Way We Were: The Grim Reaper at the Hamilton-Sprague | ParkRecord.com
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Way We Were: The Grim Reaper at the Hamilton-Sprague

Steve Leatham
Park City Museum researcher
The interior of the Park Utah mine kitchen with three men in cook’s uniforms standing behind prep counters, ca. 1920s-1930s. William Matheson would have worked in this kitchen.
Park City Historical Society & Museum, Pop Jenks Collection

It was just after 4 p.m. Aug. 18, 1923, when James Healey and John Walsenbarger finished drilling a hole 16 feet into a solid rock formation and were preparing to place a charge of blasting powder into it. The Saturday weather had been picture perfect, the fourth day in a row of clear blue skies with a temperature of 72 degrees. Unsettled weather was predicted for the following day with the posibility of local thunder showers.

It was 53-year-old Healey’s first day on the job after arriving from Denver just the day before. He had been assigned to work with the 42-year-old Walsenbarger, who had been with the Hamilton-Sprague Construction Company of Denver less than two weeks. Hamilton-Sprague was the successful bidder for building a 5.3-mile Union Pacific branch railroad line between Park City and the Park Utah mine at the mouth of the Ontario No. 3 drain tunnel. Between 250 and 300 workmen were now employed along the $400,000 spur’s right of way.

As was the custom, Healey, a native of Liverpool, England, and Walsenbarger, from Knoxville, Tennessee, were preparing to insert an iron blowpipe into the 16-foot drill hole for the purpose of blowing out the dust before putting in the powder. Directly above them was a Utah Power and Light Company 44,000-volt power line about 1 mile from town.

Both men had hold of the blowpipe when, in some manner, it came into contact with the high-tension wires. The two men were killed instantly by the electric shock of the high-power current. Both bodies were severely burned before companion workmen attracted to the scene were able to remove them from contact with the current. Funeral services for the two were held in Park City.

Fifty-four days later, on Oct. 11, at almost the exact same time of day, the “Grim Reaper” struck the Hamilton-Sprague railroad camp again. There had not been one clear day in the prior seven. Low temperatures hovered near 30 degrees and rain and snow had fallen each of the previous five depressing days.

New to the West, William Matheson had been working for the company in its kitchen for about a week when he asked to work outside, thinking it would be better for his health. The 33-year-old North Carolinian was assigned to work with the steam shovel crew. While the shovel was in operation, something went terribly wrong. The scoop fell from the machine, striking Matheson and another man who was working near him, W.H. Wheeler. Matheson was crushed beneath the shovel’s scoop, mangling his left leg and otherwise severely injuring him. Wheeler’s injuries were not as serious.

The injured men were rushed to the Miners Hospital where Dr. McDonald did everything possible to save Mr. Matheson’s life, but the injuries and shock were too great. He died at 5:30 p.m. His mother in Wadesboro, North Carolina, was notified of her son’s death and his remains returned for burial there.


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