The dirt cascaded down the mine shaft with a sickening roar. Splintering, old timbers offered no resistance and became indistinguishable from the rest of the debris that filled the hole. Someone from below the billowing dust cloud yelled, “Get to the top,” and James Lester scrambled up the ladder. Twenty feet from the surface, he paused to look down. His men had been buried alive. The mine superintendent hurried on up the ladder and sent word to Raymond to get help and to announce the great Gambetta Mine disaster.
Meanwhile, underneath the rubble, lay Frank Wilson and James O’Connell. It was pitch dark. O’Connell called for Wilson. There was no answer. He groped and groped, and finally he found his comrade. There was no pulse. His chest and skull were crushed. Frank had been killed instantly in the cave-in.
O’Connell called out. Nothing came back but a deep echo. He continued to call. It seemed like hours, and then he heard them-his rescuers. They were in the shaft clawing at the dirt that had entombed him. Once more he hollered, and this time there was an answer. O’Connell felt a surge of hope; he recognized the voices. They were his fellow miners come to save him.
Jim shouted that Frank was dead. The rescuers acknowledged the bad news and continued to dig. There was no time to lose.
In the meantime the messenger arrived in Raymond with the appeal for help. Within a few hours the entire foothill area knew that the worst fears of any mining community had been realized at Grub Gulch. There had been a cave-in at the Gambetta Mine!
The first reports of the disaster were sketchy. Grub Gulch, the nearest town, had no telephone or telegraph service at the time, and the first communication simply indicated that some miners had been buried alive. No one outside of the Gambetta knew who or how many. Dr. Topp, Raymond’s physician, raced to the scene and found every available hand digging frantically in an effort to rescue their entombed colleagues. James O’Connell was still alive and communicating with his fellow miners through the wall of dirt and rocks.
While Dr. Topp waited helplessly, the feverish efforts to extricate the pair continued. O’Connell kept his wits about him and offered some advice. He urged the rescue team to dig around him and come up from below. With a weakening voice, O’Connell entreated with his fellows to hurry, as he didn’t have much time left.
Meanwhile, word of the Saturday morning disaster spread across the county like wildfire. By Monday morning, the Madera Mercury screamed the headlines; O’Connell was trapped and Wilson was dead.
Richard Curtis Jay, as he had done so many times before, loaded up his equipment and headed for the mountains. Madera’s mortician/coroner took two coffins this time just in case. Not only would he have to care for the remains; he would have to hold an inquest into the tragedy.
Time, like his air, was running out for the 28 year-old O’Connell. He had only been in Madera County for a week, and he had been on the job at the Gambetta Mine just five days when he teamed up with Frank Wilson, who had the reputation of being rather reckless. No doubt he had thoughts of how Wilson had disregarded the warnings of Superintendent Lester to remove some of the dirt before attempting to replace the old timbers. All of that, however, was moot at this point. O’Connell couldn’t hold out much longer. The men on the other side heard him yell, “I’m done for,” and that was all. The trapped miner never spoke again.
Coronor Jay was there when the bodies were brought up. He questioned the witnesses and found nothing out of the ordinary. The Gambetta had opened up in 1880, and now 25 years later the wooden ribs of its main shaft needed replacing. The crew had started at the 500 foot level and were working toward the top. By Saturday morning, March 12, 1904, there was just 60 feet to go, and that last 20 yards belonged to O’Connell and Wilson. Alas, they were never to make it.
Richard Curtis Jay took Frank Wilson’s body to Madera and shipped it to Grass Valley where the victim’s mother lived. Since Frank O’Connell had no one to claim him, he was buried in the Grub Gulch cemetery, and that’s where he is today.
Now, the town of Grub Gulch is gone, and the Gambetta Mine is in ruins, but Jim O’Connell is still up on that hill as a constant reminder that while Madera County had its share of gold, sometimes there was a heavy price to pay to get it.