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Scofield Mine Disaster Clip

The whole nation was rocked by the news- over 200 men dead, leaving over 100 widows and so many fatherless children. In the town of Scofield this meant that nearly every family was affected by the explosion in Mine #4. The Scofield mine disaster was the biggest of its kind at that time in U.S. history.

Due to the high demand of labor in the mines in Utah, as well as other areas, many of these victims were immigrants trying to carve out a new life for themselves and their families in the United States. Even after the disaster, little time was wasted in refilling positions once held by those victims; so many people wanted a job in the mines.

This clip from “The American Experience 1900″ does a fantastic job documenting what happened that fateful day, the events leading up to and results from that day, and the impact this disaster had on the nation as a whole.

If interested, you can review the film and purchase it here. The part about the Scofield mine disaster occurs about 50 minutes into the program.

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“Big Bad John”

Here’s another activity that involves a classic mining song. “Big Bad John” was first performed by Jimmy Dean and composed by Dean and Roy Acuff (see link below). It’s a story about a rough and tough miner from Louisiana who saved his mining crew from a collapse in the mine. It’s a great song, and touches on the hazards of working in a mine.

And here’s a shocker…if you haven’t heard its sequel, look up the song “The Cajun Queen”. It’s about Big John’s girl who rescues him from the mine. Apparently, there’s even a third song titled, “Little Bitty Big John”. But “Big Bad John” is the best for students.

If you don’t have a copy of this song, an MP3 can be downloaded from Amazon here.

For more information on the background of this song:

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“I Owe My Soul to the Company Store”

As your kids dig into Utah mining, don’t forget to describe what life was like for a miner. It definitely wasn’t easy! Have you ever heard the song, “Sixteen Tons“, by Merle Travis? It’s an oldie, but a goodie. But did you ever connect it with Utah mining? If not, here’s an eye opening experience!

The Company Store
Some would say the mining pay wasn’t bad, and it generally wasn’t. But if it was, say, an immigrant with his family who came looking for a job, well, that was a different story.

By the time immigrants came to town, they were just about out of everything from their long voyage, and were in desperate need of new supplies. They needed food, clothes, shoes, and of course they needed tools to work in the mines. The coal company-owned Company Store would give them all these things and more, including assigning his family a house to live in. The father would go off to the mines, and when pay day came, he would see a big deduction in his check from all the things the Company Store lent him and his family to start out their life in Utah. Often times, their pay would not be enough to cover what they owed, and they would be indebted to the Company Store. Well, by that time, the family was in need of new food, supplies, etc. to sustain them for the next month, and the cycle would start all over again! It was not uncommon for families to constantly be in debt to the company store. Oh, and most coal companies had their own money system, and forbid workers from making purchases anywhere other than the Company Store. Quite the monopoly!

Thus we have the song, “Sixteen Tons” by Merle Travis. The most popular version of the song, however, was not by Travis, but by Ernie Ford. After explaining the role of the Company Store to your students, play this song for them. They’ll never think about this song the same way again (that is…if they’ve heard it at all)!

If you don’t have this song, you can preview and download the MP3 from Amazon.

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Meet You At Promontory Point!

Every teacher has a certain review game they play in their class, but this activity puts a new twist to just about any review game.


  • Popsicle sticks (larger ones work best, but small ones are fine)
  • Yellow/Gold paper

To add this twist to your review game, the class needs to be split into 2 teams. We’ll call them Union Pacific and Central Pacific. :)

Take a sheet of gold/yellow paper and cut out the shape of a spike. Label it “Promontory Point”, and place it in the center of the board in the front of the room.

Each team starts at the opposite sides of the board. With a marker, draw railway tracks from each side to the center, but don’t draw the railroad ties. As each side answers a correct question to the review game, they are given a Popsicle stick (railroad tie) to build their team’s track headed towards Promontory Point. The kids love seeing their progress throughout the game. You can choose the number of required sticks it takes to get to the center.

The first team to reach Promontory Point wins!

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Letters Home

Construction of the railroad attracted many different groups of people who were looking for employment. You had immigrants, such as the Chinese, Irish, Italian, and then you had the different types of people within a nationality, such as Mormons, and Civil War veterans. I read about this activity from the teacher’s guide at on its documentary “Transcontinental Railroad” by American Experience.

The students will write a letter home from the view-point of one of these groups of people. This will only work once you explain the differences and cultures of these different groups. Kids will describe work and camp conditions, any experiences they might have had, their interactions (or lack of) with other groups, what they miss from home, etc.

Share letters at the end of the activity.

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Practice Your Morse Code

The arrival of the telegraph in Utah (1861) had a profound affect on communication with the rest of the nation. It stopped the use of the Pony Express within a couple of days of its transcontinental construction. Now news and other information could be shared from one end of the country to the other within seconds, and no state felt it was uninformed. The telegraph really brought Utah into national scene, as with other states and territories distant from the states back east.

Morse code was the first form of communication in the U.S. by telegraph. Many Utahns were trained in “telegraphy” classes, and worked as operators for telegraph offices around Utah as more lines were set up. Their job was to learn Morse code, and operate a telegraph by sending and decoding telegrams.

I like to tell my students the story of William Bryan, from Nephi, who was so fascinated with the arrival of the telegraph that he climbed a telegraph pole in hopes to “see” a message “fly” across the wire. He got into telegraphy and was an operator for a long time in Salt Lake City. To see more of William’s story and others who worked for the telegraph, click here.

At first, telegraphs transmitted messages through Morse code onto paper. An incoming message would produce dots and dashes on paper, and the operator would take that paper and decode the code. But it became clear that operators learned Morse code quickly, and were able to decode messages just by hearing Morse code being tapped through the telegraphs. Here are a couple of Morse Code activities you can try with your class:

1. Show the Morse code alphabet to your students and let them practice using it by writing messages to each other using the dots and dashes. If you feel like they could use a challenge, have them tap out their messages on their desk. It will take some time for students to decode the message, but they will recognize just how hard it may have been for someone just starting a telegraphy class.

2. Another idea is to write the beginning of a riddle or joke on the board, then put the answer in Morse code for the students to figure out. Here’s a link that will automatically turn your words to Morse code (so you don’t have to spend time coding yourself!). It will even play the taps out for you as if you were really listening to a telegraph. You’d be surprised how long a simple sentence can take to sound off!

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