Like mining communities everywhere the economy of the area tended to boom or bust and was totally dependent upon the mines. The mining profession could also be a cruel mistress in other ways. She was dangerous and could damage or take the lives even of men who loved her. My grandfather was one of the miners who suffered at her hands when his leg was badly hurt in a mining accident. My mother always thought it contributed to his failing health and ultimate death. For years the mines around Shullsburg gave generously, but it eventually became too expensive and they closed. During World War II they reopened to supply lead for the military, then stayed open for decades more, with the last of them closing again in the 1970s due to new environmental regulations and too high of a cost compared to the potential for profit. It is always about the company’s bottom line, not about the community’s needs. There followed two decades of decline and disrepair until several entrepreneurs in the last part of the century revitalized the downtown by renovating the old buildings and filling them with antique, craft, and specialty shops. Through it all the city’s pride in its mining history never wavered. In 2001 the City Council approved a plan to create a small downtown park to honor miners. It was called Lead Miners Memorial Park and featured a reminder of the bravery inherent in the profession with a memorial marker in honor of eight miners who died in the worst mining disaster in Wisconsin history. It is a little-known event in the state’s history and is illustrative of just how dangerous the profession of mining can be.
On February 9, 1943 a full shift was working the Mulcahy Mine about a mile west of Shullsburg. Two men, Willie Rooney of Shullsburg and John Stephens of nearby Benton (which bills itself as the mining capital of Wisconsin) were repairing shoring (supporting beams) about sixty feet down in the mine when a collapse occurred. From the newspaper reports and descriptions they likely died immediately. The coroner later said identifying the bodies was a very difficult task. Teams of miners from other area mines rushed to the scene to start digging them out. After several hours a team of eight miners had nearly reached the first two when a second collapse killed six of the rescuers and injured two who managed to escape.
The two who escaped were Laverne Kittoe and Cecil Ingraham of Shullsburg. The other six who died were Russell Farrey of Shullsburg, Joseph Griffin of Benton, Maynard Howell of Platteville, Nelson Jones of Mineral Point, Romano (Romo) Luciani of Darlington, and Walter Mauthe of Elk Grove. They ranged in age from 20 to 70. At least 15 children were left fatherless and towns all over the area wept for their losses. Many other miners continued the rescue and recovery operation after the second collapse. At least four of them narrowly escaped injury or worse themselves. Fortunately there were no more deaths and they were able to recover all eight bodies. The disaster was ruled an “unavoidable accident” by a coroner’s jury. To this day, 70 years later, the Mulcahy Mine disaster remains the worst loss of life in Badger mining history.
Note: Much of this information came from a Racine Journal-Times newspaper article from February 10, 1943 as transcribed by Stu Beitler on GenDisasters, articles from the Benton Advocate as transcribed by Mike Birkett, and from “Dark as a Dungeon” by Dennis A. Wilson. Other newspapers were also consulted but pretty much had the same information as these two sources. In addition, Internet sites on Shullsburg and tourism materials provided further information.