Humanitarian Assistance in 1900: The Response to the Scofield Mine Disaster

By William C. Duncan

On May 1, 1900, around 10:25 in the morning, two explosions occurred in the Winter Quarters coal mine just outside of the town of Scofield in Carbon County, Utah. Rescue teams were immediately sent to help clear the mine and recover bodies of victims. Relatives also gathered around the portals of the mine to await news of their family members who worked in the mines.

At the end of the day, 165 bodies had been recovered. The explosion had killed around 200 men, including 60 Finnish immigrants. [1] As a result of the disaster, 107 women were widowed and 270 children left without their fathers. [2] The Abram and Kaisa Luoma family, for instance, lost six of their seven sons and three grandsons in the explosion. [3] At the time, this was the worst mine disaster in the history of the United States. [4]

Many people of the community and state reacted to the terrible loss with great kindness and compassion. Among these were many leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who provided help and aid to the victims of the disaster.

In commenting on the Church’s response to disasters and other needs in the contemporary world, Elder Alexander B. Morrison, an emeritus member of the First Quorum of Seventy, has noted that the “major purpose” of the humanitarian assistance provided by the Church “is to strengthen and protect the coping capacity of individuals, their families, communities and institutions.” [5]

In responding to the Scofield disaster, members of the Church and others tried to strengthen the “coping capacity” of those affected. They did this by providing assistance in three areas: practical, emotional and spiritual. Their example is powerfully relevant to members of the Church today who are called on to help those in need as directed by the Lord: “And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.” (D&C 52:40)

Practical Assistance

As noted above, the mine explosion created immediate and significant challenges for those affected – the need to recover bodies and provide a proper burial, for instance. The initial practical assistance extended by the Church as a response to the mine disaster was to allow the Winter Quarters chapel to be used as a temporary morgue for the bodies as they were recovered from the site of the disaster. [6]

More significant were the pressing financial needs of those left behind. Thus, relief efforts immediately began to be directed to the needs of the widows and orphans of the disaster’s victims who would be left without the fathers and brothers who had, in some cases, been their sole source of support. A relief fund was quickly created to which the Church itself contributed $2,500 on May 11, despite the difficult financial position of the Church at the time occasioned by the severe persecution of the late nineteenth century. [7]

Church members and others gave generously to the effort. In some cases, fundraising for the relief effort included creative activities. Baseball games, “[d]ances, concerts, theatrical performances, ice cream and cake sales, and even a children’s ‘magic lantern’ exhibition – which earned $1.06 – were held.” [8] As an example, one relief concert held at the Salt Lake Third Ward meetinghouse raised $50. [9] The Eleventh Ward Sunday School sold 322 tickets to a concert that raised $80.50. [10] The June 1900 Improvement Era noted that $120,876.42 had been raised for relief efforts to that point. [11] Eventually, the total amount of money contributed to the relief effort was $200,000. [12]

Emotional Assistance

Of course, even if all the financial needs of the survivors had been met, this alone could never compensate for the loss of their loved ones. In tender ways, members and other good people in Utah made an effort to help relieve and soothe the sorrow felt by those who had been bereaved.

One of the most touching incidents recorded in the wake of the disaster involved the response of schoolchildren in Salt Lake City. After they heard of the disaster, the children began to gather flowers door-to-door. These were loaded onto railway cars to be sent to Scofield. The flowers collected by the children were supplemented by floral contributions from citizens of other towns along the route of the railroad. [13] Newspaper reports described as many as three carloads full of flowers. These consisted mostly of lilacs but included pansies, violets and other varieties gathered from businesses and private homes. [14]

Women from Salt Lake accompanied the flowers to help with distribution and to comfort the grieving. [15] During the trip, some of those accompanying the flowers tied the flowers into bouquets. [16] At least one of the cars was eventually positioned near the road on which the wagons carrying many of the coffins passed. A Captain Barrett, along with two other men, heaped lilacs on each coffin as it passed and gave cut flowers to the wagon drivers to distribute to the families of the victims. [17]

Captain Barrett was reported to have been especially kind to the bereaved children, getting down from the carriage to lift them up so each could take an armful of flowers. [18] The Salt Lake Tribune’s account of this flower distribution said, “[t]here is a deal more of sympathy and kindness in the souls of the every-day men and women of the world than they are ordinarily given credit for, and this crops out at times in a most convincing manner. And [this day] was one of those times.” [19]

Of course, we cannot know of all of the other acts of kindness offered to help those in sorrow, but there are intriguing hints as to other kinds of service rendered. For instance, accounts of the relief effort note two “angels of mercy,” Mrs. William White and Elizabeth Silverwood, who came from Salt Lake City to care for children “‘suffering for the lack of attention'” due to the overwrought emotional state of their mothers. [20] There were assuredly many other similar acts of individual kindness.

Spiritual Assistance

An additional dimension of assistance was offered in response to the Scofield Mine disaster that is probably less typical of relief efforts following tragedies of its type where the Church is not involved. This dimension was a spiritual one. Specifically, members and leaders of the Church reached out to the suffering to provide comfort and increase coping capacity by teaching doctrines that provided comfort and perspective and by blessing them. Much of this kind of assistance was centered around the funeral services of disaster victims.

Funeral services were held in communities all over the state of Utah, since members of many different communities had perished in the mine explosion. In Provo, where six of the miners were buried, Professor George H. Brimhall of the Brigham Young Academy spoke at a funeral held in the stake tabernacle. Noting the source of the motivation for the service rendered by many, he told the mourners that “‘Christ brought the spirit of love and kindness'” and noted that, “‘[t]he entire mass of humanity is afflicted over this calamity in this little mountain country.'” He also sought to provide perspective, teaching that: “‘There is no lesson in God’s school but what is valuable to us.'” [21]

In the funeral held in Salt Lake City for the men from that area, stake president Angus M. Cannon also provided perspective by teaching the doctrine of the resurrection. President Cannon’s counselor Charles W. Penrose talked about the challenge tragedies such as had occurred in Scofield were for the individuals affected who might feel it difficult to reconcile the experience of suffering with their understanding of the love and justice of God. To provide understanding, he emphasized the lack of finality in death. A report of his sermon said that he “held that there was virtually no such thing as death, as the ordinary world understood it; that what the world usually termed death is merely the changing of the being in the twinkling of an eye.” This surely helped the mourners remember that “the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ.” (Mosiah 16:8) President Penrose also added his witness to President Cannon’s as he also taught about the resurrection. [22]

The largest funeral services, of course, were held at Scofield. Here two major funeral services were held. One was conducted by a Finnish Lutheran minister from Wyoming. The second was conducted on May 6 by a delegation of LDS Church leaders, including Elders George Teasdale, Reed Smoot and Heber J. Grant of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Seymour B. Young, one of the seven presidents of the First Council of the Seventy. [23]

Elder Teasdale was a convert from England who had been called as an apostle on the same day as Elder Grant. He had previously sung in the Tabernacle Choir and served many missions for the Church. [24] Elder Smoot was a new general authority, having joined the Quorum of the Twelve on April 8, 1900, less than a month before the Scofield tragedy. He had been a successful businessman and would later have a distinguished career as a U.S. Senator representing Utah from 1903 to 1932. [25] Elder Grant had become a member of the Twelve at the age of 25 in 1882. He became the seventh president of the Church in 1918. [26]

Interestingly, President Grant was later to make a similar visit on March 11, 1924 to offer assistance after another mine disaster in Castlegate, Utah on March 8 killed 173 miners. [27] Elder Young was a survivor of the Haun’s Mill Massacre as a baby. He had worked as a physician until his call as a general authority in 1882. [28]

The Scofield funeral service was held in the Odd Fellows’ hall because of its size. Although the service was presided over Elder Teasdale and his Brethren, it was attended by individuals of all denominations. Thankfully, a relatively detailed report of the service was kept. It chronicles the spiritual aid offered by the Brethren as they shared counsel and doctrinal insight to the bereaved.

In his opening prayer for the service, Elder Teasdale asked for comfort for the widows and orphans and expressed gratitude for the Restoration of the gospel that had brought “the hope of a glorious resurrection.” Elder Grant then spoke. He taught that the Latter-day Saints “do not mourn as do people who have no hope,” and “that hope robs death of its frightful horror.” Elder Grant personalized his message of hope by sharing a personal experience of the spiritual comfort he received from the Lord when his wife and son died. [29]

Elder Young spoke next. He assured the people of the reality of divine assistance, saying that God “‘would work out ultimate good to us all.'” In his address, Elder Smoot said that his experience connected with the tragedy had left him “convinced that this life was not a life in reality, but that the true life would be found beyond the veil, where so many of the friends and relatives of the audience had gone.” He told the widows that “‘all that made you love [those who had died], lives and will live forever.'”

Elder Smoot also told of a beautiful vision in which his deceased mother had appeared to him to confirm the truth of the plan of salvation. In what must have been a powerful conclusion, he said that “[t]he next month will be a very trying time for those who have lost their dear ones. In the excitement of the present, you have been held up, but in the days that are coming, go to your God.”

Elder Teasdale was the closing speaker. He told of how word of the disaster had reached the leaders of the Church while they were in counsel and that President Lorenzo Snow had requested the Brethren to go to the scene of the disaster “to offer what help and consolation they could.” He also paid tribute to the rescue workers as “‘men he wanted to shake hands with'” for their heroic effort. [30] Elder Teasdale assured those present that vicarious work could be performed for those who had died without the opportunity to participate in temple ordinances and specifically said that “[t]he wives who had lost their husbands could be sealed to them for eternity.” He closed by saying: “‘I pray God that He will sanctify this affliction unto us. We mourn with you, our tears mingle with yours. May peace be in all your habitations.'” [31]

Teaching was only one type of spiritual service provided by these Brethren. Perhaps the most spiritually moving scene is portrayed in a very brief word picture contained in a later account of that day. It’s portrayal of a unique form of assistance is very touching: “May 5 was ‘burial day.’ The weather could hardly have been bleaker – cold, windy, a constant threat of rain. Mormon hymns filled the air as three apostles from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints blessed grave after grave.” [32] What a powerful picture of priesthood service provided by these General Authorities as they invoked their divine authority to provide deep spiritual comfort through the priesthood ordinance of dedicating the graves of those who were killed.

In a world in which few are strangers to tragedy, sometimes even on a large scale, the response of the people of Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Scofield tragedy provides important lessons. One lesson is the need to pay attention to the various needs of the suffering.

The Church and its members, both in organized and spontaneous ways, sought to ease the emotional pain, economic distress and spiritual turmoil of those affected by the tragedy. They recognized that the doctrines of the gospel and the power of the priesthood were uniquely powerful agents of healing and were absolutely necessary to supplement temporal assistance.

Similar kindness and confident expressions of hope are needed now in response to tragedies, more than a century later. We also can give generously of our resources of money, time love and perhaps most significantly, gospel knowledge and testimony to bless those who suffer. This is the reason the lessons taught by their actions then are so worth remembering now.



[1] Craig Fuller, “Finns and the Winter Quarters Mine Disaster,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2002) 123-139.

[2] Brent Israelsen, “100 Years After Tragedy, Carbon Folks Are . . . Mining for History,” Salt Lake Tribune (May 31, 1999) A1.

[3] Allan Kent Powell, “Tragedy at Scofield,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1973) 182-194; Craig Fuller, “Finns and the Winter Quarters Mine Disaster,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2002) 123-139.

[4] Mike Gorrell, “Tragedy in Scofield: The Day of Horror,” Salt Lake Tribune (April 30, 2000) A1.

[5] Larry C. Porter, “Brigham Young and the Twelve in Quincy: A Return to the Eye of the Missouri Storm, 26 April 1839,” Mormon Historical Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 2001) 29-58.

[6] Craig Fuller, “Finns and the Winter Quarters Mine Disaster,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2002) 123-139.

[7] Andrew Jenson, Church Chronology: A Record of Important Events Pertaining to the History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1914); J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 249; Church Educational System, Church History in the Fulness of Times, Religion 341-43 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), 454-455.

[8] Allan Kent Powell, “Tragedy at Scofield,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1973) 182-194.

[9] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 249.

[10] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 280-281.

[11] “The Scofield Mine Disaster,” Improvement Era 3, no. 8 (June 1900): 620-622.

[12] Scofield’s Solemn Anniversary,” Deseret News (May 1, 2000) A6.

[13] Allan Kent Powell, “Tragedy at Scofield,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1973) 182-194; “Scofield’s Solemn Anniversary,” Deseret News (May 1, 2000) A6; Dennis B. Neuenschwander, “Flowers of Mercy,” The New Era, April 2002, 10-13.

[14] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 57-58.

[15] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 58.

[16] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 62.

[17] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 59.

[18] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 59.

[19] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 60.

[20] Craig Fuller, “Finns and the Winter Quarters Mine Disaster,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2002) 123-139.

[21] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 77.

[22] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 72-73.

[23] Allan Kent Powell, “Tragedy at Scofield,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1973) 182-194; Craig Fuller, “Finns and the Winter Quarters Mine Disaster,” Utah Historical Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2002) 123-139; Andrew Jenson, Church Chronology: A Record of Important Events Pertaining to the History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1914).

[24] Lawrence R. Flake, Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 403-405.

[25] Lawrence R. Flake, Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 427-430.

[26] Lawrence R. Flake, Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 67-73.

[27] “Passing Events,” Improvement Era 27, no. 6 (April 1924): 577-583.

[28] Lawrence R. Flake, Mighty Men of Zion (Salt Lake City: Karl D. Butler, 1974), 418-419.

[29] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 81-85; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002), 47-48.

[30] Mike Gorrell, “Tragedy in Scofield: The Day of Horror,” Salt Lake Tribune (April 30, 2000) A1.

[31] J.W. Dilley, History of the Scofield Mine Disaster (Provo, Utah: Press and Binders of the Skelton Publishing Co., 1900), 81-85.

[32] Mike Gorrell, “Tragedy in Scofield: The Day of Horror,” Salt Lake Tribune (April 30, 2000) A1.