The mining town of Frisco, in Beaver County, Utah, was proud of the fact that the main buildings along its Main Street were made of stone and concrete. The Hotel Southern, built in 1879 was hailed as “fireproof” by its builder and owner, J.J. Ferrin.
At the mine, southwest of town, all the structures were made of wood. The “hoist house” that contained the “A frame” used to lift the cage up the 1600-foot shaft enclosed all the workings of that crucial operation. The boiler was located in the rear. The hoist system was in the middle, and the ore-train tracks and dump were on the east.
In 1895 the mine was nearing the end of its productive life. More than $26-million in silver, lead, zinc and gold had been extracted down to the 900-foot level of the mine. Still, the “Horn” was still working three eight-hour shifts with 200 or more men in the mine during each shift.
The most critical man at the surface was the hoist engineer. In the case of the “Horn” that man was “Watt” Watkins. He was there sixteen hours a day. Only the “graveyard” shift was operated by his assistant.
Watt knew every bolt and rivet in the hoist system. He had babied the boiler for almost ten years – making sure the steam system was tight and secure. All the miners knew him and trusted their lives to him. An accident in the three-compartment shaft could easily doom these hearty men. No one knew this and cared more about it than Watt Watkins.
Still, they all knew the risk. One mistake in that wooden building and their lives would be in great danger. That risk gave out one day in 1895.
It started in the boiler room. No one knows exactly what happened, but before anyone could react, the rear of the hoist house was engulfed in flames.
The alarm was sent down. The clanging of the emergency bells on each level gave them warning and the men scrambled down the square-set of timbering, out of the stopes, and back down the drift to the shaft.
Watt was steady at the levers. As calmly as he could, he lowered the cage to the ninth level and paused only for a few seconds as the men loaded on. Then the cage rose to the eighth, then to the seventh. Most of the men working the mine were in the lower levels which meant a long trip of 900 feet to the surface, and the long trip for the empty cage back down.
As the cage reached the top the men scrambled out of the building. Smoke was filling the room as Watt lowered the cage again to the ninth level. Again, Watt waited only a few moments before pulling the levers.
Watt made four trips with the cage to get the 250 men up from the depths. The fire had entered the hoist house itself when Watt made the last lowering. By this time, many men had clamored up the outside compartment ladders and a few were exiting by themselves from the 100 and 200 foot levels. Watt kept a close count, there were still more men in the mine. He didn’t know which level they were working, but he would have to make one more complete hoist to clear the mine.
The fire was closing in. The A-frame itself was ablaze and the hoist house was filled with smoke. Suddenly, the flames broke through the back wall lighting up the hoist house with a bright white flame. Watt paid no attention to it. There was still steam pressure for the lift engines. He made the run.
The men coughed as they reached the top and they all ran from the building. Watt followed them as the boiler room collapsed and the building became fully enveloped in flames. The hoist building was lost, but all the men were safe.
Watt Watkins became the hero of the disaster and many a toast was made at the saloons in Frisco, Utah, and the miners never forgot.