Smith Mine Historic District

Thirty-nine corrugated metal structures mark the site of the Smith Mine, a ghostly reminder of a once vibrant mining district. The Montana Coal and Iron Company (MCI) began developing the Smith Mine in earnest after the arrival of the Montana, Wyoming and Southern Railroad, producing 8,000 tons of high-grade coal in 1907. MCI electrified its operation by 1915, completely mechanizing it by 1929. Throughout the 1930s, the company continued to invest in new equipment, building a new crushing plant, elevator, cleaning plant, coal sheds and scales, electrical substation, and other above-ground structures to support the underground operation. By 1943, miners working three shifts a day, six days a week produced almost 500,000 tons of coal annually, “to meet coal needs for a nation at war.” Investments in safety lagged behind other improvements, however, and in the 1940s many Smith miners still used open-flame carbide headlamps (as opposed to safer electric lamps). The highly gaseous mine also lacked good ventilation or rock-dusting equipment to control coal dust. On February 27, 1943, this proved a deadly combination, when a methane gas explosion in Smith Mine #3 killed seventy-four miners (and later, one rescuer) in the worst coal mining disaster in Montana history. Only three of the men working that day survived. Although MCI closed the Number 3 adit after the explosion, it continued to work its other mines, raking in record profits through 1945. Declining demand, lower quality coal, competition from diesel and natural gas, and bad management led to the operation’s closure in 1953.

Images

Audio

The Smith Mine Disaster
Audio recording about the Smith Mine disaster of February 27, 1943. Prepared and recorded by Montana Historical Society staff member Ellen Baumler. Presented on the Soundcloud channel "Montana History on the Go" 2017. ~ Source: Montana History on the...
View File Record

Map

The Smith Mine historic district begins at the gate at the southeast corner of the site and proceeds in a northwesterly direction along the Right-of-Way (ROW) fence to where the fenceline turns 90 degrees to the north. From here, the boundary moves away from the fenceline and crosses the coulee to intersect with a two-track road. The boundary then turns again to the west to include the Cameron House at the far southwest corner of the property. From the Cameron House, the boundary follows the contour of the hillside to the north until it reaches the powder magazine located at the head of the coulee. From the magazine the boundary crosses the coulee eastward following the contour of the sandstone outcropping. The boundary then follows the edge of the sandstone rims in a generally easterly, then northeasterly direction until it reaches a point above the power plant. From here, the boundary follows the irregular outline of the reclaimed area to the east, then south, then west on the north side of the coulee to meet the two-track road. From here the boundary continues southeast to the gate and the place of its beginning. Bearcreek, Montana ~ private