Memorial marker honoring the eight miners who perished in the worst mining disaster in Wisconsin history. Photo by Callen Harty.
Shullsburg, Wisconsin is tucked into the southwestern corner of the state, just eight miles from Illinois and twenty miles from Iowa. It is among the oldest cities in the state, founded in 1827, more than two decades before statehood. Everything about the town is steeped in history. In a city of just over 1,200 inhabitants there are around 50 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of the history of Shullsburg centers around mining. The city was founded by miners who came to dig for lead and zinc. It gave Wisconsin its Badger nickname due to lead miners digging into the sides of hills. Nearby villages are named Leadmine and New Diggings. The high school’s team nickname is the Miners. Many of the businesses have the words Miner or Badger as part of their names–Badger Motel, Miner Cafe’, Miner Alley, Badger Park, Miner Trolley–you can’t escape the history and the pride. There is even a destination called the Badger Mine and Museum, where tourists can visit one of the old mines and some of the tunnels that underlie much of the city.
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.
About Callen Harty
Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores,
He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History.
He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive.
Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.