Alice Mine explosion rocked eastern Ozark County 89 years ago this week
St. Patrick's Day will probably come and go Friday without much fanfare in Ozark County, with people celebrating by wearing green, donning shamrock leaves and participating in other Irish traditions.
But 89 years ago on St. Patrick's Day, a massive explosion at the Alice zinc mine rocked eastern Ozark County, killing one man and severely injuring more than a dozen others.
The mine, located nearly three miles southwest of Caulfield, had been operating since May 1899 producing thousands of tons of zinc ore that was being shipped to smelters and zinc oxide plants all over the region.
It was a typical workday for the men, the late Homer Roberts, of Elijah, recalled in a 1983 publication, The House on the Hill.
The typical morning at the mine turned tragic when a steam-powered boiler exploded just as the workday was beginning. George Harris, of Caulfield, was killed in the blast. Roberts was severely injured along with Sid Amyx, Dave Sanders, Henry Hensley, Raymond Hensley, C.F. Brickey, Ralph Bowen, Anderson Harris, Edward Wilson, William Briggs, Herbert Briggs, O.R. Sloan, Elvis Harper and Victor Collins. All of the men lived in the Caulfield-Elijah area except Amyx, who was a pioneer auto dealer in Gainesville.
The late Susan Ault, who was Sid Amyx's granddaughter, said she remembers hearing her father Lile Amyx talk about how severely her grandfather was injured.
Ault told the Ozark County Times in a 2013 interview that her grandfather was hurt so badly they laid her dad right next to her grandfather and transfused blood directly from her father to her grandfather.
Homer Roberts began working in the mine when he was 17 years old, working at many ore-processing tasks.
On the day of the explosion, Roberts said he considered staying home from work because it was St. Patrick's Day and that's when he always planted his potatoes.
But his dedication changed his mind. He said some of the other workers had expressed concerns about the flues on the steam engine being defective. But the foreman told them that they needed to "get back to work."
Not long after the workday began, Roberts said he and some other workers were standing by an ore wagon when an explosion rocked the area. The boiler had exploded, showering the workers with 500 gallons of boiling water. Additionally, the blast had thrown many of the workers several feet away, leaving them with concussions, broken bones and severe burns. Most were unconscious. Roberts was thrown more than 20 feet away, and the force blew the heels off both of his shoes and ripped his overalls right down his back.
Dr. Charles Abbot Beach, of Elijah, was one of the first medical officials on the scene. Beach, who lived just a few miles away, reportedly left the side of his dying wife to tend to the wounded.
Sid Amyx's oldest son, Dr. M.C. Amyx, who was a West Plains dentist and one of the mine owners, was on his way to the mine that morning and arrived just minutes after the blast. According to newspaper articles from 1934, Amyx said all but two or three of the men were still unconscious when he arrived.
The wounded were taken by automobiles and ambulances to the Christa Hogan Hospital in West Plains. The hospital, which had been closed during the Depression, was reopened to treat the injured men. Dr. Prentice Bushong of Gainesville also attended to the wounded, along with Dr. J.C.B. Davis of Willow Springs, Dr. D.D. Cox of Pomona and doctors P.D. Gum, A.H. Thornburg, E. Claude Bohrer and L.E. Toney all of West Plains. Also, nurses from Cox Hospital in Pomona came to aid the injured.
Many of the men required weeks of hospital care and were permanently scarred by the scalding water from the boiler.
Some of the men went back to work at the mine after they recovered. Roberts was one of them. He returned to the mine after spending several weeks in the hospital.
He was earning $1 a day at the time and walked four miles to work and four miles home each day. "These wages were easy to figure," he said. "If you worked 100 days you made $100."
After the explosion, Roberts said he was given a 25-cent raise. The mine closed just a few months after the tragedy. Workers were given a "severance package" consisting of five pounds of lard and a 20-pound sack of flour.
The mine reopened later that year and operated sporadically through the 1950s.
Today, the old mine sits on private property. All that remains are barren, grass-covered slag piles and a huge hole in the ground — a solemn monument to a disaster that greatly affected so many lives for so many years.