The Kelvin-Ray Railway Disaster

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A tunnel on the Copper Basin Railway, still in use today.

Pinal Nugget

The evolution of the railroad in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies led to the growth of the United States and contributed greatly to its economic prosperity. The railroads dominated transportation in the country during this time.

Yet, by the early 1900s the rails were also the largest cause of violent deaths in the United States. In 1907 the rails claimed the lives of nearly 12,000 passengers, workers and others. Safety standards had not caught up to the new technology of the industrial age leading to many accidents and deaths that may have been preventable. Arizona railways would have their share of accidents and deaths including some along the Copper Corridor.

In 1910, the Phoenix & Eastern Railway which was under the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad was replacing their narrow gauge track along the Ray to Kelvin route. The engineers were straightening out the rail line, removing unnecessary curves, widening the roadbed along the old tracks, and laying standard track in preparation for hauling ore from Ray Junction to Hayden Junction and then using Ray Copper Mines Railroad track to the mill. This would become the track still used by the Copper Basin Railway. This track would be the scene of what was called one of the worse work related tragedies in Arizona Territory history.

On Tuesday, Feb. 8, 1910, on the front page of theBisbee Daily Reviewa headline read “CHARGE BLOWS CAR AND SEVEN MEN TO ATOMS.” TheDaily Silverbeltof Globe reported, “AWFUL BLAST SENDS SEVEN TO ETERNITY.” The story that followed those headlines must have been shocking to those people living in the Ray-Kelvin area and for the Ray Consolidated Copper Company.

Sunday, Feb. 6, was just another work day for those railroad workers excavating the site around the small gauge track along the Ray to Kelvin line. The work crews had been working on the line since March 1909 and were almost to Kelvin. The Southern Pacific Railroad was expanding and after finishing this line, they would be laying track to Mammoth along the San Pedro River and then from Winkelman to Globe. They would have passenger service along these lines as well as hauling supplies and product for the Mammoth and Copper Creek mines and the mines in the Globe-Miami area. At noon the crew which was made up of over 100 Mexican workers was having lunch after having prepared explosive charges to blast out a rock cropping along the route.

The foreman of the crew was William Davidson. Just before noon his workers had set up a chain of explosive charges and detonated the blast. One of the charges did not explode and had been discovered by Davidson and some workers. After finding the unburned fuse and posting guards on both ends of the track the fuse was relit. A few minutes after they lit the fuse, a gas powered motor car coming from Ray approached them. In the motor car were a group of engineers and some employees of the Ray Consolidated Copper Company. Davidson flagged them down and told them of the fuse being lit and that they were waiting for the charge to go off. According to witnesses the people in the motor car waited around 20 minutes but some said it may have been less of a wait. The group then decided that the charge had failed and took off down the track. Along the way they were forced to stop because of three rail cars blocking the track. The men got out of the motor car which was described as being “frail and barely big enough to hold the seven passengers.” They lifted the light car and proceeded to carry it around the empty cars to continue down the track. As they approached the other side of the cars, they were directly opposite the charge of powder when it exploded.

The explosion was tremendous, even bigger than the foreman Davidson and his crew must have expected. Davidson was hit with a rock projected by the explosion which rendered him unconscious. The six men at the point of the explosion were killed instantly. Five of them were reported to have had their heads or part of their heads blown off. Two of the bodies were so badly mangled that they could only be identified by the jewelry and clothing they were wearing. The seventh victim was buried by rocks and dirt and died from being crushed and suffocated. The seven men killed were identified as: J.B. Joyce, 27, Denver, Colorado, granite cutter employed as a rod man; A.S. Bieber, 26, Cleveland, Ohio, civil engineer; J.C. Griffin, civil engineer and all employees of the Ray Consolidated Copper Company engaged on railroad construction; H.H. Lyall, motorman in charge of the motor car, also an employee of Ray Consolidated; R.P. Coleman, 30, Salt Lake City, Utah employed as an assistant to Henry Krumb as a consulting engineer on ore sampling; W.H. Freeland, 26, Denver, Colorado, engineer employed by Henry Krumb assigned to the Giroux mine; Walter Krenz, 23, Berkeley, California, mining engineer employed by Henry Krumb.

First reports were that there were seven men in the motor car. Later reports indicated there were only six. The man buried by the rubble in the explosion was not with the group. A. L. Bieber, the civil engineer in charge of the engineering work for the construction of the Kelvin-Ray railroad was in the area of the explosion but had not been a member of the party on the gas motor car and had been some distance from where the car and men were blown up. TheBisbee Daily Reviewreported on Feb. 12 that “For the purpose of investigating the report that Bieber knew nothing whatever of the blast and was therefore ignorant of any danger. William F. Spieth a mining man from Escondido, will go to Kelvin tomorrow.” Spieth was said to be a friend of Bieber’s family in Cleveland and was busy gathering as much information as he could about the accident.

It was also discovered that the massive explosion was caused by 3500 pounds of black powder and not dynamite as supposed. It was alleged that the powder had been lying in the area for some time and apparently had been forgotten until “the unburned fuse was discovered and lighted by foreman Davidson of the railroad construction gang.” At first attempts were made to blame the motorman H.H. Lyall and then foreman Davidson for allowing the party to continue down the track. While Davidson lay in the hospital at Kelvin, a coroner’s inquest was held. On Feb. 8, the coroner’s jury found only that “the men were killed by an explosion on the Kelvin-Ray Railroad, without attaching responsibility.” The parties were exonerated for lack of evidence. TheDaily Arizona Silver Beltreported that “the general feeling is that a lack of care on the part of the dead men resulted in their deaths, but the jury made no mention of this fact in its findings.”

It is not known if any wrongful death lawsuits were filed over the incident or if the companies involved paid out any money to the dead men’s families.

By today’s safety standards and regulations, there are definitely some unanswered questions posed by what appeared in the newspaper articles about the disaster. One newspaper asked how was it that they arrived at the exact point opposite the explosive charge at the exact time that the charge exploded and why was the black powder undiscovered as it lay there for weeks? TheBisbee Daily Reviewkind of summed up the story when it said: “They had started out on the railroad motor car for a pleasure trip. They were warned against going into the danger zone, as it was feared that a missed shot might explode, but unheedingly they rode to their death.”

We will never know the reasons why or how it happened but it is comforting to know that safety standards have improved over the last 100 years as evidenced by the remarkable safety record of the Copper Basin Railway today. There has been more than 20 years without a lost time accident along the same line where seven men met an awful fate.

John Hernandez (286 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.

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