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Published April 20, 2018

Mining is one of the oldest industries known to man; as far back as the Stone Age, there’s evidence of people digging deep into the earth in search of valuable resources.

It’s not a job to be taken lightly. Miners have the weight of the world hanging literally above their heads, as they descend into cramped spaces with only the lights they carry with them. It’s filthy, gruelling and backbreaking work. 

And in a coal mine, there’s an added danger. One that cannot be seen, but which can bring disaster in mere seconds.

Gas.

Coal has been used since Roman times, at least, but it was the dawning of the Age of Steam that made it a resource which was in high demand, driving the machines of the Industrial Revolution. 

The risks of coal mining were clear quite early on – if not, at that stage, actually understood. An account from the beginning of the eighteenth century recounts one incident in Newcastle in England:

“ I think it was but in October 1705, that I was told by one who was acquainted with, and see some of the Dead buried, and had been at the Pits after the Blast, that there was above Thirty Persons Young and Old slain by a Blast, perhaps in less than Minutes time.”

Still, the value of the coal ensured that the miners kept going back, and that people kept looking for new sources of coal.

In America, a rich source of coal was discovered in the Appalachians, and in the wake of the Civil War the mining industry there bloomed, driven by the expansion of the railroads. It grew to the extent that, in the ten years between 1895 and 1905, there was more coal mined in the States than had been mined there throughout its entire history before that point.

The town of Monongah, in West Virginia, was one of the places that grew from this industry. The Consolidation Coal Company advertised for workers in their mines there as follows:

“Two thousand Coal Miners and Helpers, either experienced Miners, with their families, or green labourers to learn coal mining Under competent instructor. All drift mines in the Monongahela Valley. Average wages of Helpers from $2.00 to $3.00 per day; Average wages Machine Runners $3.50 to $6.00 per day. No Shaft Mines; all drift, located at Fairmont and Clarksburg, West Virginia on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Height of coal seam was eight feet. Practically free from explosive gases.” 

Mine workers at a West Virginia mine, 1908. Source: Picryl

Like the rest of the coal industry, the Monongah mines were expanding quickly. No. 6 Mine was opened in October, 1899; by May 1905 they were breaking ground on No. 8 mine, which would be connected to No. 6, although they had separate entrances. That meant that they needed to bring a lot of workers in, and many of them came from a long way away. Immigrant labour was cheap; the Monongah mines employed Italians, Poles, Greeks, Slavs, and many more. The mining companies liked immigrant workers for another reason – they could often be brought in to break strikes, and those in charge were keen to resist unionisation and keep their profit margins high.

A trapper boy. Source: Picryl

For the same reasons, the miners of Monongah were paid in company scrip rather than cash; essentially a form of money that could only be spent in the company store. Many of the miners were also paid not by the hours that they worked, but by the weight of coal that they brought out. This is one of the reasons that the advert mentioned families. Sons would often go into the mines with their fathers, not officially employed by the mines themselves but helping to bring a good salary home to their family. Other boys, as young as eight years old, were employed in their own right; they might pick rock or other unwanted bits out of the coal at the preparation plant, or work as “trapper boys”, operating the wooden doors which were used to control the flow of air through the mines and keep them ventilated.

Although advertised as “practically free from explosive gasses” and officially classed non-gassy, the fact is that the Monongah mines, like any other coal mines, did carry the risk of gasses. The geological processes which had deposited the coal seam had also trapped methane in the rocks, which was freed when the seam was worked.

Methane was known to early miners as firedamp because it is so flammable. It only takes a small spark to set off an explosion.

There were precautions in place to reduce the risk of methane explosions. One of here was the fire boss system. An experienced miner would hold the role of Fire Boss, and he would be responsible for making regular checks on he mine, and closing off any areas which were too risky to work. The checks would be made using a safety lamp; this had a flame guarded by gauze, so that the presence of methane could be seen when the flame burned more brightly, but the flame was sufficiently isolated that it wouldn’t set off an explosion.

If methane was found in the mine, the fire boss would cordon the area off, hanging heavy curtains to keep the gas from spreading into other sections, and record the location to pass that information on to the fire boss on the next shift.

There were, however, problems with this system.

Firstly, the mines were so extensive that it was actually impossible to check them thoroughly. Instead, they would just check the areas they thought likely to accumulate methane. Thus, it was always possible for something to be missed.

And secondly, the fire boss doing the checking wasn’t always as experienced as they were supposed to be.

On the evening of the 5th of December, 1907, the fire boss on the night shift was Lester Emitt Trader. He didn’t have the required three years experience, nor was he certified to hold the role.

“The way I got to be Fire Boss was due to the fact that one of the fire bosses developed rheumatism and couldn’t make his rounds and I helped him. Then when another fire boss quit, I took over the job. But because I was not certified… They kept me on the night shift so I wouldn’t run into the mine inspector.”

The fact that he was the nephew of the company’s safety director… Well, I’m sure that didn’t have anything to do with it at all.

Despite not being qualified for his position, he was quite confident in the safety of his work. He even touched on the subject in a letter to his father which he posted after that night’s shift.

“We have been reading with much interest the news paper accounts of the Naomi Mine explosion. Our own mine being a mine laid out and worked on the same principal as it and having the same principal dangers to contend with namely gas, dust, and the poor class of foreign labour any one of which would be sufficient to cause a great deal of apprehension for the safety of the mine but coming as they do together it keeps us on the look out for the same fate of the Naomi Mine.”

The incident he referred to had taken place just a few days before, on the 1st of December. An explosion at the Naomi mine in Pennsylvania, just about seventy miles away from Monongah, had killed at least thirty five men. That mine never reopened.

Unfortunately, being on the look out wasn’t enough for the miners of Monongah. On the morning of December the 6th, 1907, Lester Trader finished his shift, logged the locations of the methane he found, sent his letter, and went home to bed. Meanwhile, 367 men signed in to mines 6 and 8 for the day shift. Many would have taken children and other relatives with them to help with the work, but there was no signing-in system for them – the exact number inside therefore remains unknown.

At ten thirty, an explosion rocked the town. Trader recalled that his “whole house lifted, then the sound of a terrible roar and I felt the earth shaking with such intensity causing objects to fall from the shelves of the rooms.” He reached his door before a second explosion occurred.

J. H. Leonard was working at the entrance to the no. 6 mine, where a huge fan kept the mine ventilated, and where the coal was hauled out in trains, pulled up the slope by a wire rope.

He had two main duties; he was responsible for keeping the fan oiled so it would keep working smoothly, and he was responsible for the derailing switch, an important safety measure for the coal trains. If there was a problem with the trains, this switch would stop them from rolling back down into the mine itself.

He had complained that it wasn’t possible to attend to both of these duties at once; while he was in the engine room working on the fan, the switch would be unattended some twenty five feet away, but nothing had been done. 

On this morning, he had watched a train of cars, fully loaded with about two tons of coal in each, come out of the mine and ascend the slope. 

“They stopped at the knuckle for some cause. They stop here frequently and especially when unloading box cars. They stopped this time and I waited a good bit for them to come back and they did not come back… If I have to run to the engine to see if it is running, I just run in and right back; but this time when I run in, just as I got one step in the engine room I heard the trip. I run out and the last two cars were going by. I stood there looking down the slope a little bit and the explosion came.”

It appears that a coupling pin on the train had snapped, and the fully loaded cars rolled back into the mine before Leonard could reach the switch to stop them. He tried; but he couldn’t get there in time, and he was knocked down by the force of the explosion, breaking his arm and ankle, before crawling under a part of the trestle to avoid the massive amounts of debris that now rained down from the sky.

Contemporary illustration. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Across the river from the entrance to the No. 8 mine, foreman  Carl Meredith saw the blast.

“I was out on the loaded track and was looking toward the mouth of no. 8 and the first thing I knew I saw timbers and everything flying in the air… followed by black smoke. It seemed to me like the smoke was afire. It seemed to me it was a short distance up in the air, maybe fifty or sixty feet.”

The entire powerhouse at the entrance of No. 8 was completely demolished. William Bice, an engineer who was inside at the time, was trapped by rubble and timbers. Several other men freed him, and he was rushed by streetcar to the miners hospital in Fairmont, where he died from his wounds.

One of the mines’ trapper boys, a fifteen year old called Charles Honaker Jr, was killed at the entrance of the No. 8 mine. His clothes were set alight and his body was thrown two hundred yards away into the river. 

Countless others were lost inside.

Contemporary illustration. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Salt Lake Tribune, on the following day, described the scenes as families rushed to the mines. 

“Along the hills, far back from the main opening of mine no. 8, there are a number of openings into the mine and to these hundreds of relatives and friends of the entombed men frantically rushed in the vain hope what their loved ones might find escape through these channels or that they might be more readily reached and released.”

The hopes of the waiting families were buoyed by the fact that a few men had indeed got out. Brothers Angelo and Orazio DePetris, and father and son Dan and Leonardo Dominico, had been working in no. 8 mine when the explosions knocked them to the floor. Dan Dominico said, “I didn’t see anything; the jar came and threw me down and I didnt see anything.” Likewise, his son said, “I never seen anything at all… just knocked me down. I just seen smoke; I heard lots of noise. In fact the noise was accompanied by a concussion which knocked all the miners down, and the noise lasted for about ten minutes.”

The explosion had blown out their lamps and left them in pitch darkness, as the air filled with smoke. They crept along on hands and knees, trying to feel their way along the rails to get out the way they had come in, but were forced back by dense smoke. Instead, they made their way to a dead end where the younger Dominico remembered seeing a crack in the mine’s roof a few days earlier. Where the hillside sloped down towards the river, the miners often worked just beneath the surface, and such “toad holes” were common. After about fifteen minutes, they found the hole and managed to drag themselves, gasping for breath and stunned by what they had just been through.

They were exceptionally lucky. As the hours passed, and no other men found their way out, hopes began to fade. 

Despite the fact that the dangers of coal mining were clearly known, there wasn’t any kind of organised rescue team standing by. Precious minutes were lost to the chaos of trying to respond after the fact of the disaster.

A small team of volunteers, including the night shift’s fire boss, Lester Trader, entered No. 6 mine within half an hour of the explosions. 

Again, the newspapers described the scene.

“The entry of No. 6 mine, 300 feet from the mouth, is piled high with wreckage of two strings of cars and two electric motors. Some of the rescuers have climbed over this and found dead bodies beyond, but have made no attempt to remove these to the surface, partly because it would be almost impossible to carry the bodies over the debris, but more particularly because they do not want to lose any time in reaching other sections of the mine, where it is possible men still living may be entombed.”

According to the Bismarck Daily Tribune on December the 8th:

“All Bodies Found Are Frightfully Mangled and Dismembered.”

At the time their article was written, 25 bodies had been recovered from the mines, and so many had been seen that they expected at least a hundred to be brought out by daylight the next day. Their reporter mentioned one specifically.

“The body of J.M. McGraw, pit boss and one of the best known mining men in West Virginia, was recovered tonight in mine no. 8. It was headless and otherwise disfigured, identification having been made by the clothes and shoes.”

Other gruesome sights were reported. One of the first victims the rescue team encountered was sitting down with his dinner bucket between his legs. When his head was moved, coffee ran off his lower lip. He had, presumably, taken a sip just as the explosion occurred. Another man was found with a spoon in his hand, part way through his final meal. Others obviously had more of an idea what was happening to them. One man was found futilely holding his handkerchief over his mouth. Others had their safety lamps in their hands; when the lamps went out, they tried to relight them, but the same gases that had doused the lights had extinguished their lives.

Elsewhere, miners who had taken the full brunt of the explosion were reportedly so thoroughly destroyed that only small parts could ever be found, and this made it extremely difficult to account for, and identify, the dead.  

The rescuers were taking their own lives into their hands. The fan at the entrance of No. 8 mine had been completely destroyed, and the fan at the entrance of No. 6 was damaged, so they were entering a damaged mine with no ventilation and with no breathing apparatus to protect them.

“A score or more of men of the rescuing parties are in a critical condition tonight from inhaling black damp. Several are expected to die. One of these men… was carried from the mine tonight almost a raving maniac. His lungs were filled with black damp, which produced the condition of one insane, and the services of four men were necessary to hold [him] while the doctors attended him.”

A couple of other men were found alive; one, a Pole named Peter Urban, was found sitting with his brother Stanislaus. They had initially run from the explosion together, but when Stanislaus fell, Peter – unable to move him – stayed with him. By the time rescuers reached him, he was not in a good mental state. They had to struggle to subdue him, and when they brought him out, he broke away and ran toward the river; they caught him once more and took him home. Stanislaus died before he could be moved; his body was not retrieved for some days.

Similarly, on the day after the explosion, when a rescue party found a man named John Tomko in the farthest recesses of Mine No. 8 he is said to have rushed at them with great fury. Sadly, although they were able to calm him and start for the exit with him, he died before they could get him out.

At 9.10 on Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after the explosion, the company’s president, Clarence Watson, sent a telegraph with news of the rescue operation:

“Rescuing work progressing faster and if not interfered with, most of the mine workers will be reached to-day. Have lost all hope of finding any men alive.”

The families waiting outside for news were growing desperate. Whenever new bodies were brought out, they would rush forward to see, each hoping to see the face of someone they knew, and bring that wait to an end. This caused problems of its own; on the Saturday afternoon, one of the horses pulling a cart load of coffins was so startled by the crowd that it bolted, overturned the cart and ran headlong into the river. After that, the order was given to collect the bodies in the mine,and only move them out at night, when the crowds had lessened.

So many were killed in the disaster at Monongah that there wasn’t enough space to bury them all. The Fairmont Coal Company donated a parcel of land each to the Polish and Italian Catholic churches, with a barbed wire fence separating the two. 

The town was deep in mourning. One townswoman recounted their woes:

“At 109 Mrs Larkin’s left with three, her oldest twelve and the others’re five years and two. They’re Slavish in the houses next for a spell and I don’t know so much about them. But Mrs McLaren at 113 has eleven children, some grown and married, thank God, and the Slavish woman at 118 has two little ones. There’s a young husband killed at 119 – they weren’t married for long and she’s all broke up. She’s one child but Mrs Wright at 120, she’s got five under fourteen year and her man gone. That’s the way it goes on the lower row. The upper row’s worse – every house but one. And that big house down the road apiece – that one and the one next to it they’re the same family – married children – there’re fourteen dead there… the children of the McFarleys, all little ones and not a bite to eat.”

As time passed, and more and more bodies were retrieved, burying them became more of a priority than identifying them or conducting the usual masses. An order was issued by the Marion County Board of Health:

“There is imminent danger of an epidemic of disease breaking out in Monongah. Scores of men working in recovering the dead are prostrated. Their illness is undoubtedly due to their exposure to the feral air and terrible stench created in the mines by the decaying bodies and the cadavers of animals. So urgent is the necessity for observing the strictest of sanitary measures that all of the streets of Monongah were heavily sprinkled with lime this afternoon. The odors emanating from the morgue and its vicinity are unbearable.”

Without being able to identify those lost from their remains, the company resorted to taking a survey of the town and the nearby mining camps. This formed the basis of the Cunningham List, named for the company auditor in charge. This list was used to claw back on the high casualty numbers that had been initially quoted by the papers – one headline had shouted “Over 550” but the official death toll would be set at 362. The survey had little hope of accuracy, however. There were too many homes that had nobody alive to asnwer the census-taker’s knock.

In the wake of the disaster, thoughts quickly turned to how – and why – it had happened. The president of the Fairmont Coal Company was quoted as saying that “the disaster in the two mines was caused by an explosion of coal dust, but said he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through the careless use of an open lamp.”

In other words, he meant that it was the miners, not the mine or his company, which was to blame.

Leading mine expert Clarence Hall, who had been investigating the Naomi mine explosion mentioned earlier by Lester Trader, was quick to disagree.

“It cannot be claimed that all of these explosions are due to the carelessness of the miners. In this country we do not yet know how much of any given explosive can be used safely in the presence of coal gas or coal dust. The fact that nobody knows where or when these larger reservoirs of deadly gases are to be met within the mines makes the situation doubly serious.

What we need is more intelligent legislation, more rigid regulations and better practice connected with all mining operations. To treat trouble just now in bringing about safer conditions is the fact that we know so little about how these explosions occur.”

Investigations came to varying conclusions about the cause of the disaster. The Fairmont Coal Company concluded that the explosion had originated in No. 8 Mine, and that it was a powder explosion. They speculated that it might have been ignited by a boy playing a prank on the machine operator.

Another theory was that an improperly loaded shot set by one of the miners had triggered an explosion in their room, which set off a chain reaction through the mines. 

Or, it was posited that the runaway cars that had rolled back into No. 6 Mine had torn down power lines, causing a spark which ignited the explosions.

The difference was important to many. If the runaway cars were to blame, then the company would be significantly at fault. If there was too much coal dust present, making the explosion more easily triggered, the mines inspector and the West Virginia Department of Mines would be at fault, having recently inspected and passed the mines.

If, however, they could lay the blame on some poor (and most likely immigrant) worker, they could avoid taking the blame.

A report given by a British born and trained expert, working for the Ohio Department of Mines, summarised the problem.

“There will no doubt be many theories as to the cause of the explosion – all more or less sustained by facts – but no one is left to tell the tale or give any reliable fact information as to the condition of the mines or defects in the ventilation in the inner working places, or the dangers that existed on the morning of the explosion resulting from roof falls, or other causes during the previous day when all work in the mine was suspended. It is more than doubtful if ever the real or original cause will be known.”

“What ever may be the conclusion of theorists and experts, suffice it to say that from a practical standpoint, at the time of the explosion, both in West Virginia and in other states or wherever they occur, they cannot occur except where there is an accumulation of those destructive elements sufficient to cause such appalling results and a favourable opportunity for setting them in motion.”

The grand jury sitting in judgment of the case, found the cause to be “what is known as a blown-out shot or by ignition and explosion of powder in mine number eight.”

They also concluded that “the trace of gas in these mines were slight, and not considered dangerous, and dust which was created was removed or kept watered down as far as was deemed practical and that in operating these mines the company complied with the mining laws of the state.”

It’s hard to agree with them on that. If there was only a slight trace of gas, or if the coal dust had been either adequately removed or watered down, the explosion couldn’t have happened on that scale. 

It’s pretty clear that the runaway train of cars was more than a coincidence; the explosion happened just as they rolled back into the mine. However, the fact that they didn’t find extensive evidence of explosive trauma on the victims there indicates that the explosion itself probably didn’t occur there. More likely, the force of the trains crashing back into the mine sent a gust of air through the system, which displaced explosive gases and dust from pockets here, there, and pretty much everywhere – and then, it only took a spark to ignite it, and send the explosion throughout both mines due to the way they had been interconnected.

The fact that the miners were paid only by the amount of coal they brought out – and thus, specifically not paid to take preventative safety measures like removing the dust – was a financial incentive to take short cuts. The mines didn’t stick to even those safety practices which had been established – as evidenced by the role of the uncertified fire boss, Lester Trader. They even used black powder for blasting the coal out of the mine, even though more stable and safer explosives were available.

And their deliberate recruitment of immigrant workers – who were not as aware of the risks, and less likely to unionise and go on strike for safer conditions or better pay – added to this mix. 

Coal mining would always be a dangerous business, but gradually the lessons of Monongah would be learned; it might not be possible to eliminate the risks, but they could certainly be better managed.

Thanks this episode go to:

I’d like to say a special thank you to Patreon supporter Mish Liddle, and to all of you for listening and reading.

Supporting the Great Disasters podcast on Patreon can give you access to exclusive content, including at least one mini-episode per month, and helps the show keep going. The first mini-episode was on the Cavan Orphanage Fire, and the latest is about the Byford Dolphin Incident.

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Sources and Further Reading:

(Please Note: I wrote this episode before I realised how important sources and references are. I didn’t keep track of them at the time, but have now added those that I recall.)

Wikipedia article on the disaster.

Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster by Davitt McAteer

Selected articles from the Library of Congress

List of miners killed at Monongah – West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History

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