Half a century ago, Laraine Jensen Augustus came home to find her father crying on the porch. He had just brought the lifeless body of one of his friends out of a Carbon County mine after a cave-in.
"The whole town knew that fear that grips you when you feel a rumble because it meant you would have to wait hours to find out what, if anything, it meant," she said in an e-mail. "I felt such gratitude to my dad after that because of the danger he put himself in every day to support our family and give us the things I need."
Coal mining has a rich tradition in Utah, as a lucrative yet dangerous profession. Laraine's father, William Jensen, was part of that fabric, as the son of an immigrant from Denmark who learned blacksmithing and mining from his father, said Brent Augustus, Laraine's son.
After Jensen married, he chose to mine, Brent Augustus said, because it was "one of the only jobs that an able-bodied man could just walk into and get good, good pay for a hard day's work.
While he no longer lives in Utah, in e-mails to the Deseret Morning News, Augustus recalled that after his grandfather injured his back while working in the mine, "he was very firm that none of his children or grandchildren would end up being 'blackies,"' a term Augustus said referred to miners who would come out of the mines covered in black coal dust and would cough and spit it out.
Much of Utah's ethnic, religious and cultural diversity today can be attributed to those who came here to work the mines and railroads, said Philip F. Notarianni, director of the Division of State History.
"The coal mining companies needed large groups of workers, and the immigrants were coming in and were able to fill that demand," he said. "That was the work available to them."
The trend has shifted. Immigrants are filling jobs in growth industries such as construction, as well as hospitality and services, said Pamela Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah.
Some 43 percent of the state's stucco masons, 35 percent of dishwashers and 34 percent of housekeepers are foreign-born, she said. At the same time highly educated immigrants are moving in, accounting for 49 percent of the state's medical scientists and 12 percent of university professors, she said.
While mining is a very small portion of the state's economy, accounting for only 2 percent of the gross domestic product in 2005, according to the Economic Report to the Governor, it remains lucrative for those without college degrees.
In Emery County, mining accounts for 22 percent of total employment and is the top pay scale, accounting for more than one-third of all wages paid, the report said.
Miners in Utah made an average $62,877 in 2006, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. In contrast, working in construction pays an average $35,512; working in leisure and hospitality pays $14,330 on average.
But with the salary comes a high-risk occupation, even today. At least three of the six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine are immigrants from Mexico.
In Utah's biggest mining tragedy, 200 people were killed in the 1900 Scofield mine disaster. At least 62 of the victims were Finnish, Notarianni said. And several Greek and Italian miners were killed in a 1924 explosion at the Castle Gate Mine, he said.
Frank Cordova, director of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, said his father and some brothers worked in coal mining before moving to other fields. As established workers move out, Cordova said, it's often immigrants who move in.
"It's very dangerous, and very unhealthy," Cordova said. "My dad, he got black lung. ... It didn't kill him but it was one of his health problems."
Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, knows first-hand the risk that miners take. His father and grandfather were both immigrants from the former Yugoslavia and both died working in mines. Dmitrich has worked in the mining industry for 30 years, the first three as a miner.
"In a lot of cases, I think you are born into it," he said. "In a lot of cases it's a very lucrative living. ... It provides a better living than the average, and it's kind of enjoyable."
Dmitrich said the industry has come a long way in safety, with additions such as better ventilation and tunnel support. Still, accidents happen. And when they do, the entire mining community feels it, regardless of state boundaries.Comment on this story
"When you know someone is trapped underground, it touches you," he said. "They'll go after them and they'll retrieve them. ... It's a very sad day in the mining community."
Dmitrich said mining has traditionally brought diversity to Utah. According to population estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau, minorities comprise 13.4 percent of Carbon County's population and 9.1 percent of Emery County's.
"There were a lot of Italians, a lot of Greeks. ... In the Scofield mine the majority were from Finland," Dmitrich said. "That's why we got that real broad ethnic population in Carbon County."Along with that diversity comes a sense of camaraderie, he said, adding, "Miners have that love for each other, they protect each other regardless of race, religion or whatever."