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A Tailing Tale

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Of the Mining Disaster of 1895

By Maggie Magoffin

The Bobtail Mine opened early in the gold rush of 1859, and by 1876 had produced over 4 million dollars in gold. Its shafts, drifts and chambers penetrate for miles into the hills of Gilpin County.

The property closed in the late 1880’s, and in 1891 was purchase by a company from Haverhill, Massachusetts. They opened the Fisk portion of the mine and took out over a million dollars in gold.

This discovery encouraged others to lease portions of the property, among which were the Sleepy Hollow and the Americus, easterly extensions of the Fisk. After four years of mining, the new workings came too close to the abandoned drifts of the Fisk, which had filled with water. On August 29, 1895, the walls of the Sleepy Hollow and Americus broke, flooding the new workings and drowning 14 men.

Among those drowned in the Sleepy Hollow Mine was William Prisk, son of Henry Prisk. At the time of the disaster, William and Henry were at work in a stope just below the 500 foot level. (A stope is a step-like excavation underground for the removal of ore that is formed as the ore is mined in several layers.) Henry heard a roaring noise and asked William what it meant. The son said it was water from the Fisk Mine. The noise was deafening, and in an instant, Henry realized his and his son’s lives were in peril. They made a start for the main shaft, but had to turn back as the water poured in with torrential force. In total darkness and soaking wet clothing, they ran along the sixth level, making their way up through an old working to the fifth level. When they reached the fifth level, William and Henry crawled along that tunnel in hopes of reaching the fourth level. Both men continually shouted in hopes of attracting the attention of someone in the mine. The rapid rise of water drove the foul air from all parts of the mine to the shaft. Faint and dizzy, they struggled on. While crossing a timber over a steeply inclined passageway; eighteen-year-old William Prisk dropped without a cry or a word. The only sound the agonized father heard was the boy’s body splashing into the water far below.

Thomas Williams eventually heard Henry Prisk’s shouts for help, and the two men struggled against the foul air and rushing water to a place where they thought they might be able to climb out. Williams helped Prisk over the place and made a leap to get himself out, but missed his hold and fell backward. He injured his back in the fall and was unable to get up again. Williams shouted at Prisk to go for help. Prisk fought fatigue, grief and lightheadedness and staggered on. When he reached the 300-foot level, he sank to the ground unconscious, with his feet hanging over the shaft.

Crowds of people poured into the area around the shaft house of the Sleepy Hollow. Miners, men, women and children, the wives, sons, and daughters of miners trapped below filled the building. Deputy W. W. Williams then cleared everyone out, and a party of volunteers climbed into the bucket, and was lowered into the mine. However, when the bucket reached a depth of 230 feet, the accumulated gas, driven upward by the quickly rising water, extinguished the candles. The volunteers then made a second attempt, placing a large safety lamp in the bottom of the bucket. At the 300-foot level, they found Henry Prisk, but repeated attempts to reach the others proved futile due to the rising water. Twelve men died in the Sleepy Hollow Mine that day.

Meanwhile, in the Americus Mine, timberman Pope and ten other miners were working in the lower levels when the water broke through the wall. They heard the roar of the coming flood and crashing of timbers, and the rising water engulfed them before they could start for the mouth of the shaft. Eight of the men and Pope were under an old platform, and they began to climb. Led by Pope, the miners reached an area where fallen timbers blocked their way down the shaft. Below them, they could hear the roar of the water and crashing of timbers. Pope had his axe with him and worked to cut his way through. As he hacked at the blockage, the others floated from their places. But, they managed to stay together, and once Pope created a small opening, one-by-one the men squeezed through. They emerged from the mine and onto the surface just as the floodwaters reached their heels. Two Italian miners, working in the bottom of the shaft, were not so fortunate.

Those miners who died in the Sleepy Hollow Mine were Thomas Carbis, William Thomas, Nazarino Marietta, James Harris, Obid Prouse, Nicholas Vigus, Benjamin Brocklebank, Pergher Giovanni, Thomas Williams, Martino Ricono, Stephan Valero, and William Prisk.

Those miners who died in the Americus Mine were Acilo Avansinni and Lui Polernoster.

As the waters receded and bodies recovered, many funerals and funeral processions occurred in Central City. The last occurred one month after the disaster, on September 29, 1895. They were the funerals of Martin Ricardio and Stephen Vallero, the two Italian miners lost in the Americus Mine.

From Maggie: I continue to look for tales for my column. If you have tales to share, please call me at 303-881-3321 or email me at Maggie@maggiempublications.com.

On August 15th and 16th, I will be signing copies of “Misadventures of the Cholua Brothers” at the Gilpin County Fair. Look for the Cholua Brothers’ booth. On August 22nd, I will be signing copies at the Central City Beer Fest, at the corner of Main and Gregory, with Don Vaughn and Peter McFarland’s rare 1906 Elmore automobile. Please stop by for a visit.

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