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The Argonaut Mine Disaster

Black and white photo of building
Shadows, Argonaut Mine

I visited the remaining structures of the Argonaut Mine in 2009 as part of a private tour by the Amador County Historical Society. Above is a photograph I made during that visit.

I knew about the mining disaster which killed 47 miners in 1922. Staring down the black hole that was the entrance to the mine, I could only think of the miners who had been trapped 4,650 below ground when the fire broke out and never rescued. Miners working in deep hard rock gold mines like the Argonaut had to be some tough and fearless men.

Here is more information about the 1922 mining disaster.

The remnants of the Argonaut Mine are located along State Route 49/88 near Jackson, California. The Argonaut Mine is the site of the worst gold-mining disaster in California's history. 

Shortly before midnight on August 27, 1922, a massive fire broke out 4,650 feet below ground. A few miners who were stationed closer to the surface clambered out, alerted others and began sending water down the shaft. 47 miners, mostly Italian, Spanish, and Serbian immigrants were trapped.

By dawn, townspeople, firefighters and many miners in Amador County rushed to help. The fire was raging out of control in the impassable shaft. It took 2 1/2 days to extinguish the fire.

For 22 days, rescuers tried reach the miners by reopening two passageways that connected the Argonaut with its neighbor, the Kennedy Mine. Their efforts were in vain. On September 18th, rescuers wearing masks and carrying oxygen tanks inserted a caged canary behind a bulkhead. Several minutes later, the small bird was lifeless. Rescuers lost all hope of finding survivors.

All of the trapped miners had fled further into the mine to escape the fire. Nearly a mile from the main entrance they built two bulkheads and barricaded themselves, trying to avert the deadly carbon monoxide gas.

As the oxygen supply dwindled, miner Edward William Fessel used carbon from his miners’ lamp to write a message on a rock wall: “3 o’clock, gas getting strong.” An hour later Fessel made a final entry: “4 o’clock” nothing more. That was 4 a.m., their oxygen had run out in a little over four hours after the fire started.

A detailed account of the tragedy is captured in the book “47 Down: the 1922 Argonaut Gold Mine Disaster” (O. Henry Mace, 2004).

In August and September of 2022, events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the disaster will be held in Amador County. Link for more information:

- Jo Ann


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