I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In the middle of the morning of December 6, 1907, an explosion ripped through the Monongah coal mine in West Virginia. Almost every person in the mine at the time died in what was the worst mine disaster in American history.
Coal and Methane
Underground mining is a very dangerous occupation. There is always the possibility of a roof collapse, lack of oxygen, flooding, and the long-term probability of an early death caused by lung disease.
In many coal mines, methane gas is trapped in pockets in the seams and presents an added hazard. Methane is highly flammable and, mixed with the ever-present coal dust of a mine, forms an explosive combination. The presence of open flames made fatal blasts inevitable and frequent.
In early days, miners illuminated their work area with candles. Later, miners “wore the open flames of carbide lamps and oil-wick lamps on their caps and helmets” (Smithsonian). That was no safer.
Sir Humphry Davy created a safety lamp with an enclosed flame in the early 1820s. However, it was cumbersome and miners frequently stuck with the old technology. One reason was that miners were paid by the weight of the coal they hacked out of the seams each shift. Being hampered by weighty lamps cut their production and so their wages.
In the absence of health and safety laws and the miner’s need to earn more money trumped reducing the hazard.
Battery-powered electric lamps came along but too late for the miners of Monongah.
At 10.28 a.m. on that April Friday morning a massive explosion erupted in the No.6 and No. 8 mines at Monongah.
Appalachian History records that the blast caused “the earth to shake as far as eight miles away, shattering buildings and pavement, hurling people and horses violently to the ground, and knocking streetcars off their rails.”
The entrance to the mines collapsed and debris was thrown hundreds of yards away. The ventilation systems were destroyed so the air underground was so foul no human could exist in it.
Shortly after the explosion, four dazed and bleeding miners crawled out of an opening in a natural outcrop. They later died of their injuries.
Several hundred widows and more than a thousand fatherless children were left behind.
What Cause the Monogah Blast?
No determination was made as to the cause of the catastrophe, although there are theories.
A train of loaded coal cars was being hauled out of the mine when a coupling pin broke. Fourteen cars, each loaded with a couple of tons of coal, began descending the incline back into the mine. As the train picked up speed it tore out electrical wiring, smashed supports, and plunged 1,300 feet.
Davitt McAteer, in his book, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Distaster picks up the story: “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction … A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path.”
A plausible theory is that the crashing train stirred up a cloud of explosive coal dust that mixed with methane. Either that or the flame in a miner’s lamp or an electrical spark provided the detonator.
The most widely accepted number of fatalities is 361, but this may be low. It was the habit of miners to take sub-contractors and family members with them to load coal so as to boost their income. It’s quite possible as many as 550 people were in the mine at the time of the big bang and it’s known that only one dazed but still alive miner was found just inside the entrance. He is thought to have survived. Three men died in the rescue efforts.
The mine owners, the Fairmont Coal Company, sought to distance themselves from responsibility. The company line was that boys in the mine had set off blasting caps as a prank to startle workers. This had been reported in the past.
Courts, at the time, tended to absolve companies of liability if someone was injured because of another employee’s actions.
A coroner’s jury, perhaps mindful of the importance of coal companies to the local economy, exonerated the company from any blame. It relied on testimony from mines inspectors that the underground workings were safe and only contained traces of methane gas.
But, questions arose about the trustworthiness of the testimony of mine inspectors. Bribes from coal companies to overlook certain dangers were not unknown. Some inspectors harboured ambitions for senior appointments to coal company management.
The Fairmont Coal Company made a contribution to the relief fund that was set up for the families, but it made it clear this was a donation and not compensation for any supposed wrongdoing.
Carnage in the Mines
The Monongah disaster was the worst but by no means the only coal mining tragedy of the era.
According to History.com “Nationwide, a total of 3,242 Americans were killed in mine accidents in 1907.”
The first decade of the 20th century saw a terrible death toll; more than 22,000 coal miners were killed in accidents during that ten-year period.
Efforts were made to introduce tougher safety regulations but these were routinely blocked in state legislatures by mining interests. Federally, there were no regulations. The Bureau of Mines was set up in 1910 but its remit was mostly limited to research and had no power to inspect mines or enforce the few rules that existed.
The mining companies regarded the underground labour as expendable. There was always a plentiful supply of new muscle in poverty-stricken areas such as West Virginia. If the locals refused to risk their lives underground, the companies went to the poorer sections of Europe to recruit miners.
In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein accuses corporations of tolerating what she calls “sacrifice zones.” She writes that these places “all shared a few elements in common. They were poor places. Out-of-the-way places. Places where residents lacked political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language, and class. And the people who lived in these condemned places knew they had been written off.”
It would be many years, before meaningful and enforceable safety measures were forced on mining companies.
No Different Today
Shortly after 3 p.m. on April 10, 2010 an explosion erupted in the Upper Big Branch Mine-South (UBB) in Montcoal, West Virginia. The massive coal dust blast was started by a methane ignition and took the lives of 29 miners.
The Mine Safety Association of Australia notes that “The physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB and were entirely preventable.”
Massey Energy, which operated the mine through a subsidiary, was found in an investigation to have applied “… systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts … to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators.”
Don Blankenship was the Chief Executive Officer of Massey Energy at the time. In April 2016, he was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $250,000 for conspiring to violate mine safety and health regulations.
He campaigned for and lost the Republican nomination in West Virginia for the U.S. Senate. He is running in the 2020 presidential election under the banner of the Constitution Party.
- The day after the Monongah disaster, five carloads of coffins arrived in the town. The body parts of victims were put in the open boxes as they were pulled from the wreckage.
- The majority of the miners were from Italy and Poland and their religious devotions were catered to by their own churches. They had adjoining cemeteries and Fairmont Coal’s chief engineer Frank Hass noted that as interments began “… the men at work in these cemeteries were admonished by the representatives of these two churches to be very careful not to allow any member of the Italian church to be buried in the Polish side or vice versa, and again later, not to allow a Protestant to be buried in either of these cemeteries.”
- One of the original stockholders of the Monongah Coal and Coke Company, which became Fairmont, was John D. Rockefeller. He was asked on three occasions to contribute to the relief fund that was set up to aid the widows and orphans of the catastrophe. Three times he declined.
- Wherever coal is mined, miners die. In April 1942, an explosion of gas and coal dust in the Benxihu colliery, China, took 1,549 lives. The Courrieres mine disaster in France in 1906 caused a total death toll of 1,099. The Wankie Colliery Disaster (1972) in Zimbabwe killed 426 people. The list of similar tragedies is long.
- “Mining Lights and Hats.” Smithsonian, undated.
- “Worst Mine Disaster in US History.” Dave Tabler, Appalachian History, December 6, 2016.”
- “How Regulation Came to be: Monongah.” dsteffen, Daily Kos, March 15, 2015.
- “Monongah Mine Disaster.” West Virginia Archives & History, undated.
- “Upper Big Branch.” The Mine Safety Association of Australia, May 4, 2010.
- “The World’s Worst Coal Mining Disasters.” Akanksha Gupta, Mining Technology, May 5, 2014.
Questions & Answers
Question: Wasn't there another mine disaster in Putney wva that killed a lot of miners?
Answer: I can find references to mine accidents in Melville, Bartley, Benwood, Buffalo Creek, Eccles, Farmington, Sago, and Upper Big Branch but nothing about Putney. Sorry.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 02, 2018:
What a terrible disaster this was. I've not heard of this before. It's so tragic when these things happen.