On February 27, 1943, Bearcreek, Montana experienced what remains the worst coal disaster in the state. A combination of carbon monoxide and methane gas created an explosion killing seventy-four of the seventy-seven men working in the mine. The three men to survive were in the mine but did not see the explosion. However, they described feeling a pressure on their ears but hearing nothing before being blasted with air. One of the men rushed to the phone to let the men on the surface know that something was wrong but before he could he was overcome with gas. The other two men were attempting to escape the mine when they were knocked to their feet by the blast of air and then fell unconscious from the gas.
The explosion knocked out the electricity, preventing the mine’s emergency system from sounding. However, other mines in the area sounded theirs, alerting the other miners as well as those in the town that something was wrong in Smith Mine.
Men came from adjacent mines and from the town to rescue the men still trapped. Rescuers who went into the mine faced serious danger from the combination of carbon monoxide and methane gas. The farther anyone went into the mine, the more the gas took a toll, with many tripping, falling, hallucinating, or becoming disoriented. One of the rescuers breathed in too much gas and died as a result.
The seventy-four men who died either died immediately in the blast or were killed by the gas. The precise extent of the three survivors’ injuries is not documented in the sources, but they did spend a few days in the hospital.
The tragedy deeply affected the victims’ families. Family members spent sixty-three hours waiting to hear what had happened and get updates about their family members. The town was small, so virtually everyone there was a part of a mining family and thus knew or was related to someone who had died. The scale of the loss devastated the families, and many left Bearcreek afterwards because of their grief.
Bearcreek was small before and the disaster only made it worse. The mine closed permanently, and the town’s coal production fell. The biggest hit to the town’s economy and population came when the railroad ceased operating in 1953, ten years after the disaster. The railroad was the easiest way to ship coal, and with it closed, most of the mines followed suit, with the last mine closing in the 1970s. The Smith Mine disaster was effectively the beginning of the end for Bearcreek.