


In doing so, this article endeavors to offer a nuanced portrayal of a community shaped by the dual forces of opportunity and tragedy. It is a story that speaks to the broader themes of American industrialization, labor history, and the human cost of economic progress. The narrative of McCurtain and the Sans Bois Mine is not just a local history but a chapter in the larger story of a nation grappling with the complexities of industrial growth and its implications for small communities across the American landscape.


Early History and Establishment

The story of McCurtain, Oklahoma, begins with the 1889 Indian Territory Land Run, an event that transformed vast tracts of land into burgeoning settlements almost overnight. Among these was the area that would become McCurtain, initially emerging as a dual tent community known as Panther and Chant. The latter, named after Harry Chant, a figure of entrepreneurial spirit, would lay the foundation for the town of McCurtain.

These early days were marked by a raw and pioneering spirit. Settlers arrived, drawn by the promise of new beginnings. The establishment of the Chant Post Office in 1903 signified the area's evolution from a transient tent town to a more permanent settlement. Harry Chant, bringing with him essential tools and supplies, played a pivotal role in this transformation, guiding the community from isolation to a burgeoning hub of activity and commerce.


Mining Industry Boom

The true catalyst for McCurtain's growth, however, was the discovery of coal. In 1889, the same year as the Land Run, coal deposits were found, attracting a diverse array of individuals, from Eastern European miners to American entrepreneurs. This discovery was not just a matter of local interest but of global significance, as it highlighted the vast resource potential of what was then known as Indian Territory.


At the forefront of this mining boom was the Sans Bois Mining Company, or Sans Bois Coal Company, an entity that would define McCurtain’s future for generations. In 1901, industrialist Henry Clay Frick purchased the Sans Bois Coal Company and the Fort Smith and Western Railway, along with several other coal and railroad companies in the region. Frick was a wealthy businessman who had made his fortune in the steel industry, and he saw the coal and railroad companies as a profitable investment. Frick's ownership of the Sans Bois Coal Company and the Fort Smith and Western Railway put him in control of the entire process of extracting and transporting coal from the Sans Bois Mountains to markets throughout the region.


The influence of Henry Clay Frick, a renowned industrialist, and a key figure in the American steel industry, was instrumental in this phase of McCurtain's development. Frick, known for being anti-labor union after the infamous Homestead Strike, was also well known for his connections with Andrew Carnegie. Both would serve a pivotal role in the formation of U.S. Steel Corp, and both brought considerable business acumen to bear on the operations of the Sans Bois Mining Company. Through strategic corporate maneuvers and the establishment of the Fort Smith and Western Railway, Frick, initially at the urging of Andrew Mellon and together with Andrew Carnegie, each of the three a titan of industry in their own right, directly controlled and reaped the profits from the mining operations in McCurtain, sometimes channeling profits through a network of subsidiaries and affiliates.


Under Frick's oversight, the Sans Bois Mining Company expanded rapidly. In anticipation of a surge in population due to the mining operations, the company constructed 400 homes for its workers, a move that symbolized the town's transition from a transient community to a permanent settlement. By the early 20th century, McCurtain's population had soared, with records indicating a diverse community comprising 13 different nationalities, all drawn by the promise of prosperity in the coal mines.


This period of economic boom was not without its challenges. The rapid growth and industrialization brought about by the mining industry also introduced new risks and vulnerabilities. The safety standards and working conditions within the mines, often overlooked in the pursuit of profit, would soon become a central issue, culminating in the tragic events of the Sans Bois Mine disaster in 1912.


The rise of McCurtain, the town’s story, is one of remarkable growth and transformation, driven by the twin forces of entrepreneurial spirit and industrial ambition. It is a narrative that reflects the broader themes of American expansion and the complexities of industrialization, setting the stage for the town's most defining and tragic moment in history.


The Labor Dispute

One of the greatest labor disputes in the Oklahoma territory prior to a strong worker’s rights movement gaining its foothold in the area, involved the Sans Bois Coal Company. Ironically, only months prior to the March 20, 1912 tragedy, the miner’s were engaged in a full strike with the company’s management and owners. The wildcat strikes of 1911 and 1912 involved the need for improved safety regulations in the mining industry.


Specifically, the strike of 1912 would initially begin with the miners of Sans Bois Mine 1 and Mine 2, demanding a ten-cent per ton wage increase as payment for the ‘dead work’ system they had been forced to endure. A temporary resolution eneded up bringing about none of the promosed reforms causing the miner’s to threaten additional strikes, no resolution would be reached.


The Explosion

March 20, 1912, dawned like any other day in McCurtain, Oklahoma, but it would end as one of the darkest in the town's history. At approximately 9:00 AM, a catastrophic explosion ripped through Mine Number Two of the Sans Bois Mining Company, forever altering the course of McCurtain's history.

The explosion's immediate impact was devastating. Seventy-three miners lost their lives, leaving over fifty women widowed and numerous children fatherless. The community, deeply interconnected with the mine, was plunged into mourning, with nearly every family touched by the tragedy.

The mine itself, a hub of ceaseless activity and the town's economic heartbeat, became a site of ruin and despair. Remarkably, the physical structure of the mine suffered minimal damage; equipment remained largely intact, underscoring the explosion's cruel precision in claiming human lives while sparing inanimate objects.


In the explosion's aftermath, the Sans Bois Mining Company moved swiftly, offering settlements to the bereaved families. However, this gesture, initially seen as a compassionate response, would later be viewed as a strategic move to forestall further litigation and protect the company's interests. These settlements, though they provided immediate financial relief, robbed many families of the chance to seek fair compensation for their immense losses.


Safety Lapses and Causes

The Sans Bois Mine disaster was not an unforeseeable or isolated incident. Instead, it was the culmination of a series of safety lapses and operational hazards that characterized the mine's history. Records indicate that Mine Number Two had a troubling track record, with regular fatal accidents occurring annually since its opening. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests eventually revealed that the mine’s fatal incidents began during the first month of operation and existed regularly until the 1912 explosion. The longest period the mine operated without officially recording a death due to safety or explosion was nearly five months, precisely 4 months and 21 days.


The mine's operation as a 'Slope Mine' presented inherent risks. The coal seam's ten-degree dip and the subsequent right-angle turn at the 'Main Slope' created challenging conditions for safe mining practices. Despite being ventilated by a Capell fan capable of circulating 46,000 cubic feet of air per minute, these measures were insufficient to mitigate the risks fully.


On the day of the disaster, two fire bosses, John Kokoshe and Frank Crooke, were responsible for overseeing the mine's safety. Crooke, in particular, discovered gas in the eleventh south top entry and its adjoining room, a clear indicator of potential danger. However, the mine's safety protocols, including the use of brattice cloth for ventilation and the lack of a dead-line on the south slope, were in volioation of state law and were violations previously noted by the state mine inspector.


The precise cause of the explosion remains a subject of speculation. Conflicting accounts suggest that Crooke, under pressure to maintain production and fearing for his job, hurried the ventilation process and neglected to install mandatory safety measures. The presence of miners in the eleventh south entry with their personal belongings indicated that they were caught off-guard, likely unaware of the imminent danger. The mine's safety protocols, including the use of brattice cloth for ventilation and the lack of a dead-line on the south slope, were inadequate , negligently applied, and in violation of state law - a fact that had been noted on more than one occassion by the state mine inspectors office.


The initial explosion point in the eleventh south entry suggests that a concentration of gas, possibly ignited by a spark or open flame, triggered the blast. The extensive use of canvas for brattices, while scorched in the explosion, points to the inadequate and makeshift nature of the mine's ventilation system. Ultimately, the Sans Bois Mine disaster was not merely an accident but a tragic consequence of a series of overlooked safety concerns and operational hazards. The loss of 73 lives in Mine Number Two will forever serve as a grim reminder of the human cost of negligence and the paramount importance of rigorous safety standards in industrial operations.



Community Impact

The Sans Bois Mine disaster of 1912 left an indelible mark on the McCurtain community, echoing through generations with a legacy of grief, economic hardship, and resilience. The immediate emotional toll was profound: 73 miners lost, leaving behind over 50 widows and numerous children. This loss of life ripped through the small community, touching nearly every household and leaving a void that would be felt for decades.

Economically, the disaster was a severe blow. The Sans Bois Mining Company, which had been the lifeblood of the town, rapidly filed for bankruptcy following the incident. This move not only left the bereaved families with meager settlements but also stripped the community of its primary source of income. The once-thriving town faced a stark reality of diminished prospects and a declining population, as many were forced to leave in search of new opportunities.


Socially, the disaster reshaped the fabric of McCurtain. The tight-knit community, bound by shared hardship and collective grief, found strength in unity. The tragedy became a central narrative in the town's history, shaping its identity and fostering a deep sense of communal resilience. Families who remained were bound by a shared experience of loss and survival, creating a strong, albeit somber, sense of community.


Historical Significance

The Sans Bois Mine disaster holds a significant place in Oklahoma's history, representing both the dangers of early industrialization and the enduring spirit of its communities. McCurtain, through this tragedy, became emblematic of the broader struggles faced by mining towns across America during this era. The disaster highlighted the need for improved safety standards in mining operations, contributing to a growing awareness and eventual reforms in industrial working conditions.

The legacy of the disaster extends beyond the immediate impact on McCurtain. It serves as a poignant reminder of the human cost of economic development and the often-overlooked sacrifices of laborers in the pursuit of industrial progress. The memory of the tragedy has been preserved in the collective consciousness of Oklahoma, serving as a testament to the resilience of its people.


In remembering the Sans Bois Mine disaster, McCurtain's story becomes a narrative of perseverance in the face of adversity. The town's ability to endure, rebuild, and remember offers a powerful narrative of survival and resilience. This tragedy, while a dark chapter in the town's history, also underscores the strength and determination of its inhabitants, who, despite the odds, continued to forge a community grounded in solidarity and hope.


McCurtain, and more generally all of Southeastern Oklahoma, is a unique place inhabited by even more unique people - people who believe in honest hard work; people who know tragedy and heartache; people who fear their God and love their neighbor; descendants of settlers who fought Indians, disease, and famine to build their sons and daughters a brighter future; citizens who create happiness in an area where the sky can rip open and rain hell down upon them as tornados, flash floods, droughts, disasters are common occurrences. Southeastern Oklahoma isn’t for the faint of heart yet, despite its tragic history and regardless of compounding economic downturns limited jobs, resources and services, those fortunate enough to travel into this part of Oklahoma will almost certainly be warmly greeted and welcomed by our people.


Today, McCurtain stands as a testament to the ebbs and flows of industry, human resilience, and the indomitable spirit of community. The town's rich history is a poignant reminder of the challenges that small communities can face in the pursuit of progress and prosperity. Many believe that successive generations of our ancestors can bind each of us to a certain location, as we grow to become adults, we regard ourselves as much of a product of this place as any other factor in our lives. At the turn of the century, in 1900, the formative years before Oklahoma statehood and at the height of the town of McCurtain - the coal mining operations were a ray of light and glimmer of hope to brave, hard-working and capable people from all over this world. The horrible tragedy that occurred in the community that morning in March, 1912 dealt a terminal blow to the area that many have debated can be overcome. More significant still is the families who didn’t relocate and instead remained, those who got back up, and worked hard to make it in this land, so in the distance future, their ancestors conceptionalize them with both a sincere form of thanks and a genuine sense of kinship not well known outside of small and rural towns in Oklahoma - towns like McCurtain.

The 73 Miner’s Lost in the Tragedy

  • Nelson Barton, 17, single

  • Thomas Brunskill, 30, wife and 2 children

  • Paul Bessa, 40, single

  • Ed Campbell, 27, single

  • F. W. Echols, 28, single

  • John Golwas, Sr., 54, wife and 3 children

  • Ralph Kenny, 15, single

  • Steve Luckenish, 31, wife and 4 children

  • Anton Maidie, 28, wife and 2 children

  • Rutledge Poole, 17, single

  • W. D. Oper, 24, single

  • James Phillips, 31, wife and 1 child

  • Ollie Parenti, 47, wife and 8 children

  • D. W. Rutledge, 33, wife and 2 children

  • Walter Thomas, 32, wife and 3 children

  • George Grego, 38

  • William Steele, 22, single

  • Oliver Smelzer, 17, single

  • W. A. Thomas, 35, wife

  • Abe Skinner, 47, wife and 5 children

  • Joe Weberger, 40, wife and 3 children

  • Charles Sabio, 38, wife

  • R. D. Wimberly, 27, wife

  • F. W. Woodward, 37, wife and 3 children

  • Frank Martin, 36, single

  • B. McGuire, single

  • Benj. Nelson, 41, single

  • Alex Oasis, 26

  • W. C. Perry, 28, wife and 3 children

  • Hal Phillips, 37, single

  • Sam Phillips, 35, wife and 5 children

  • John Perko, 41, wife and 4 children

  • Joe Romanio, wife and 4 children

  • Enoch Katchunis, 41, wife and 4 children

  • Joe Marosco, 33, wife and 4 children

  • Thomas Kokot, 54, wife

  • Fred Heinz, 51, wife and 3 children

  • Joe Kominsky, 41, wife and 7 children

Tony Lavana, 28, wife

  • Ed McGuinnes, 44, wife and 1 child

  • Peter Mattis, 43, wife and 5 children

  • William Farrimond, 38, wife and 4 children

  • John Golwas, Jr., 17, single

  • Jack Gradis, 42, wife and 4 children

  • Chad Gough, 21, wife and 1 child

  • Joe Gussio, 23, wife

  • John Gough, 26, wife and 1 child

  • T. J. Izett, 33, single

  • Ernest Hankins, 18, single

  • Samuel Hicks, 17, single

  • Frank Aldman, wife

  • Tony Bench, 36, single

  • Frank Crooks, 45, wife 5 children

  • A. L. Cook, 50

  • Enrico Carbello, single

  • Charles Cowardin, 39, wife and 2 children

  • John Gotto, wife

  • John Day, 29, wife

  • Crill A. Emberton, 31, wife

  • Cleveland Fields, 27, wife and 1 child

  • Dan Daniels, 46, wife

  • Daniel Compton, 22, single

  • Charles Conners, 22

  • Arthur Buckannan, 53, wife and 3 children

  • Omar Thomas, 18, single

  • N. Bardisonio

  • Albert Bonner, 35, wife and 2 children

  • William Cross, 29, wife and 1 child

  • Oscar Adams, 44, wife and 4 children

  • Arthur andrews, 21, wife

  • George Bell, 38, wife and 6 children

  • Willias andrews, 40, wife and 4 children

  • W. G. Birdsong, 36, wife and 1 child

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