March 14, 1896 - Sarah Waters' Diary

The men worked through the night. It was grim work and you could see it in their faces and in the slump of their shoulders. The more hours that passed the less likely it was that any of the twelve men would survive. I had napped for an hour but despite exhaustion my mind refused my body any more than that. Awake and helpless I sat around the fire with the other women. We took turns delivering water to the working men. There was an unusual silence in the air.

I had gathered most of the pertinent facts from bits of hushed conversations I eavesdropped on while walking around the camp. Mr. Clark had been correct in his facts. Twelve men were trapped and half of them were from my father’s crew. Among them was his best friend, a man I had come to call Uncle Mike despite there being no actual relation between us. Mike Williams had known my father since they were both boys. They had married within months of each other and moved to the Colorado territory together.

When I first saw my father last night I was overwhelmed with relief. I was so grateful to God for sparing my father I forgot the pain of others for a short time. When I look upon the wives of the twelve trapped men I feel horribly guilty. I see the tears on their cheeks and even now I am thankful I am not one of them. I am wretched.

The sun rose at its normal time. I was inexplicably surprised by it. The darkness of night seemed more appropriate to the occasion. With Mrs. Rainer and mother, I began preparing breakfast at my slop-house. I was not feeling hungry but I also had not been moving rock by hand for twenty hours. The work was welcome in that it helped give my hands and feet purpose. If only my mind could have been occupied as well.

Just as we were about ready to begin serving up watered down, greasy eggs and hot rolls, the call came. The air instantly changed from depression to one of cautious hope, excitement and barely restrained fear.

“We’re through!” A man’s voice had boomed from the opening of the mine.

Everyone gathered. Men and women alike entered the circle to learn the details of the news and what was next. My father had taken charge even though his boss and the mine owner were present. My father seemed oblivious to their presence and they seemed content to stand in the shadows. I had the presence of mind to wonder why and the good sense to keep quiet about it.

“We have a hole into the shaft.” My father began.

“It’s not large and it’s not secure. We are going to have to move fast before the rock shifts again. I won’t risk anyone I don’t have to so I’m going in alone. We don’t see anyone nearby but it’s likely they would have pulled back for safety. Jack and Larry will try to get some braces in place after I go in, to give me more time to search. I’ll keep a safety line tied to my belt and if the rock starts to shift, Bill will give me two sharp tugs and I’ll double time it back. There ain’t no more time to talk about it so somebody get the doc standing by and let’s go get our boys.”

There were nods of agreement all around. I wanted to protest. I wanted to tell my father to let somebody else do it, but that was selfish. He would not have listened anyway and would have been ashamed of me for speaking contrary to him and out of turn. I bit my lip, held back tears, and silently prayed as my father grabbed a rope and turned back to the mine entrance.

It was near on an hour before my father carried the first man from the shaft. There were cheers as he was carried out on a stretcher. You could hear him coughing and seem his arms move to shield his eyes from the sunlight. Never before had something so natural seemed so important.

Dr. Billings had a few of the men set up a tent. Inside he examined the rescued man. It was in reality not so long a time but it seemed it before the doctor emerged and pronounced his injuries as minor. Our breakfast was tossed to the side and we used the pots to heat water for bathing those whom we hoped would be rescued.

It was only minutes after the doctors examination was complete that the next man was carried out. The process began again. And again there were cheers all around. The mood had become jubilant. Faith had been restored. I could feel the relief I had felt yester evening was now pulsing through us all. My shame subsided and I smiled without guilt or fear. Everything was going to be alright.

The sun was directly overhead as the eleventh man was finally carried out. He was moaning on the stretcher and he wasn’t moving much at all. Dr. Billings soon announced this one had a broken rib. He would recover but he needed rest. Food and water would not hurt him either. I warmed some of the discarded breakfast for him. His wife took it from me when it was hot and a cup of water. She had tears in her eyes and I have no doubt she was eager to return to her husband’s side, but she paused with me for a moment.

“God bless you, Sarah. God bless you and your father.” She said, emotion cracking her voice.

“Thank you.” I said quietly.

Her words embarrassed me. I felt unworthy of the sentiment. My father deserved it and so I did my best to be gracious. I made a silent promise to myself to someday be worthy of the words and to let my father know just how proud of him I am. It is the moments like these when we realize just how precarious life is and that tomorrow is not always on the horizon to say the words we should have said today.

I was beginning to notice that too much time had passed since the last man had come out. There was a strange silence falling around the camp and I began to feel fear creeping back. I walked aimlessly for something to do. I found myself standing only a few feet from the entrance to the mine as my father walked out into the sun.

In his arms lay a man in filthy overalls with black mud covering his skin. He was limp. My gaze turned to my father’s face and I wish I had never seen. His muscles were taut and twitching. His skin was covered in dark filth, but it was his eyes that I will never forget. I have never seen my father cry before but there was no mistaking the tears spilling out nor the redness in his eyes. The usual spark of strength and determination was missing and replaced by hollowness and pain.

The limp man’s head rolled toward me. Maybe it was the angle of his head or maybe it was the way the eyes stared unblinkingly at nothing, but I knew instantly, Uncle Mike was dead.

The rest of the afternoon was a numb blur. My guilt and shame returned ten fold. If I could have ran away from myself I would have. There was no place to hide except in the numbness of sorrow. Mrs. Williams cries echoed in my ears even in that. My father’s tortured eyes, burned into my memory, now haunted my thoughts. They knew my shame and they were unrelenting in an all encompassing disappointment that threatened to swallow me body and soul.

Supper time at home was quiet. We had nothing left but bread from my raid the previous evening. Mother nibbled hers in uncertainty. Father dipped his in beer and drank it down in gulps. I was not hungry. I excused myself to my room and pretended to sleep.

When later I heard them talking I strained to listen. I craved some words of comfort and somehow thought I might hear them uttered from my mother to my father.

“It was not your fault, Daniel.” My mother said.

“I know.”

“Then mourn him, but do not carry this burden.”

“I know what I must do, Clem. We have to strike. It is the only way.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

There was a silence then. I can imagine a look passing between them. One that only long married couples with such a deep understanding can share.

“I am going to see Sarah’s school teacher tomorrow.” My father’s voice suddenly returned.

“Whatever for?”

“She deserves a better life than this. I have to get her out of here before she ends up married to a man like me.”

“She could do worse than to marry a man like that.”

“In this town she couldn’t do better. At that college he spoke of, well maybe she can make a good life for herself.”

“Daniel, think about this, please. You are talking about sending our only daughter away. She will have no one to care for her out there. She would be alone. Does she deserve that?”


“She is my daughter too. I do not want her hurt any more than you and I want a good life for her as well, but I want her in my life. You cannot send her away like this just because you are scared.”

The next sound echoed in the house and I had felt my father’s palm enough times to know he must have slapped her hard.

“You do not ever take that tone with me. Do you understand me?” He said harshly.

“Slapping me does not change the facts of the matter.”

“Obviously we need to have a different discussion. One about respect.”


There was only silence for a moment and then I heard the unmistakable sound of my father’s belt on flesh. Mother remained quiet through it all but she must have strained to do so. I thought the belting would never end, but finally silence returned.

“We will discuss Sarah in the morning and your tone had better be much improved.” My father said to my mother.

The house became quiet after that and I soon found myself dreaming. Not of trapped men and crying wives but of classrooms filled with books.

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