Home / General / This Day in Labor History: July 10, 1902

This Day in Labor History: July 10, 1902


On July 10, 1902, the Rolling Mill Mine in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, exploded due to a rise in firedamp, which is a rise in methane to dangerous levels. 112 miners died that day in what was one of so many coal mine disasters in these years. Like most of these incidents of mass death, the Rolling Mill deaths led to no major changes in mine safety.

The Rolling Mill Mine served the steel mills of Johnstown. The Cambria Iron Company opened the mine in 1856, right at the beginning of the gigantic expansion in American coal production for iron and steel. This place is one of those towns that due to a combination of industry and geography and bad luck has received more than its share of horrible things that have happened in its history. The most notable event of course was the Johnstown Flood, caused in 1889 when a downpour busted a dam on an elite hunting club above the town owned by the state’s major steel capitalists, particularly the diabolically evil Henry Clay Frick. Utter indifference to the lives of the people of Johnstown led to a lack of maintenance and thus over 2,000 dead. Little changed after that.

Coal mine disasters were incredibly common in these years. We’ve covered a lot of them over the years in this series. Most led to at best minimum levels of legal changes for safety. Even when states did pass laws to theoretically make the mines safer, the overall feeling that government forcing companies to do anything would get in the way of individual rights meant that enforcement mechanisms were either nonexistence or wildly underfunded. Usually, these laws would be forgotten about in a few years. Coal was inherently more dangerous than other forms of mining (not exactly safe in themselves!) because coal is made of decaying carbon and thus the gases of decay made the mines incredibly volatile.

The mines of Pennsylvania especially were filled with immigrants. The first immigrants to go into mining tended to be Welsh, due to the long history of coal mining there. They became something of a higher class of workers as new immigrants came in, which was common in the mix of ethnicity and labor in America. Older ethnic groups rose in the ladder and newer groups came in to fill those harder and lower-paid positions. This often got in the way of any kind of meaningful labor organizing and employers were happy to use this as a strategy to keep out unions. The Rolling Mill Mine was the same as most everywhere else. You had large numbers of English and Welsh who were increasingly being replaced by Poles and Slovakians. There were some native-born Americans as well of course.

So on July 9, 1902, at about 11 in the morning, it wasn’t that shocking that a huge explosion came out of the mine. Now, most of the time, deaths in the coal mines were in small numbers–one, two, five, ten. This kind of death got almost no media attention at all. In fact, you’d have to do hard research to find this stuff today. But this was a bigger explosion than usual. And it was a true disaster, the kind of thing that everyone back in town fears will kill their man or father or son.

In this explosion and its aftermath, 112 miners died. Of them 84 were immigrants. But only seven of the miners died immediately. It was the afterdamp that built up as they were trapped in the mine that killed the other 105. That is a slow death and while not a painful one, it is one that you have to think about for a long time before you finally pass out from the lack of oxygen. So that is not a fun way to die.

The mine owners kept the mine closed for…..3 days. Yep. It was reopened on July 14. That’s about how much the owners cared about the dead workers.

This mine disaster really has not received that much attention from historians. I mean, there’s only so many of these things that one can cover in depth without the work being repetitive. But there are some excerpts from a newspaper article a pretty brave reporter wrote about going down into the mine a day after the explosion:

“From the womb of the mine came up intermittent blasts of chilling air which smelled of the night and reminded one of bats hanging down from damp places in musty chambers and of rats gazing stealthily at one from behind rickety doors.”

“At one place five or six miners had been stationed, with orders to allow no one to enter through the doors before which the men stood guard, for beyond these doors, lurked a gripping, subtle death which can kill by filling the lungs with a gas as deadly as that which did Mt. Pelee’s bidding.”

That’s some purple prose! But also appropriate given what had just happened.

What the explosion and mass death event did do was to lead to new calls for meaningful safety regulations in Pennsylvania mines. The state did respond, sort of. It created a Department of Mines in 1903 that was charged with investigating conditions. But it really didn’t have the ability to do anything. It could make recommendations, but there no was legal way to force an employer to make the mine safer.

The mine remained active until 1931.

This is the 485th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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