A Brief History
On December 19, 1907, the Darr Mine disaster in Van Meter, Pennsylvania (Westmoreland County) killed a total of 239 miners, both men and boys. Incredibly, this tragedy was not even the worst mine disaster in the US that month! Today we list the 10 Worst Mine Disasters in US History, ranked by number of fatalities. Lucky for US miners, none of the worst US fatal mine accidents rank in the top 10 deadliest mine disasters in the world (the worst of all time being in Benxi, China, in 1942 when 1549 miners died in a coal dust explosion). All the worst US mine disasters were in coal mines, with the worst non-coal mine disaster being the 1970 fire in the Sunshine Silver mine in Kellogg, Idaho that killed 91 miners. It is gratifying to note that the most recent of the deadliest disasters occurred 93 years ago, meaning that mine safety must have improved at least somewhat, or perhaps that automation has replaced mass numbers of workers. Either way, we are glad not so many miners are dying anymore, though any is still too many.
(Note: Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky said in 2010 that there should be no mine regulations, that instead the mining companies would, in their own best interest, operate safely and responsibly! Of course, this is idiotic, as numerous instances of mining companies failing to practice safe and legal operations prove saving a dollar is way more important than saving lives.)
1. Monogah, West Virginia, 1907 362 killed.
The Fairmont Coal Company mines blew up and destroyed the ventilation shafts as well as burying the miners. Unfortunately, on top of the 367 miners, mostly Italian immigrants, officially in the mines at the time of the blast (5 escaped alive, 1 Polish and 4 Italian miners), there were an unknown amount of other people inside the mines, people that also died, meaning the death toll was actually much higher than the reported number. These other people were children and relatives of the miners that regularly accompanied the miners into the mines to assist with the work. Cause of the blast is speculated to be either the open flame lamps used by the miners or an electrical spark that ignited either coal dust or methane (natural) gas.
2. Dawson, New Mexicao, 1913, 263 killed.
This preventable disaster occurred when a dynamite blast ignited coal dust while men were still working in the mine, a practice against regulations. Among those killed were 36 Greek immigrants and 146 Italian immigrants. There were 23 survivors of this disaster, but in 1923 another explosion, this time caused by electrical sparks igniting coal dust when a rail car derailed, killed another 123 miners, many of whom were descendants of the men killed in the first disaster.
3. Cherry, Illinois, 1909, 259 killed.
The circumstances around this disaster differ from the others in that a fire did not cause an explosion, but the fire itself was the problem. Electrical outages caused miners to use kerosene lamps and lanterns for light, and somehow one of these open flame devices ignited hay on a mule cart (36 mules were working with the 500 miners in the mine that day), resulting in a major fire that spread to the wooden timbers supporting the mine. A fatal mistake was made when a large ventilation fan was reversed to draw out the fire, causing the fan housing itself to catch on fire and spread the fire to escape ladders, stairs, and other wooden structures, trapping many miners below. Ventilation shafts were closed off to deprive the fire of oxygen, but of course, this also deprived trapped miners of oxygen. Over 200 miners escaped, but over half the men and boys working that day were killed. Heroic efforts by miners that escaped and returned into the death pit to rescue other miners kept the death count down, but some of those rescuers also died. Incredibly, 21 men trapped below managed to wall off a section of mine as a refuge from fire and noxious gas and survived 8 days until rescued (although 1 later died).
4. Van Meter, Pennsylvania, 1907, 239 killed.
The Darr Mine Disaster as noted above was another preventable tragedy that occurred because miners disregarded an area roped off by the fire boss as unsafe. The miners foolishly brought open flame lamps into the dangerous area, causing an explosion. December of 1907 was a bad month for coal miners, with the #1 and #4 worst disasters in American history joined by another coal mine disaster in Fayette City, Pennsylvania that killed another 34 miners.
5. Fraterville, Tennessee, 1902, 216 killed.
Located near the modern town of Rocky Top, the Fraterville disaster stands as the worst mine disaster in Tennessee history. Operated by the Coal Creek Coal Company, the mine was known for fair working conditions and pay, and for being one of the “safest” mines around. The company refused to use leased state prisoners for cheap labor, endearing the company to local miners. As with many disasters, the actual cause is unknown, with speculation that an open flame ignited natural gas that had leaked into the mine, possibly aggravated by inadequate ventilation. Sadly, 26 miners that survived the initial blast walled themselves off and awaited rescue, in vain as it turned out as they all died before rescuers reached them 4 days later. The town of Fraterville had lost all but 3 of its adult males!
6. Scofield, Utah, 1900, 200+ killed.
More miners died from asphyxiation than from the original explosion of coal dust, with estimate of as many as 246 dead. At the time of the incident, the Scofield Disaster was the worst mining disaster in US history. The explosion may have been caused by intention ignition of a blasting charge, which in turn ignited the coal dust, destroying some ventilation equipment while other ventilation fans actually drew lethal gasses to other miners, causing extremely rapid death. Some miners were killed when they tried to leave the mine, only to walk into areas contaminated by lethal gasses. Among the dead were 61 immigrants from Finland.
7. Mather, Pennsylvania, 1928, 195 killed.
The Mather Mine was the source of employment for 750 miners, producing coking coal for the steel industry, a million tons per year. This time, an explosion of coal dust and methane is believed to have been cause by an electrical spark from a battery powered locomotive that pulled coal cars inside the mine. Of the 279 men in the mine at the time of the blast, 209 were in the area affected by the explosion. Of those, 14 men escaped alive, 193 died in the mine, and another 2 died later at a hospital.
8. Eccles, West Virginia, 1914, 180+ killed.
Although electrical lights existed, many mines still were not lit by electric lights. Miners at Eccles were using carbide helmet lamps, devices that used calcium carbide and water to produce acetylene to make a brightly burning flame. Apparently one of these headlamps ignited methane gas that seeped into the mine from a coal seam, with that first pocket of gas igniting other pockets of methane, resulting in a succession of explosions that killed scores of miners, making this the second worst mining disaster in West Virginia history. This tragedy spurred unionization of miners, although carbide lamps remained in use until the 1930’s.
9. Cheswick, Pennsylvania, 1904, 179 killed.
Known as The Harwick Mine Disaster, 2 aid workers also died with the 179 miners killed in the incident. Among the dead were 58 Hungarian immigrants. Compressed air and dynamite were used in the Harwick Mine to break the coal out of its seams, and when ice build up blocked ventilation shafts methane gas was allowed to build up to dangerous levels. A dynamite blast ignited the gas, causing a massive explosion that ignited coal dust along the various shafts of the mine, spreading the disaster throughout the mine. Even the above ground structures were not spared destruction. Only 1 man that was below at the time of the blast survived, though badly burned. Super wealthy Andrew Carnegie was so moved by the sacrifice of the 2 men that died trying to rescue miners, he founded a $5 million Carnegie Hero Fund for the families of heroes that died in heroic efforts. Carnegie also honored the fallen heroes with medals given to their families.
10. Castle Gate, Utah, 1924, 171.
Every one of the 171 working in the mine were killed by the series of explosions that started when a match was used to relight a carbide lamp that had gone out. Coal dust that had not been properly dampened by the previous shift of miners was named the problem that allowed the disaster to occur. Another man died of carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to rescue trapped miners. The initial explosion sent rail cars flying out of the mine for over a mile, and destroyed outer structures at the entrance to the mine. A second explosion was cause by miners trying to relight carbide lamps that had blown out, and then a third explosion caused a massive cave in. One victim was buried without his missing head, which was later found far from the mine, having been blown out of the entrance. The head was later reunited with the buried body. Among the dead were 123 men (age 15 to 73) that were immigrants from other countries, the largest contingent being 50 men from Greece. Of those killed, 114 were married men, as the mine had laid off many of its unmarried miners due to a drop in demand for coal. Dependents of victims were paid $16 per week for 6 years as part of the 1917 Utah State Workmen’s’ Compensation Fund. Private fund raising helped support these dependents for several more years.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been inside of a mine? If so, did you find the experience exciting or scary? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Darr Mine Relief Committee. Darr Mine Relief Fund Report To The Executive Committee, Covering The Collection And Distribution Of The Public Fund For The Dependents Of The Men Killed By The Explosion In The Darr Mine Of The Pittsburgh Coal Company, December 19th, 1907. Repressed Publishing LLC, 2012.