Homestake's Ellison Shaft Fire - 1930
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The Homestake Mining Company began operations in 1877, ultimately developing into one of the largest and deepest underground gold mines before its closure in the early 2000s. One of the reasons for the mine’s success in producing over 40 million ounces of gold during its lifetime was its ability to generate substantial production through innovative methods and prompt decision making, even in the face of hardships.
By 1895, the need for a new, larger shaft at the mine was apparent due to its growth and expansion and the proximity of the current shafts-- the Golden Star, the Golden Prospect, and the B&M-- to valuable ore pockets. Construction of the Ellison Shaft on the General Ellison mineral claim began in 1895 . Construction on the headframe, hoist house and crusher room got underway in 1897. The shaft was located across from the preexisting shafts on Gold Run gulch. A 900 foot tramway was built across the gulch to haul ore from the Ellison to the Homestake Mills. The entire shaft, headframe, hoist, crushing plant and tramway were completed on January 1, 1902, costing approximately one million dollars.
Over the next several decades, many buildings were constructed around the headframe to support operations. The steam-powered hoisting apparatus was built by Union Iron Works. Hoisting engines such as this were capable of hauling cages and their loads of several tons from as deep as 3,000 feet.
On the evening of July 10, 1930, tragedy struck the Ellison Shaft. A fire ignited from overheated pipes in the air compressor room shortly before 8 pm. Within minutes, the headframe and many smaller buildings nearby were rapidly burning. Several dynamite caps housed nearby exploded, augmenting the blaze, which could be seen for over a mile. Workers that were unable to escape via the cage in the Ellison shaft climbed hundreds of feet of manways to the tunnel which connected the Ellison to the B&M shaft. From there, they were lifted to the surface where they rushed to cross the trestle to assist in putting out the flames.
By this time much of the town had gathered to watch the burning headframe from neighboring hillsides. An old-fashioned Chautauqua at the Homestake Opera House was cleared out as word of the fire spread. Firefighters rushed in from neighboring towns to help extinguish the blaze and were able to keep the fire from spreading to the engine room. Workers, firefighters and onlookers were able to put out many spot fires that ignited. However, nothing could be done with the rampant flames engulfing the headframe until the building was almost destroyed.
Two men were trapped inside the cage, which had stopped between levels. The men were unable to release the air controlled brakes on the hoist to escape. With the car halted just below the 2,000 foot level, the fire quickly grew in intensity and heat, burning through the oil covered cable supporting the cage. The cable crashed onto the cage, causing the safety measures holding the car in place to fail. Over one ton of weight from the car, cable and impact caused the car to plummet over three hundred feet, instantly killing both men trapped inside.
The loss of these two lives and the destruction of the Ellison Shaft was truly devastating. All that stood of the great headframe was a mass of wreckage, debris, and steel beams.
Despite the destruction, mine operations never ceased. Although curtailed, operations shifted to the B&M and B&M No. 2 shafts in the aftermath of the fire. The B&M was used to handle the output of ore while the B&M No. 2 transported men, materials and supplies to the underground workings.
Work to clean the debris on the surface and rebuild the Ellison Shaft began July 11th, the day after the fire. Much of the area was still hot and smoldering. Reconstruction and repair moved at a fast pace as crews were trying to beat the cold winter months ahead. The Ellison reopened under limited operation on August 17th, with full operation beginning again in February 1931.
The quick response and fast decision making in the aftermath of the fire allowed the Homestake Mine to bounce back from an overwhelming loss.
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Learn more about the Homestake Mine and the history of Lead, Deadwood, and the Black Hills at http://www.deadwoodhistory.com/
--Adams Museum Collection Materials
--Fielder, Mildred, The Treasure of Homestake Gold, North Plains Press, Aberdeen, S.D., 1970.
--Mitchell, Steven T., Nuggets to Neutrinos: The Homestake Story, Xlibris Corporation, 2009.
--Homestake Mining Company, "Sharp Bits", Vol. 12 No. 2, March 1961
Interview with Jessica Michak, Deadwood History Inc. Archivist
Hosted by SDPB News Director Cara Hetland