U.P. mining tragedy reaches 90th anniversary

ISHPEMING — Tomorrow marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most catastrophic mining disasters in Michigan history.

And that tragedy was right here in Marquette County, just Northwest of Ishpeming.

“It was a trap that had been set unknowingly. Nobody knew it. If they did, obviously they wouldn’t have done it, but it was just a tragic series of events that led to what had happened,” said local historian Jim Paquette.

At 11:20am on November 3 of 1926, a scheduled blast went off from deep within the Barnes–Hecker Mine. An underground deposit of water was hit by the blast, releasing a mass of mud and debris, flooding the mine within ten minutes.

Fifty–one men lost their lives after being trapped underground.

Just one man, Rutherford Wills, escaped tragedy that day after he climbed 800 feet up a ladder to the surface in just 10 minutes. A handful of bodies were recovered, but the mine still remains a burial site for the other 41 men.

The affected families were severely devastated in the wake of the tragedy as many lost multiple loved ones.

Mary Tipppett is a descendant of two miners who died as well as Rutherford Wills, the only survivor. If things had timed out differently, the Tippett family could have lost 4 men in the accident.

“Many of the families were so distraught and so stressed by what happened, they just couldn’t talk about it and didn’t talk about it with their kids,” said Tippett. “My family was lucky because my grandmother talked about it. They took us to the lake that formed and we laid flowers there on Memorial Day.”

Forty–two widows, four of which were pregnant, and 132 children under the age of 18 were left to mourn their loss.

“The suffering that the families felt from losing a loved one, they lost support, they lost companionship, the children lost daddy, and that’s really the tragedy in this whole thing,” said Paquette.

The tragedy lives on through the family trees of several Ishpeming and West Ishpeming families who have ties to the catastrophe.

Negaunee resident Ronald Perala lost his two great uncles in the tragedy five years before he was born. The Lampshire–descendant also worked in the conjoining Morris Mine.

“The Barnes–Hecker was hooked to the Morris Mine with a raise and that raise is where seven bodies got pushed down that raise and they found them in the Morris Mine on the sixth level,” Perala said. “They had to build a dam there to hold back the water, mud and whatever was coming from the Barnes–Hecker Mine.”

And in the mid–1950’s, Perala was one of the workers that helped fix that dam that had deteriorated in the decades since the tragedy.

“I walked into the old dam that was leaking and I put my hands up on the cement wall of the dam,” said Perala. “I was thinking, here I’ve got relations on the other side of that cement wall and I’m on this side building a new dam.”

November third would have been the last day in the mines for the Lampshire brothers who had completed their two weeks’ notice.

“It’s nice to be able to pass on history. And if you don’t do it, it gets lost,” Perala said.

Several events were planned by a group of local historians and descendants to not only commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy and other mining accidents, but to honor the fallen miners’ families as well as their descendants.

In part two, we will take a look at the efforts of the planning group and the community support that followed their endeavors as they gathered the puzzle pieces which brought them together.