I don’t remember that event; I was only 2 months old when it happened. But I’ve heard the story told and retold by people who have it etched in their minds, and how news of the accident and ensuing rescue attempts spread through the stunned community on Aug. 27, 1963.
One of the men in charge of the potash plant at that time was a good friend of my parents. As I grew up I knew Mr. Pinkerton as a jolly guy with twinkling eyes and a knack for giving out compliments. The Pinkerton family came to Moab when “J.G.” Pinkerton took a top job at Texas Gulf Sulphur Cane Creek potash mine, which opened in 1963 after a two-year construction period.
What I know of the event has been learned through emotional recounts of the tragedy told by my parents, who were covering the story from a news and support standpoint, and from Mr. Pinkerton, who in his retirement years became a professional storyteller. When I was very little my parents nearly daily talked about “J.G.” because he was one of the most prominent men in town. He was a member of the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, and he was a helpful, happy man. His family was friends with mine, and some of my earliest memories are of jeeping, skiing and picnicking with them.
The Pinkertons, a Texas family who followed important administrative jobs in the mining industry across the globe, moved from Moab to Australia when I was quite young. But they always felt at home here, and over the decades returned regularly to get a little red dirt in their socks and to swap stories with their numerous friends. Up until a few years ago when Mr. Pinkerton died, I don’t think he and his wife Joan ever missed the Moab Music Festival.
“J.G.,” and always “Mr. Pinkerton” to me, later became known as “Paw-Paw Pinkerton” when he took center stage as a storyteller. He had a slight southern drawl and his way with words would draw in any listener. His topics ranged from soup to nuts, and once he asked if I would lend him some books about famous cow horses so that he could learn some new yarns of western adventures. If ever I saw him on his latest visits to Moab, I would ask him to tell a story, and in an instant everyone was hushed and mesmerized by his narration.
I always asked Mr. Pinkerton to tell about what happened at the potash mine that night, partly because I wanted to learn about and feel the tumultuous event, and also because I wanted others to know, too. Paw-Paw’s eyes would set the stage, first about the bad news, the explosion, the first few men who got out, the questions, the waiting... His eyes would fill with tears that were fed by the memory of his concern for the dedicated workers, worry for their families, terror underground, and the waiting...
He told about how humbled he was by the overwhelming community support that rallied behind rescue efforts. How Ralph Miller opened the grocery store in the middle of the night so that supplies could go the scene of the accident. How everyone, nearly everyone in Moab who could help, was there to help. And how everyone grieved when they found out that the seven miners who got out safely would not be followed by the 18 others who became victims of a noxious cloud of carbon monoxide.
Earlier this week people gathered at our library to commemorate the lives that were lost on that awful night. Oh, how I wish that Mr. Pinkerton could have been there to shed a tear, hug the survivors and humbly recount the horror and tell how a helpful community gathered in support and in grief.
The dangerous manner in which potash was extracted from that mine changed in 1970 when the conventional underground mining system was replaced by the current arrangement, which combines solution mining with river water and solar evaporation. That’s when those magnificently blue ponds that are so visible from Dead Horse Point came into view.
Though startling to see amidst the vista of canyons and river, the ponds are a reminder, certainly worth telling, of Moab’s mineral extraction legacy and the lives that have been given to it.