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BEARCREEK - Jeffrey McNeish probably knows as much as anyone about the Smith Mine disaster of 1943.

The Billings resident's great-grandfather was killed in the mine explosion, and McNeish has spent hundreds of hours researching the disaster, about which he has written three books.

But until last weekend, he had never had a close-up look at the sprawling mine site, which is on private property just outside the little hamlet of Bearcreek, on Highway 308 between Belfry and Red Lodge.

"I'm like a kid at Christmas," McNeish said Sunday afternoon. "It's been really, really fun."

McNeish was among a group of historians and volunteers who spent Saturday and Sunday at the mine laying the groundwork for an effort to have the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Debra Hronek, Carbon County historic preservation officer, said the county hopes to submit its nomination by next spring and to know by the end of summer whether the mine will make the register, which is maintained by the National Park Service.

Jon Axline, one of two consulting historians hired by Carbon County to prepare the nomination, doesn't foresee any opposition to the listing.

"To be honest with you, I think this one is a no-brainer," he said. "It should have been on the register a long time ago."

Smith Mine No. 3, as it is officially known, is best known as the site of the deadliest coal-mining accident in the history of Montana. On the morning of Feb. 27, 1943, something triggered an explosion of methane gas in the underground mine shafts, and there was a second explosion of coal dust. Seventy-four miners died in the explosion or by carbon-monoxide and carbon-dioxide poisoning. One rescuer also died.

Hronek said the mine is also valuable for what it says about the history of the area and for its remarkably well-preserved appearance.

In most cases, when coal mines were shut down, McNeish said, all the above-ground machinery, equipment and buildings were dismantled and hauled off to be used at other mines. The Smith Mine, however, "was preserved because it was one of the last ones of its kind."

Bob Webber, a volunteer with the Carbon County Historical Society who was shooting video at the site last weekend, said the disaster itself contributed to keep the mine complex intact.

"It was also preserved because it was sacred ground. They didn't want to be here," he said.

After the disaster, mine entrances were sealed with concrete and the operation was abandoned. Coal-mining in the area would not long survive the Smith Mine explosion, and Bearcreek and the nearby town of Washoe were devastated by the deaths of the miners and then of the mines.

Hronek said there had been talk of seeking register status for the mine for many years, and "it was finally a case of right place, right time." The county received a $12,000 coal impact grant from the Montana Coal Board, money that will be used to pay for the services of Axline and Joan Brownell, a historian from Billings.

Backers of the project also had the support of the landowner. Hronek said the site is owned by the Sunlight Ranch Co., a holding company whose principal owner wishes to remain anonymous. Getting his consent to allow researchers onto the site was an important step in the process.

Hronek said the site has always been on private property, and though many people have trespassed there over the years, it remains closed to the public, as it will even if it makes it on the National Register of Historic Places.

"There are still lots of dangerous things around here, including lots and lots of snakes in the summer," Hronek said.

Axline, a historian for the state Department of Transportation who has collaborated with Brownell on other national-register projects, said the Smith Mine project holds special meaning for him. He did a survey of the area for the transportation department when Highway 308 was being widened in the early 1990s, and it was during that project that he met his future wife, Lisa.

She was a native of Bearcreek who was also a member of the Carbon County Historic Preservation Commission. They were married in 1991, and Axline now serves on the preservation commission. His contract with the county is something he is doing on his time, not as a state employee, he said.

Driving past the mine many times over the years, Axline always wanted to visit the site.

"To be able to go out there was really exciting," he said. "I was thrilled to death."

Axline said he and Brownell won't spend much time documenting the 1943 disaster, which is already well-known and extensively researched. Instead, they will document the history of mining in the area and what has happened to the site since the mine closed. The Smith Mine opened in 1900 and was one of five big coal mines in a five-mile stretch between Belfry and Red Lodge. McNeish said there were another dozen or so smaller mines.

The inventory carried out last weekend was intended to identify each building on the site, its use, dimensions and construction materials, and the part it played in the mining process. Hronek said there appear to be 19 buildings still standing, in addition to the foundations of 12 to 14 others. The whole site encompasses about 100 acres.

Other information that will be gathered for the nomination form will include interviews, photographs, videos and documents.

"We're lucky in that we still have old-timers around who were kids at the time but lost parents in the explosion," Hronek said. There are at least 10 such people living in Bearcreek, she said.

Among the main buildings still standing is the "tippler," where mining cars traveling on a narrow-gauge railroad track would be tipped over, dumping their loads of coal. From there the coal went by conveyor belt to another building, also intact, where the coal was sorted, washed and sent out to waiting trains for shipment to market.

Other surviving buildings include a parts warehouse, a machine shop with an attached boiler room, an old mule barn later converted to a mechanical building, and a locker room and changing station with a hot shower. Hronek said hot showers were so rare in the early days that families of miners were allowed to use them on weekends.

McNeish said one of the most interesting aspects of being at the mine over the weekend was "trying to imagine my relatives coming here every day and what it must have been like."

A little later, standing in the tipple building looking out over the operation, McNeish said, "Time just stops for me when I'm up here."

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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