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The Briggs Mine disaster in 1869

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Gilpin Historical Society

by David Forsyth, PhD

Charles H. Briggs and his brothers arrived in Black Hawk on May 9, 1860. Like thousands of others, they came to try their hand at mining. The brothers discovered and worked the Briggs Mine, which was on the Gregory Lode near Central City. The mine was repeatedly referred to by newspapers of the time as one of the best mines in Gilpin County. Its ore was regularly displayed at state fairs and other events, earning the Briggs brothers a fair amount of fame throughout Colorado.

By 1869, the Briggs Mine was still considered a good producer and regularly received praise from the Rocky Mountain News and other newspapers. That year, however, the mine was the site of one of the worst mining disasters that Colorado had seen up to that point.

The accident happened on Saturday, December 4, 1869. Nine men were working in the bottom of the shaft that afternoon. Eight of the nine were identified as Charles Aldersley, John Moyle, Thomas Bevalligan, J.M. Hutchinson (who was the foreman), Moritz Sullivan, Dennis Harrington, John Kelly, and Dan Shay. The ninth man was later identified as Thomas Penall. While the men were working, other workers had installed four timbers and were installing a fifth in order to brace the mine shaft above where the men were working. One of the timbers gave way, taking the other four timbers down and several hundred pounds of quartz with it. Everything fell on the men working below.

Nearby miners quickly went to work digging for the men, but it was too late for Aldersley, Moyle, Penall, and Bevalligan, who were killed on impact. Aldersley and his wife had recently lost their only child, while Penall’s two children were left orphaned by the accident. Moyle’s wife and children were still living in England at the time of the tragedy. Harrington was alive but bleeding internally when rescued, and the Daily Register-Call reported that he was not expected to live. In fact, he died that night from his injuries.

Hutchinson, the mine superintendent, was badly wounded when he was pulled out of the pile of rock, with a severe cut on his head and a broken leg. The Register-Call reported that he was expected to live, though an hour and a half after the accident he was only semi-conscious. He was taken to his house in Central City, where he was left in the care of his family and friends. The newspaper was quick to point out that the very fact that Hutchinson was working underground at the time of the accident, proved the mine was safe and that the accident “was entirely unforeseen and not the result of any negligence.”

Though badly bruised, Kelly, Sullivan, and Shay were able to walk away from the mine once they were brought to the surface. With five men dead and some doubt as to whether or not Hutchinson would survive, the Rocky Mountain News informed its readers that the Briggs

disaster was “the worse mining disaster that has ever happened in this territory.”

John Moyle’s funeral was held almost as soon as his body was recovered on the 4th. The next funeral was that of Dennis Harrington, who was buried on the morning on December 6. That same day, Charles Aldersley was buried by the Masons and Thomas Penall by the Odd Fellows. The Register-Call reported that the turnout for Penall’s funeral was quite large.

Five days after the accident, a man identifying himself only as Argus wrote to the Rocky Mountain News condemning the practice of timbering over the men who were working in mines. He urged mining companies in Colorado to put men who actually understood their work in charge of the underground operations at mines, and also urged the territorial legislature to pass laws to protect the miners. Calling current practices in mines a constant threat to the lives of the miners working in them, Argus urged mine owners to at least adopt new methods that would allow them to leave waste rock in place, making the mines cheaper and safer to operate.

Despite being printed in the Rocky Mountain News, Argus’s pleas were ignored and the newspaper reported on December 16 that the Briggs Mine had been cleaned up and was back at work. The mine continued to be a major producer in the 1870s, and even drew attention from artist Charles St. George Stanley, who sketched some of the machinery at the mine (and who would also draw several murals in the bar at the Teller House in 1876 or 1877).

The Briggs Mine continued to produce well past August of 1895, when the disaster that claimed the lives of fourteen men at the Sleepy Hollow and Americus Mines surpassed the Briggs tragedy as the worst mining disaster in Gilpin County history.

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