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Oklahoma Memories

Two Holiday Disasters

2009-12-28

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Holidays and disasters often seem to go together, and in our history, Oklahoma has had two around Christmastime.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

While the rest of the country supposedly frolicked through the roaring '20s, farmers in Oklahoma as well as the rest of the midwestern plains states were experiencing numerous hardships brought on by drought and low farm prices. Christmas for these rural Oklahomans was celebrated in a fashion similar to other isolated farm communities around the country. Special dinners and once a year food treats were brought out, and everyone hoped for something from Santa Claus, something better. Another almost universal trait of the country Christmas was the annual Christmas program usually held at the local school or church. At these events plays and presentations were put on by the children, a tree was usually decorated, sometimes dinner or treats were served but almost always Santa Claus was there to hand out presents. The Christmas of 1924 was no different than others and for the children who attended the school south of Hobart, known as the Babb's Switch, they were looking forward to their special program to be held on Christmas Eve. According to the local news the event started out as anticipated. A tree in the rear corner of the room was decorated with paper cut outs and candles while wall-mounted kerosene lamps provided the main source of light. As the program was winding down and Santa was passing out his gifts, tragedy struck. The paper decorations on the tree caught fire from the candles and the entire tree, a dry cedar, burst into flame. People near the door hurriedly ran outside to open windows trying to provide another means of escape, but heavy security screens were bolted on, and they were locked from the inside. As the fire spread, the kerosene lamps exploded engulfing the entire structure in flames. That process took only seconds to unfold and before it was over 36 people, mostly children, lost their lives. For the families who lost loved ones in the fire, the Christmas of 1924 probably always remained a sad recollection.

Earlier in our history in southeast Oklahoma, another holiday tragedy is now a distant memory.

Mining was one of the primary industries in the Indian Territory. Both the northeast and the southeast corners of the territories held coal, zinc and other valuable raw materials. More than one Oklahoman made their fortune from resources found underground in the Indian Territory. The lure of these minerals and of the many jobs attached to them attracted many outsiders to the territory's mines including many immigrant laborers. By the late 1880s southeast Oklahoma was home to many thousands of miners of Italian and Russian descent. The Italian and Russian heritage of these immigrants and their ancestors can still be seen today in the culture and history of towns such as Krebs and Hartshorne. Other towns in the area with names like Coalgate leave little doubt as to the reasons for their existence. Because they were located within the Indian Territory mine owners and operators were exempt from federal regulation and guidelines. Owners intent on extracting as much money as possible from their mines and their workers often ignored safety concerns, placing workers in life threatening situations. It was in the first week of 1892 that such dangerous working conditions led to the worst mining disaster in Oklahoma's known history. In the early evening hours of January 7, 1892, an explosion ripped through the Osage Coal and Mining Company's Mine Number 11 near Krebs, instantly killing 87 people and injuring 150 more. The scene at the mine was horrific with many helpless miners burned or buried alive and not much that bystanders could do to help. Ultimately an inexperienced worker was blamed for the explosion. Hired because he was cheaper than the experienced miners, the new worker was given the job of handling explosives and of course the inevitable occurred.

Both these disasters brought changes that would prevent school fires and to some extent mine explosions from ever happening again. Governor Martin Trapp led an effort to require that schools have double doors that swing out, schools had more than one exit and more windows, and candles on trees were prohibited. In case of mine safety, tighter safety controls on territorial mines were enacted, and those were carried over when the territory became a state. All those changes were too late to help the children at the Babbs Switch, and in the Krebs mine, but they have helped to prevent similar disasters from occurring again in Oklahoma.

The newspaper collection in the Research Library of the Oklahoma History Center contain these and many other stories. The Oklahoma History Center is open from 10am to 5pm Monday through Saturdays on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.