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This Day in Labor History: November 13, 1909

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On November 13, 1909, at the Cherry Mine in Cherry, Illinois, a coal car filled with hay for the mules who worked underground rolled down a track. Earlier that week, an electrical outage had struck the mine. The miners were then forced to use torches, kerosene lamps, and other flammable forms of lighting while at work. Hay sticking out from the edge of the car brushed up against a torch and caught fire. The car moved down the track, spreading the fire. As the mine caught fire, the company closed the oxygen supply to the mine. This tampered down the fire but also began suffocating the workers. 259 miners died, the worst coal mine fire in U.S. history.

The Cherry Mine opened in 1905 to provide coal for the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad’s trains. Coal powered technology meant a lot of brutal manual labor to run the machines that the nation increasingly relied upon. Conditions in the mine were sadly what you would expect for the first decade of the twentieth century. Child labor was common, with boys often starting work at age 11. It was mostly immigrant labor. Miners were paid by production, not the hour, making work more dangerous and deadly.

Once the company began moving to control the fire, it was up to the workers to find a way out of the mine. About 200 of the around 480 who worked that day did, mostly climbing through escape shafts. Some of the miners who escaped descended back in a hoisting cage to rescue others. This was extremely dangerous because each time they went down, the chances of coming up again were increasingly small given what was going on underground. They made six trips, rescuing more workers each time. The seventh time however, the man operating the levers above ground misinterpreted their tugging signals and did not hoist them up in time. Everyone in the car burned to death.

When the company closed the oxygen supply, it allowed what is known as “black damp” to infect the workers. This was the combination of carbon dioxide and nitrogen that built up in mines without a fresh oxygen supply, slowly asphyxiating the workers. It’s worth noting what this is like. It’s not a sudden death. It’s a slow choking, as all oxygen leaves the air. You have hours to contemplate your death. Maybe leave a letter for your loved ones if you have paper and enough light from your last lamp. You see your comrades start to succumb and you know in minutes, that will be you. Brutal.

Only 21 workers survived after the immediate post-fire escape. This was a group that was able to collect water from a seep and then descended deeper into the mine to escape the black damp. Finally, after 8 days, they dug themselves out and ran across a rescue party. One died soon after but the others survived.

Of the dead who left behind dependents (the majority), 1 was a native-born American. The plurality were Slavs (broadly defined at the time) followed by Italians, Austrians, and many other European groups. While the survivors and families had very little recourse in the courts (most lawsuits against companies were lost at this time and even if they were won, would drag on for years). This event got enough national publicity though that financial support came pouring in. With pressure on the company to pay up, the donations, and the union, each widow received $3261 (about $82,000 in 2012).

The company claimed innocence, saying that it had constructed the mine to the legal standards. But the legal standards meant unsafe mines where 259 workers could die. The company certainly hadn’t broken any major safety laws with this event. United Mine Workers of America president Duncan McDonald lashed out. From the Decatur Daily Review:

“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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

In the aftermath of the Cherry Mine disaster, the state of Illinois began crafting new safety laws for mines that included safety training, certification for those in charge of safety equipment, and better fire fighting equipment. The company was fined $650 for using child labor in the mines and the state strengthened its child labor laws. It also helped convince Congress to establish the United States Bureau of Mines in 1910, which oversaw mine safety. The settlement for the survivors also led to the passage of Illinois’ first workers’ compensation law in 1911, following closely behind Wisconsin, Washington, and other states in creating the beginnings of a social safety net, however pro-corporate it was at the time.

For those who want to read a journalistic account of the disaster and the survivors’ experience, check out Thomas White’s “Eight Days in a Burning Mine,” published in The World in October 1911 and reprinted on the web by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. You may also be interested in this 1910 report by the State of Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics on the investigation that followed the fire.

This is the 82nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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