This archived article was written by: Joshua Behn
Since the first coal mine opened at Winter Quarters in 1877, Carbon County has depended on the bravery and backbreaking labor of the men, women and even children who have descended into the ground. Each one had their own reason for facing such danger: for some it was the chance at a better life in a strange and foreign land; for others it was an opportunity for steady work in a region with few other industries; and for many to support their families.
The motivations may have been different, but all walked into the Daemon’s Hole, well aware that they might not emerge to see another sunrise. All understood that the mines were a dangerous game of chance where the die was cast anew at the beginning of every shift.
Tragedy is no stranger to Carbon County and is deeply woven into the fabric of its citizenry. Every coal camp has had disasters, and to this day residents of the county speak with sorrow and reverence of Winter Quarters in 1900 (at least 200 killed), and Castle Gate in 1924 (171 killed). Since those early days, safety has dramatically improved, and yet, the danger is still there, as manifested by Wilberg in 1984 (27 killed), and most recently, Crandall Canyon in 2006 (9 killed).
These tragedies had great effects on not only the sociological fabric of these coal camps, but the cultural fabric as well. Stories and legends of a supernatural nature emerged which have endured to this day. The most famous of all is the legend of the White Lady of Spring Canyon, embedded in the lore of Carbon County, a spectral figure who walks the washes of the old mining town of Latuda.
Like most stories of folklore she has no name, shrouded by mystery and dispersed in several variations. The most detailed version tells of a young woman that lived in Peerless, about two miles down the canyon from Latuda. Her husband, a miner in Latuda, died from lead poisoning. In an effort to obtain subsistence for her young child, she makes a claim to the Liberty Mining Company, and is denied. She goes crazy, drowns the child in the wash, spends several years in an insane asylum in Provo, and ends her story by hanging herself from the Liberty Mine office rafters. To this day she is said to be seen walking along the side of the road by the ruins of the mine office.
Upon closer examination, this legend seems to be a conglomerate of the many dangers of life in a mining town: not being able to support a family, corporate greed of the mine bosses, loss of a job, suicide, insanity, illness and sudden death. The White Lady in essence is a tragic hero, who goes through trial after trial, and eventually avenges herself upon the hated bosses through an eternal haunt.
How did these miners remain so steadfast and unwavering in their work, following disasters where the death toll might reach 200? When disaster struck, how did they convince themselves that it was still worth the risk to enter those portals?
One of the weapons in their psychological arsenal was what we would today call compartmentalization. This is where a person divides their consciousness into multiple parts, locking away the more traumatizing parts of an experience. This happens frequently in people who have undergone harsh trauma such as rape or abuse, but can also be found in civil servants who find themselves in unspeakable circumstances in their work. Emotional reactions are deactivated and “shelved away,” to be dealt with at a later time.
Another tool is that of diversion, a temporary escape through the aid of a powerful sensory enabler, frequently exhibited in the vices of alcohol, drugs, gambling and women. These are often looked at negatively, but if controlled and taken in small quantities, can help as an easy escape.
When found in its extreme form, addiction, it becomes ineffective, used as a permanent escape from troubles. Many miners found themselves caught in this grip, joining the ranks of police, firefighters, doctors, lawyers, and yes, even funeral directors, professions with high incidents of addiction.
Though each possesses merit in its own regard, compartmentalization and diversion aren’t enough to survive the omnipresent weight of premature death. Fear is a powerful emotion, and people tend to cope by projecting it onto something more physical or tangible. Death is a dark, almost incomprehensible idea, and personifying it seems to make it less frightening.
A favorite story by Alvin Schwartz, tells of a man who encounters “Death” near the family farm. The figure beckons to him, but he runs away to tell his father. The wise old man, promptly sends him far away to the city, and then finds and confronts “Death,” demanding to know why he would approach his son. “Death” apologizes, replying that he did not mean to scare the lad; he was merely surprised to see him there as he had an appointment with him later that evening … in the city.
Like death in this story, the White Lady is also personified by human characteristics. These diminish the unpredictably of death, much like the old Puritan portrayal of the devil as a being with horns and a forked tail, abiding in a realm of fire. While still frightening, something that can be visualized and described is far more acceptable than a mere concept or an idea. It is through myth and stories that we are able to deal psychologically with the unanswerable questions of life.
While the existence of the White Lady cannot be proven, she remains a symbol, to be feared and respected, a mascot to stand behind. Like the postulant who finds comfort in a Christ who “took upon himself the pain of all,” so is the local folklore full of personages who unjustly sacrificed all. The White Lady, whether myth or fact, once seemed more real than death itself. Brought into existence by forebears who sought to tame the harsh realities of life in the mines, she is still in imaginations continuing to intrigue and scare. And with each retelling of the old legends, one more of these mining heroes are brought back to memory, a legacy of sacrifice, will and perseverance.