Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on August 8, 2022.

‘Gas Getting Strong’

100 years after California’s deadliest mining disaster


Shortly before midnight on August 27, 1922, a fire broke out inside the Argonaut Mine, a gold-mining operation in Jackson, California. With smoke and flames blocking its way out, a crew of 47 miners became trapped deep within the sprawling, mile-long mine. Up top, a rescue party was rapidly assembled.

A 2006 Los Angeles Times article detailed the extensive rescue attempt mounted by firefighters, townspeople, and other miners. “In dim light, slowed by heavy oxygen tanks and plagued by small cave-ins, rescuers laboriously cleared rock, timber, and debris,” the article recounted. The blaze took two and a half days to fully extinguish, and rescuers didn’t reach the trapped miners until September 18. By then, all of the men had perished.

Investigators discovered that members of the doomed crew had scratched messages into the rock that detailed their final hours on August 27. “3 o’clock, gas getting strong,” one miner wrote, as it became harder and harder for the men to breathe, choked by rapidly rising levels of carbon monoxide. “3:15, half knocked out,” another wrote. No messages were recorded after 4 a.m. The 47 fatalities make the Argonaut fire the deadliest mining disaster in California history.


‘Gas getting strong,’ one miner wrote, as it became harder and harder for the men to breathe, choked by rapidly rising levels of carbon monoxide

Although the cause of the fire was never determined, an investigative committee appointed by California Governor William Stephens concluded that the mine had violated safety regulations. Even so, the owners of the Argonaut mine never faced any penalties. “At the time, the U.S. Bureau of Mines had little control over enforcing safety regulations,” the Times wrote. Investigators also made several recommendations for enhancing mine safety in the state, including installing better alarm systems, fire doors, and ventilation fans.

But in his 2004 book 47 Down: The 1922 Argonaut Gold Mine Disaster, historian O. Henry Mace noted that these recommendations were largely never enforced. “Despite the death of 47 men in the Argonaut Mine, the government of California had determined that the value of the state’s gold mines far exceeded the risk to human life,” Mace wrote.

The Argonaut Mine, along with the neighboring Kennedy Mine, closed in 1942. Today, the combined sites are listed as a California Historic Landmark, but only Kennedy is open to the public. The Argonaut property has been designated as a Superfund site due to high levels of arsenic and other metals that could pose a health risk.

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: California Division of Mines