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They start to appear in the small towns just north of us, where the makeup of the population begins to shift, subtly becoming a little less English, German, and Irish and beginning to trend more Italian and eastern European.  In my childhood, every small town in that area seemed to have one, looking to me at that time like mountains jutting incongruously above the flat north-central Illinois cornfields.  Some are gone now, hauled away as fill or graded down to modest mounds, but most remain, many now eroded in height and overtaken by vegetation, silent testaments to an industry now gone.  

The locals around here call them "jumbos"; they are slag heaps, remainders of a coal-mining industry that flourished here in the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, when miners -- many recent immigrants -- toiled long days hundreds of feet underground hauling out the soft, dirty-burning Illinois bituminous.  The slag heaps hint at an industry that brought to those small towns a modest degree of prosperity and employment.  And in some cases disaster and death.

                        Slag heaps at the Cherry, Illinois mine, early 20th century.

Earlier in his life, before he went back to college and became The Professor, my brother worked as an agricultural equipment mechanic in a small town near La Salle, Illinois.  While working there he and his wife bought a house in the nearby town of Cherry, Illinois, a small village with a population of about 500 individuals.  

In the town's cemetery stands a granite monument erected by the United Mine Workers memorializing the victims of a mine disaster -- now almost forgotten -- that took place a century ago this year and had profound repercussions for mining in Illinois and in the United States.


The St. Paul Coal Company mine in Cherry, Illinois was not the kind of place where a disaster was supposed to happen.  Formed to provide coal for its parent, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (better known later in the twentieth century as the Milwaukee Road), its owners boasted of its safety and it incorporated many features considered advanced for its day when it went into operation in 1905, most notably an electric light system that was supposed to eliminate the need for torches and open flames to light the mine.  As so often happens, though, things did not go according to plan.  The fateful day, when it came, was one that only someone named Murphy could appreciate.

Immediately after dinner on the 13th day of November, 1909, a Saturday, a car loaded with baled hay intended for the use of the mules in the lower seam was let down the main shaft.

Upon reaching the landing of the second seam, which was the destination of the cages in the main shaft, the car and its contents were taken off, transferred by means of a runabout and started in the narrow passageway leading to the air shaft from which point, in accordance with the practice it was to be sent to the seam below.  A like operation had been performed successfully on all other occasions. but on this one it failed.  Fate, utilizing all the agencies of human frailty was evidently busy arranging the scenes for a great tragedy, and circumstances, seemingly simple in themselves, combined to create a situation involving the imprisonment and ultimate death of more men than ever before occurred at the time in the history of the State.
State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics: Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster, 1910.  (plain .txt version)

Peter Donna was less charitable.  Steve Stout, author of Black Damp: The Story of the Cherry Mining Disaster : a Novel , who has probably done more than anyone else over the past thirty-plus years to keep the story of the Cherry Mine disaster alive, quoted Donna, the last living survivor of the tragedy (he died September 12, 1977), who characterized the disaster as...

...the biggest bunch of carelessness I have ever seen
Steve Stout, "Tragedy in November: The Cherry Mine Disaster".


Schematic of the Cherry Mine

There were three levels to the St. Paul mine in Cherry.  The vein at the first level turned out to be poor-quality coal not worth digging and was abandoned and boarded up in favor of a second vein at a depth of about 320 feet which had been extensively mined.  A third level about 165 feet below the second, a total of 485 feet below the surface, had recently been opened and was still being serviced by what seems like makeshift means.

The mine featured two shafts.  The main shaft, on the left of the diagram, was serviced by a cage lift that was only designed to reach the second level from the surface.  The third level was accessible in the main shaft by means of an auxiliary "bucket" and rope that could be hooked to the bottom of the main lifting cage which could then permit travel only between the second and third levels.  

The primary method of accessing the third level for bringing out men and coal was by means of a lift in the shaft on the right, which served as the air shaft and housed the emergency escape stairs.  The lift in this shaft only ran between the second and third levels.  It could not ascend to the surface.  The shaft was topped with the fan house that provided the ventilation for the mine.  Air was forced down the right shaft and exhausted out the left main shaft.

Carts loaded with coal mined on the lowest level were loaded onto the cage in the right shaft and brought to the second level where they were unloaded and transferred to the lift cage in the main shaft on the left for transport to the surface.  Likewise, men, supplies, and empty carts were brought down the main shaft to the second level and transferred to the lift in the air shaft to lower to the third level.

[Note: All blockquotes that follow are from the 1910 report by the State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics: Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster. unless noted otherwise.  Plain text version here..]

The electrical system, in the infancy of the technology, suffered a short circuit that had put the lights out of service for nearly a month.  Replacement wiring had, ironically, been delivered to the site the very morning of November 13 and was waiting to be installed.  While waiting for repairs, makeshift torches had been put into service.  Described in detail in the Illinois  Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the disaster, they were made from 2-inch diameter steel pipe with a cap on one end, filled with kerosene, and a reducing fitting stuffed with a wick capping off the other end.  The devices were suspended with a wire that balanced the torch in such a way that, as the kerosene was consumed, the pipe increasingly tilted with the wick-end downward to allow the kerosene to flow to the wick.  Sometimes the flow overwhelmed the wick and dripped flaming kerosene from the torch.

The mine utilized mules to haul carts of coal in the mine.  Accounts of the number of mules housed underground in the mine vary from 40 in more recent accounts to "60 to 70" in the1910 IBLS report.  Regardless of the number, they had to be fed, and to that end carts of hay were lowered daily in the lift cage to the second level, offloaded and transferred to the second lift to be lowered to the third, bottom level.  It was in the process of making that transfer that a cart of hay was parked in a passageway under one of the kerosene torches, which is believed to have dripped burning fuel into the hay, setting it on fire.

Despite the seeming obvious danger of hay, fire, and coal in combination, the initial discovery of the burning hay was met with what strikes the reader today as incomprehensible nonchalance.  From the 1910 report:

From the moment the burning hay was discovered, until the car containing it was finally dumped down the airshaft, not to exceed thirty minutes elapsed, during which time the cagers, Alex. Rosenjack and his assistant, Robert Dean, and the others who aided, acted like men who had confidence in their power to control the situation. That the feeling existed that there was no real danger from the fire and that it could be extinguished without peril to life is indicated by the testimony of men who, in passing it on their way to the surface, stated they could have put it out easily with their coats.

They did not, however.  It being a Saturday, some miners were working a short shift, and numerous workers, leaving the mine on the scheduled 1:30 lift, passed by the men fighting the fire without lending assistance, thinking that the men had the situation under control.  One of the features of the mine was  a ventilation system driven by a powerful fan to deliver fresh air to the interior of the mine.  That air flow was now fanning the flames at 700 feet per minute as half-a-dozen workers, the youngest fifteen years old, tried to douse the fire using pails of water dipped from a sump in the second level mule stables about a hundred feet away.  There was no dedicated fire-fighting equipment on the second level.

Unable to put out the fire where the cart sat, the men tried to roll the cart onto the lift that serviced the third level, where there was sump and a hose for washing the mules that could be used to extinguish the fire.  However, the cart hung up as it was being pushed onto the lift, and the fire had become so intense by this time that the men could not mount any sustained attempt to dislodge it.  Finally, in desperation, the cage was raised about four feet, dropping the cart off the side of the lift and allowing the men to push it down the shaft to the sump on the third level where waiting men were able to put out the burning hay with the hose.

By this time, however, timbers on the second level where the cart had been parked had ignited as well, and were now being fanned by the air flow from the fan.  As the fire spread and attempts to fight it went for naught, the mine began to fill with smoke and miners removed from the area of the fire became aware of the conflagration.  Yet few tried to exit the mine.

The cagers at the main bottom were among the first at the main shaft who became aware of the existence of the fire. They continued to hoist coal for some five or ten minutes after they knew the fire was in existence, evidently under the belief that it would be put out. When the serious nature of it became apparent, several of the drivers and company men endeavored to give notice to the diggers, although the fire had burned for at least forty-five minutes to an hour before any such attempt was systematically made.

Other survivors reported noticing the smoke filling the mine and suggesting to their supervisors that they should get out, only to be told that the fire would be put out shortly and they should continue to work.  In other instances, miners themselves, paid by their production, were reluctant to leave and give up the income.  And when the danger did become obvious, as William Vickers testified, some of the recent immigrants who spoke little English could not understand the orders to evacuate.  One Italian who did understand told John Stuckert in broken English, 'I guess we got to die like mules.'

Alma Lettsome testified that [...] he was working in the third vein, his attention was first attracted when the cars had stopped coming and he went out to the bottom of the big shaft, saw a driver standing there and said, " 'How is it they are not hoisting in the big shaft?' and he said, 'Probably they are waiting for the flats.' I paid no more attention and walked back in company with two other men to my working place. The three of us stayed down there together for I should judge about twenty minutes, when my son came along and told me the mule barn was on fire. He said, 'We have been up there and it is all afire.' I walked up the stairs and saw it and said we must get out as quick as we can.

We were then about 750 feet from the escape shaft; we gave the men the warning that were around us and started up to make our way out. There were other men standing at the bottom of the third vein waiting for us to come out and we all started up the stairs one man after the other. When we reached the top of the stairs there was a man standing against the trap door and he wouldn't go through it; he had lifted it up and seen the fire above and he said, 'We can't go through there, it is all afire.' I said, 'We can't go back, we have got to go through there.' He said, 'I can't get through/ and I said, 'Well, get out of the road.' I saw it was all on fire, in fact, all flames. We went through the door and south round the east way, reached the cage and went up to the top."

One of the miners who had helped put out the hay that had been dropped down the shaft to the third level, William Smith, related in his testimony during the investigation that he and another man had gone up to the second level to see if they could assist with the fire there.  They discovered there were problems communicating with the surface to send down the lift cage, and Smith was sent up the escape stairway in the air shaft to try to better coordinate with the men topside.  Half way up, though, the situation turned deadly.

I went up the stairway in the escape shaft, when I got about half way the air was
coming a moderate gait about as fast as a man reasonably would require but suddenly the fan stopped. I didn't think anything of it because it had stopped once or twice before for a time. In about half a minute I will say from a half to a minute and a half the fan started up again. But they had reversed the fan and I knew that the fire and smoke would come up and catch me on the way so I climbed faster than I had ever climbed in my life before. The smoke overtook me when I got about half way up or a little more I don't know just how far for I was choking and climbing all the time; I don't know how I did get up the rest of the way.

Ruins of the fan house

Reversing the fan sucked the flames up the shaft and into the fan house itself, igniting a fire that destroyed the fan house and put the ventilation system out of commission, and consumed the escape stairway in the shaft.  Now there no means to get men out of the mine except the lift cage in the main shaft.

Twelve men volunteered to go down in the cage to locate and bring up miners.  They included miners, townsmen among the crowd that had been drawn to the mine by the commotion, and the mine manager and assistant manager.  They descended into the mine seven times and returned, bringing up as many miners as the cage could carry.  Later reports said they rescued 85 miners in this manner.  The last trip, though, ended in disaster.

This was the seventh time that the cage was lowered with rescuers
upon it after the seriousness of the fire was realized, and each time they
had succeeded in bringing up some men alive; each time those who
ventured down encountered the smoke and came up almost asphyxiated.
The fire was getting nearer and nearer the main hoisting shaft; but this
last cage of men were doomed to meet their fate in a supreme effort.
When the cage was raised eight of them lay on the floor of the cage.
Their clothing was still blazing and their arms and hands were in
convulsive postures, just as death had seized them and when they had
tried to protect their faces from the awful heat. Four of the bodies
were lying across the top of the cage where they had died in a frantic
effort to climb away from the fire.

When they were hoisted to the surface it was a most pitiful sight. The
relatives of these men were there and the scene witnessed was the most
heartrending. Strong hearted men broke down.

Now, at about four in the afternoon, two-and-a-half hours after the fire first broke out, all means of escape were cut off.  As the fire intensified and smoke and carbon dioxide -- black damp -- began to fill the mine, desperate miners hundreds of feet below ground fought futiley to save themselves.  There was nothing the horrified crowds on the scene could do but wait helplessly for outside assistance to arrive.

                                          Crowds of townspeople at the mine

Late Saturday night and early Sunday morning November 14, the mine
inspectors of Illinois began to arrive at the mine. This force was augmented
later by mine inspectors from other states; one came from Indiana, two
from Ohio, two from Iowa and one from Missouri. Professional experts from
Pittsburg and Champaign experimental stations, and about a dozen firemen
from the Chicago fire department, were also on the ground. During the
day, Sunday 14th, two men from Champaign with helmets, succeeded in
reaching the second vein through the airshaft in a sinking bucket, but could
do nothing more as the smoke and steam were too dense for exploration.
Both shafts were covered over and remained so during the night.

Rescuers with breathing apparatus

More than 400 hundred men and boys, some as young as thirteen, had entered the Cherry mine that Saturday morning.  Despite some having left early just as the fire was breaking out, some escaping and some being rescued, nearly 250 were now sealed inside.  

Over the next several days the shafts remained sealed to try to smother the fire, and periodically re-opened for inspection, waiting for conditions to improve enough for fire-fighting and recovery efforts.  The experts from mine rescue station at the University of Illinois, wearing helmets and oxygen tanks, descended in the bucket several times over that period, but found conditions too hot and smoke too dense to work.  

Nearly a week would elapse before rescuers were able to re-enter the mine.  When they did, they would encounter both the expected and the unexpected.


Please join us next week for the conclusion of our story, as bodies are brought out, tensions mount between the families, rescuers, and mine supervisors, and the specter of six hundred widows and orphans with no means of support brings about a revolutionary change in the method of dealing with workplace accidents.

How Regulation came to be: The Cherry Mine Disaster - Part II


Previous installments of How Regulation came to be:
How Regulation came to be: 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act
How Regulation came to be: The Iroquois Theater Fire
How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part I
How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part II
How Regulation came to be:  Radium Girls - Part III
How Regulation came to be:  Construction Summer
How Regulation came to be: Red Moon Rising

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun May 03, 2009 at 02:47 PM PDT.

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