Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Shining a light on one of Utah's darkest days

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 22 2012 12:06 p.m. MDT

Carla Kelly, shown outside the mining museum in Helper, has written a novel about one of the country's worst underground disasters.

Photo courtesy of Carla Kelly

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WELLINGTON, Carbon County — Once the last words were written and the manuscript had been proofed and dropped into the mailbox, Carla Kelly felt an overwhelming obligation to pay her respects.

Clutching a handful of long-stemmed white roses, the 65-year-old author of more than two dozen romantic and historical novels hiked up to the Scofield Cemetery to visit “her guys” and reflect on the short lives lived by 200 fathers, uncles, nephews and sons.

Seeking out the gravesites of several men whose stories provided background for key characters in her latest book, “My Loving Vigil Keeping,” she knelt to drop a rose upon each one.

“It was a gut clench to see the same death date on so many tombstones,” she says. “So much time has passed, but these guys deserve to be remembered. May 1, 1900, is a date I’ll always carry with me.”

The May Day explosion in the Winter Quarters coal mine near Scofield killed 200 miners, from a 14-year-old boy who died with his arms wrapped around his father to dozens of Finnish immigrants who’d ventured to Utah hoping to improve their fortunes and futures.

At the time, the tragedy was the nation’s worst mining disaster (today it is fifth on the list), leaving hundreds of small children fatherless and cleaning out mortuaries of coffins from Logan to St. George.

Kelly, who recently moved to Wellington from North Dakota with her husband to retire near friends, had heard about the disaster years ago while doing research for another writing project. She always thought the calamity would make a compelling backdrop for a novel. So when she learned that her new home was a quick drive from the old Winter Quarters site, she dived into research as soon as the dishes were unpacked.

Looking through old photos at the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper, “I was touched by how many families were affected by the disaster,” she says. “Just about everybody in that mine was related. The promise of America meant so much to them, and in an instant, their hopes vanished.”

Hoping to share that loss with a new generation that has likely never heard about the Winter Quarters tragedy, Kelly met me for a Free Lunch of Greek salad and lemonade a few days before her book hit store shelves.

A petite woman with an engaging smile and short, dark-blond hair tucked neatly behind her ears, she says she undertook the Winter Quarters project because “I wanted to let miners know that I was thinking about them and always will.”

“Coal miners are unsung heroes,” she says, “but nobody in Utah ever thinks of miners when they turn on a light. It’s such hard work and these guys all hope for something better for their kids. Even though mining is much safer today, it will always be dangerous. Every time these workers go into a mine, they’re risking their lives.”

The disaster in Winter Quarters happened when blasting powder accidentally ignited coal dust, causing a chain reaction. Poisonous gas called “after-damp” then flooded into a connecting mine, smothering the miners.

“It happened on a day they called Dewey Day, a celebration of America’s victory over the Spanish in Manila,” says Kelly. “The men were only planning to work half a day because there was going to be a dance that night. Instead, the day was spent with survivors going in to bring out their dead comrades.”

Opening a file full of photos showing grieving immigrant families and rows of coffins lined up neatly inside the mining town’s schoolhouse, she pauses in silence. After months of research, she feels as though she knows David Evans, Levi Jones, Robert Hunter and many of the other men who ventured inside the mine that May morning.

“It happened so long ago, but it’s still heartbreaking,” she says. “I’m glad I can play a small part in keeping their story alive.”

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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