Graves Of 1890 Blast Victims Found At Least 24 People Were Killed In Spokane’s Deadliest Disaster
An unmarked plot of graves in a peaceful corner of Greenwood Cemetery holds a tale of destruction and horror.
Buried there are 15 men who perished in Spokane’s deadliest disaster - an 1890 explosion at the Northern Pacific Freight yards at Division and Sprague.
At least 24 men were blown into oblivion on Sept. 6, 1890, when a blasting operation to clear rock for the railroad yards went awry.
“Men with mangled limbs, covered with blood and dirt, their clothes in tatters and their bodies disfigured, crawled about over the rocks in a stupor, not knowing which way to turn,” reads the account in the Sept. 7, 1890, edition of The Spokane Spokesman.
Of those killed, 15 were buried at the expense of Smith and Howell, the railroad project contractor. Many were paupers, had no family nearby and lived in Spokane’s shantytown.
Their employer didn’t pay for gravestones, so the grassy patch that covers their bones has hidden their story for more than 100 years.
History buff and former Pend Oreille County Sheriff Tony Bamonte unearthed the gruesome details of the explosion as he pored through news stories from Spokane’s past for a book he’s writing.
He shared the story with Duane Broyles, a fellow member of a local history group called the Westerner’s Club.
Broyles also happens to be the general manager of Fairmount Memorial Association, which runs some of Spokane’s cemeteries.
He searched for the names of the dead in the cemetery index files, and found 15 listed side-by-side in the Greenwood Cemetery’s original, yellowing ledger.
“It seemed liked a shame,” Broyles said. “Here’s some guys who were helping build Spokane and they were killed in a terrible tragedy. And nobody marked their graves.”
Broyles has arranged to erect a monument to the men, listing those who died and how. The association is donating the basalt and granite marker worth $1,200.
“We’ve looked for all the names, and we only found these all buried together,” Broyles said. “There were probably some guys so close to the blast that there may not be a lot to bury.”
The closest man to the blast, rock foreman James McPherson, is buried in the group grave.
McPherson was tamping the blasting powder into a drill hole, and appeared to be in a hurry, witnesses said, when the scene disintegrated into chaos.
Two workers were seen flying above a ball of smoke. The earth buckled, sending a wall of basalt crashing down over their companions. Investigators believed at least 200 pounds of powder ignited in the blast.
Drill man Hugh Hayes, also buried in Greenwood Cemetery, lived about two days. “Hugh Hayes is an old man and will probably die,” the newspaper predicted. The blast blew off part of his jaw and broke both his legs.
Buried next to Hayes are the remains of Isaac Johnson, a Swede, who left behind a wife and child. “His body was nearly flattened by the terrible avalanche that caused his death,” according to the newspaper account.
Although a grand jury conducted a brief investigation, the jury found no one at fault. Work resumed within a week of the tragedy.
“The rock that buried the men has been thrown aside by their surviving comrades and if any more lie buried there nobody is the wiser unless in the future some workman should with careless spade exhume the unhallowed remains,” a newspaper reporter concluded.
Perhaps by spring, Broyles said, the monument will be erected to remind visitors of the disaster. The Greenwood Cemetery is on Government Way, just north of Greenwood Road.
Not all historical figures, however interesting, are deemed worthy of a memorial.
Just 20 feet away from the mass burial site lie the bones of Charles Brooks, the first man to be officially hanged in Spokane. A black man and Civil War veteran, Brooks shot his wife, who was white, in 1892 when he caught her having an affair with another man.
Broyles said his grave likely would remain unmarked to discourage curiosity-seekers.
“It’s like ‘Where’s Kurt Cobain buried’ kind of thing,” Broyles said, referring to the grunge rock star who shot himself last year.
“I don’t think these people,” he said, gesturing to neighboring grave markers, “want to have people tramping all over here for that type of thing.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo