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In our first installment (Part I, here) we watched the Cherry, Illinois mine disaster unfold, as a series of events transpired that Peter Donna, the longest-living survivor of the disaster once called, "the biggest bunch of carelessness I have ever seen."

When a cart loaded with hay for mules working underground caught fire in the mine, the men responsible for it responded with an attitude of confidence in their control of the situation that convinced other miners in a position to help that the men had the fire under control.  By the time the seriousness of the situation was realized, the middle level of the mine was rapidly turning into a blazing furnace.

As efforts to extinguish the fire failed, and means of escape and rescue were cut off, disabled, and destroyed, and air entering the mine only served to feed the inferno, mine officials and rescue experts sealed the mine to smother the flames.  Our story concludes inside.

Four hundred eighty men had entered the Cherry mine that Saturday morning, November 13, 1909.  When the decision was made to seal the mine, over two hundred fifty, in fact, still remained below, although rumor and erroneous information put the number far higher, 385 to 400 being reported in many media sources.  With the families of those still trapped below, needless to say, the decision to seal the mine was not a popular one.

                                                               Crowds at the mine  

Besides the mine inspectors, firefighters, and rescue specialists who had rushed the scene, officials of the St. Paul Coal Company and its parent the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad were also arriving in Cherry.  Their private rail cars filled the siding leading to the mine.  They were not popular figures to many.  On Wednesday, November 17, the day after the mine was sealed, the Daily Review of downstate Decatur, Illinois reported,

That's What the Officials Brand Reports of Anarchistic Plots
Cherry, Nov. 17 -
Despite the Sheriff's assurance that no apprehension prompted the call for troops, rumors were circulated that crowds from points outside are determined to carry out the rescue work themselves, and that a plot had been formed to blow up a number of private cars here, one of them the car of President Earing [actually Albert J. Earling -- ds] of the St. Paul railroad. The rumors are branded as absurd by the officials.
Bureau County, Illinois History and Genealogy; Cherry Coal Mine Disaster

The troops, placed to prevent crowds from approaching the mine and to protect the private railcars of the officials, became a lightning rod for upset locals and families of the trapped miners.  As late as November 22, newspapers still reported rumors the town would be placed under martial law.

Over the next week after the disaster, officials and rescue experts monitored the conditions below.  A replacement fan was brought in from La Salle and set up to try to exhaust smoke and carbon dioxide -- black damp -- from the mine, but only served to reinvigorate the fire.  Finally, on Thursday, the sixth day, mine inspectors equipped with oxygen tanks descended once more into the mine and found conditions had improved enough that bodies could begin to be brought out, but the bucket they had been using to descend down the shaft was inadequate to the task and they were only able to bring up one body.  The seal was replaced and work began hastily constructing a new lift cage.

                                                Rescuers prepare to enter the mine.

The following day, the new cage complete, a few more bodies were brought up, but most of the time of the men venturing underground that day had to be spent suppressing the remaining fire where they were trying to work.  The fire had burned out the supporting timbers and numerous roof collapses had occurred, blocking off parts of the mine.  What they saw, though, was ghastly.

After passing the first main parting in the south entry, we encounters a group of some ten bodies, one in the center in the attitude of prayer.  From there on the sights were horrifying. Men's bodies singly and in
groups were encountered, and the stench was such as to tax to the the strength of the rescuers.
State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics: Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster, 1910.  (plain .txt version)


On Saturday, November 20th, a full week after the fire broke out, recovery of bodies began in earnest, with about fifty bodies being brought up by noon.  Many bodies showed no signs of burns or trauma.  Overcome by smoke, they collapsed and were covered by the water that was flooding the mine from the fire-fighting efforts.  Lying in the water as the fire raged over them, their corpses were literally boiled.  

Shortly after noon that day, men working to recover the bodies were stunned when they encountered a group of survivors stumbling toward them in the smoky haze.  A group of men, trapped below when all means of escape were cut off, had retreated to the far recesses of the second level of the mine and walled themselves off behind a hastily constructed barricade.  There they had remained for seven days, with no food and their only source of drink a dirty puddle of water that leached through the coal vein, air becoming so foul that it would not sustain a flame, and no way of judging how much time had elapsed in the pitch black shelter.  Finally, some of them driven almost mad by the isolation and desperate for water, those men not already incapacitated tunneled through the barricade and crawled out of their sanctuary to try to find water when they encountered the workers recovering bodies.

The news on the day of the stunning discovery was an example of media frenzy at its worst, as rumors and speculation were passed off as fact and hopes of anxious family members and friends of the miners were jerked on a roller coaster emotional ride that will sound distressingly familiar to those who followed the Sago mine disaster in 2006.  The Decatur, Illinois Daily Review reported 40 miners rescued, and perhaps 150 still alive below.  Another reported "all" missing miners had been found alive.  The headlines that blazed across the pages of the Des Moines News were typical


Cherry, Ill., Nov. 20 -- The St. Paul Coal Mine has given up its living.
At midnight there had come alive out of the pit twenty-one men who for a week had been given up for dead. At that hour upwards of 70 men were known to be alive in the mine but had not yet been brought to the surface, while it was reported that fifty others might have achieved the seemingly impossible and escaped death.
The Des Moines News Iowa 1909-11-21
GenDisasters: Cherry, IL Coal Mine Disaster, Nov 1909

But there were no others -- only the twenty-one, though the means by which those twenty-one survived was in itself an example that would weigh on future planning and preparation for potential mine accidents.  But the false rumors and reports of rescuers hearing "men calling out" below invigorated hopes of desperate family members eager to believe

One of the rescued miners, Daniel Holafick, the oldest of the rescued survivors, was treated at the scene and went home.  He was found dead in his home two days later.  He is considered the 259th, and last, victim of the Cherry mine disaster.


Over the next days over a hundred bodies were brought out of the recesses of the mine and some brought to the surface.  Among these were a group of miners -- the New York Times (pdf) reported over 150 on Wednesday, November 24 -- that were found together in an elevated section in a tunnel on the lower level where they had retreated to escape the encroaching smoke from the fire and the water that was flooding the mine from the firefighting efforts.  Evidence indicated they had survived for perhaps two days after the fire started, rigging makeshift fans to try to circulate the air and writing letters to their loved ones before all succumbed to the black damp.  It was not the kind of find that did anything to placate groups representing miners who had unleashed howls of protest when officials suspended rescue efforts and sealed the mine.

But even as the men were working to recover the dead and looking in vain for more living, the fire was again spreading in inaccessible parts of the mine and filling it once more with smoke and deadly carbon dioxide.  By Wednesday night, the men in charge gathered to make a decision that would not be well-received by the family members whose hopes had been so charged only a few days earlier with reports of more survivors trapped behind barricades and awaiting rescue.

Sometime shortly after midnight on the morning of Thursday, November 25, a consultation was held, at which, the President of the State Mining Board, chief of the fire department; expert helmet men from Champaign, the Illinois mine inspectors and representatives of the St. Paul Coal Company were present. The situation  was discussed from every possible point of view, and it seemed to be the unanimous opinion of all present, that all of the men in the mine were dead; and the best way, looking to the recovery of the bodies later, was to seal up both of the shafts while they were in this condition, to be entered as soon as the fire was extinguished.
State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics: Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster, 1910.  (plain .txt version)

Early in the morning of Thursday, November 25th, 1909, just a few short days after hopes of the families of the missing had been inflated by false rumors and speculation, both mine shafts were sealed, and a long process of monitoring temperature and pressure in the mine began.  It would be February 1, 1910 before the temperature stabilized at 66 degrees and the concrete and steel covering sealing the mine was finally removed and recovery of bodies resumed.  Any hope for survivors had died weeks before.

Now was left the problem of the surviving families of the dead and missing miners.  There were over 600 widows and orphans left with no means of support.  The largest ethnic group among the bereaved survivors was "Slavish", followed by Italian, Austrian, Scottish, Lithuanian, German, Polish, Belgian, French, and a scattering of other nationalities.  Only one of the dead miners leaving dependents behind was a natural-born American.  Many did not speak English, and most, if they had family in the country, had no relatives in a financial position to take care of them.  There was no welfare as we know it.

Help poured in from many sources in many forms.  France, for instance, offered to pay the costs to bring home any French nationals and their children who wished to return.  The Red Cross collected donations and delivered aid to the families.  The United Mine Workers donated money, as did the Chicago Tribune, which also initiated a fundraising drive that brought donations of money, food and clothing from merchants and individuals in Chicago; contributions came from secret societies and fraternal organizations; from "nearly every city and town in Illinois" according to the 1910 IBLS report; as well as from individual donors and from sources both local and across the county.  Donations poured in to a relief fund totaling $444,785 92.  

From the company itself, the contribution was uncertain.  In the United States at that time it was very difficult to collect damages from an employer for the death or injury of a worker.  There were no limits on lawsuits, and when a claim could be proved jury awards could be substantial, but achieving the required level of  proof was difficult.  Courts would not award judgments if there was any contributory negligence on the part of the employee, and companies usually weren't held liable for the consequences of on-the-job actions by the injured party's coworkers.  In practice, the company prevailed in 85% of all such lawsuits and injured workers got nothing.  And then, as now, the litigation process could drag out for years.  The living victims of the Cherry mine disaster needed help immediately.

To ease the survivors' situations, a commission was appointed to arrive at a method of compensating the bereaved with the available finds.  It consisted of Chairman L. Y. Sherman, representing the State of Illinois, Duncan McDonald, representing the United Mine workers, E. P. Bicknell representing the Red Cross, E. T. Brent representing the coal operators, and the vice chairman of the commission, John E. Williams, representing the general public, a man who all accounts credit with becoming the guiding force in arriving at a settlement that would have repercussions far beyond the streets of Cherry, Illinois.

John E. Williams of Streator, Illinois was a Welsh immigrant who had worked as a miner and served as a union official.  He had witnessed the often unsatisfactory results of strikes and violence in the coalfields and had worked to develop a less adversarial approach.

Williams eventually rose to national prominence as an industrial mediator and arbitrator, a position for which he was predisposed as a labor republican.  Williams was  a pioneer in the art of arbitration who championed the now commonplace idea that successful arbitration will "satisfy both parties and, at least, reconcile their points of difference."
At age 56 Williams stepped forward to lead the campaign to ameliorate their condition.  There was no workmen's compensation law, and the only way the survivors could collect compensation was to prove company negligence in a court of law.  but this entailed legal fees and court costs the survivors could not afford.  John R. Walker, president of the Illinois district of the United Mine Workers of America, convinced the widows that Williams would faithfully represent their interests in negotiations with the mine owners, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad.
Ronald L. Lewis, Welsh Americans: A History of Assimilation in the Coal Fields

In the heart of the Progressive Era, the president of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad,  Albert J. Earling, seems to have honestly believed that his company had operated his mine with the safety of his employees at heart, and insisted as the disaster unfolded that his company's mine was one of the safest in the industry.  They had endeavored to do everything the law required to keep his workers safe, and more.  The problem, however, was that the law did not actually require very much.  UMW Illinois president Duncan McDonald, at the height of the disaster, had taken exception to Earling's characterization as reported in the pages of the Decatur Daily Review:

Cherry, Nov. 18
- "The safest mine in Illinois," as the St. Paul Coal Company declared the Cherry mine to be, has turned out a veritable death trap for 400 men. Gross negligence in constructing the mine in defiance of all provisions approved by competent mining engineers was the fundamental cause of the greatest mine disaster in the history of the United States."

This is the conclusion of Duncan McDonald based upon an investigation conducted by him as president of the United Mine Workers of Illinois. He has been at Cherry since early Sunday morning.

The several points where the company failed to provide safeguards for the miners as found by McDonald follow:

    1. The structure around the main entrance in the Cherry mine was entirely of pine timber, which is a highly combustible material. As soon as the flames from the burning bale of hay, which caused the disaster, came in contact with this timber, a fierce fire was the result. The coal dust which had accumulated on top of the structural work ignited like tinder and spread to other inflamable parts of the mine. Had the entries been built of brick or steel girders or concrete there is no doubt that the dreadful catastrophe would never have occurred.
    1. A scarcity of water and a lack of sufficient rubber hose in the mine made a fight against the flames by the miners caught in the trap an impossibility. The company had neglected to provide sufficient means to extinguish a blaze after once it was started. No pipes carrying water under pressure were placed in the mines, nor was there sufficient support on the surface, and even if there had been such it would have been of no practical service because the company failed to provide necessary fire hose.
    1. No fire drill had ever been practiced among the men, and no precaution had been taken by the company to see that in case of an emergency the miners would have the benefits of the right sort of rational discipline and instruction to them to safety.
    1. The open torch flaming near the main entrance in the second vein was a constant menace. This torch had been used as a substitute for an electric light which had been out of repair for two weeks.
    1. The escape shaft was timbered with pine and the stair were built of wood. This was gross negligence on the part of the company. A mine where any effort has been made to safeguard life would certainly have had an escape shaft constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. One of the first things in the corridor of the mine to burn away was the escape shaft. This made egress absolutely impossible after the cage stopped running and practically sealed the doom of the men below.
    1. The escape shaft was placed less than three hundred feet from the main shaft at Cherry. This would be contrary to law, unless the location of the escape shaft were permitted by some state mine inspector.

Bureau County, Illinois History and Genealogy; Cherry Coal Mine Disaster


How much these criticisms were weighing on Mr. Earling when Williams approached him about his participation in the Cherry settlement is impossible to know.  Despite an apparent intention to do right by his employees, his initial response to Williams reveals a man out of touch with condition of the people toward whom he thought he was being generous.  Earling had reportedly suggested privately at one point a payment of one hundred dollars per family, but apparently was quickly advised of the insufficiency of the amount.  Meeting with Williams, he offered that $250,000 was the most he felt he could afford to contribute, but Williams went to work on him, and in a negotiation process that is described in a fair amount of detail in the IBLS report and other sources, he gradually coaxed Earling's position up to $400,000.

President Earling was "converted" from "$250,000 as being the most
that he could bring himself to pay" to the above amounts. Mr. Will-
iams' comment is: "Best of all, he rejoices in his conversion. . . .
The doing of the good deed changes the scale of values, and makes the
good man feel the result to be worth more than the sacrifice."
State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics: Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster, 1910.  (plain .txt version)

Some of the Cherry mine orphans

Combined with the $444,785 92 in donations already received, the commission now had nearly $850,000 to work with, which enabled the commission to achieve Williams' goal of offering a settlement modeled on the recently-passed British workers' compensation law and give each widow the equivalent of three years' of her late husband's wage, plus a monthly stipend to aid in the raising of her children.

The company's initial $250,000 contribution had provided each widow $1620.00 regardless of family size.  A plan was drafted to provide for the raising of children with additional money.

"Beneficiaries are divided into two classes : those having children, and those without. Widows and others without children will be apportioned a payment ranging from $300 to $500, which will be paid to them direct as a final contribution. Widows with one child will be paid $20 per month; with two children, $25 per month; and so on, increasing $5 per month for each child until $40 is reached, which is the maximum payment.

"Our calculations are that our funds will enable us to pay these pensions until one or two of the eldest children in the family reach the age of 14 years, the age the law fixes as the earliest age they can be permitted to work. They will then be able to help support the family, and the pension will stop except in exceptional cases."
State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics: Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster, 1910.  (plain .txt version)

With additional death benefits paid by the United Mine Workers, the Knights of Pythias, and the local, each victim's family received approximately $3261.72.

(While these amounts seem small today, keep in mind the effect of a century's-worth of inflation.  One of my great-great uncles, for instance, wrote in a memoir of working as a clerk in a store in Camp Clarke (now Sidney), Nebraska for $20 per month just a couple of decades years before the Cherry disaster.)

The settlement model that Williams negotiated at Cherry would form  the basis, in 1911 for Illinois' first workers compensation law.  Before the Illinois law was signed in June, 1911, though, its neighbor to the north, Wisconsin, which had been following the negotiation and settlement at Cherry, enacted the country's first workers compensation law to pass constitutional muster on May 3, 1911, which echoed the Cherry settlement.  Illinois and Wisconsin were just two of nine states that enacted workers compensation laws in the second year after the Cherry fire.  The Red Cross says of the Cherry settlement,

The fund was credited with influencing the eventual passage of workers' compensation laws in many states, which forced industries to take more responsibility for the welfare of their employees.
American Red Cross: The Cherry Mine Disaster Leads to Workers' Compensation Laws

In addition, the neglect of safety in the operation at Cherry led to a re-evaluation of the requirements for fire safety in coal mines across the country.  Over the coming years, lessons gleaned for the tragedy would be studied as numerous states enacted laws and regulations to make workers safer in the mines.  In Illinois, new regulations required training and certification for operators of crucial equipment such as lift cages and ventilation systems.  Rescue training for mine personnel was required.  Fire-fighting equipment was required to be provided on each level of a mine and employees trained in its use, and greater use of fire-resistant materials in mine construction was legislated.  Nationally, a system of mine rescue stations was created.

The St. Paul Mine Company was fined $650.00 for nine violations of Illinois' child labor law, which prohibited workers under 18 in the mines.  Illinois strengthened its law, as did several other states, while other states enacted child labor laws for the first time.

The Cherry mine disaster, at the time it occurred, was the second most deadly coal mining accident in United States history, and a century later still remains third.  The worst accident, then and now, was the loss of 362 lives in a methane ("fire damp") explosion at the Monongah, West Virginia mine December 6, 1907.  The tragedies at Monongah and Cherry, coming less than two years apart, plus a number of smaller mine accidents prompted Congress to establish the United States Bureau of Mines in 1910, which monitored mine safety and acted as a driver of new and emerging science and technology in the mining field until it was disbanded by Congress in 1995.

                                Monument in Cherry placed by the Unites Mine Workers.


When my brother lived in Cherry, now nearly thirty years ago, the descendants of people who lived through the tragedy related to him the stories they had been told by their parents and grandparents.  In the terrible days immediately following the disaster when the mine was sealed to suppress the fire, in the depths of the night when everything was still, they said, if you listened carefully you could hear signals -- or cries -- or screams -- emanating from deep underground.

These were probably just tricks played by the fevered imaginations of desperate people in the grip of extremely stressful, horribly traumatic circumstances.  Probably.

                                Slag heaps at Cherry, Illinois today


So that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from, not some bored bureaucrat sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit.  They bring suffering on those who trust them, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again.  We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along.  That's how Regulation came to be.


Additional sources and further reading:

Ray Tutaj Jr.: The Cherry Coal Mine Disaster website, an extensive site with lots of period postcards and pictures of the disaster and related information.  Mr Tutaj is also the author of the video in the tip jar below.

U.S. Department of Labor / World Magazine: Eight Days in a Burning Mine, 1911  The account of the miners who survived underground during the fire.

Bureau County, Illinois Genealogy Trails: Cherry Coal Mine Disaster, transcriptions of period newspaper accounts, primarily the Decatur Daily Review.

West Virginia GenWeb: The Cherry Mine Disaster, a period article written for Mines and Minerals, with a good deal of technical information..

Bloomington, IL Pantagraph: 100 years later, tragedy of Cherry Mine disaster still hits home

Illinois Labor History Society: Story of the Great Cherry Coal Mine Disaster

Wikipedia: 1909 Cherry Mine disaster

Memorial of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Cherry Mine Disaster.
Steve Stout: Black damp: The story of the Cherry mining disaster, 1979.  An historical novel by a gentleman who has probably done more than anyone else over the past thirty years to keep the story of the Cherry mine disaster alive.  My wife and I went to visit my brother and his family several years ago when he taught in southern Illinois.  He had this book and I started reading it and didn't come out until I was done, despite repeated accusations of anti-social behavior...

Karen Tintori: Trapped : The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster
A more recent book on the fire that I have not read yet, beyond some Google Books excerpts.  Written by a descendant of a Cherry miner.  Karen Tintori's website.


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
How Regulation came to be: The Cherry Mine Disaster, Part I

Originally posted to dsteffen on Sun May 10, 2009 at 01:21 PM PDT.

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