10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History

Larry Holzwarth - July 23, 2018

Mines are dangerous places, and coal mines are the most dangerous of all. In one coal mining accident in China in 1942 more than 1500 Chinese forced laborers were killed in an incident which began as a fire. The Japanese mine administrators sealed the mine to extinguish the fire, and the majority of the men working in the mine died from carbon monoxide poisoning from the flames. When the Japanese reopened the mine it took additional Chinese forced laborers over a week to extract all of the bodies of the dead. It was the worst mining disaster in history, little known since it occurred during the Second World War.

Mine disasters have eliminated whole towns and villages, as in Pennsylvania’s Centralia Mine Fire, which has been burning underground since it was started accidentally in 1962. Early attempts to control the fire failed and it now covers more than 3,700 acres underground, and is expected to burn for another two and a half centuries before exhausting itself. Pennsylvania seized the borough of Centralia under eminent domain and by 2013 only seven residents remained, with smoke and coal gases rising from ruptures in the streets and fissures in the earth, caused by the burning coal seam beneath.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
Working in mines has always been a dangerous and difficult occupation. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Here are ten examples of the disasters which struck miners as they worked deep within the earth, in the history of American mining.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
Coal mined in neighboring Kansas awaiting shipping in Enid, Oklahoma. National Archives

The Indian Territory Mine Disasters

During the period when Oklahoma was known as the Indian Territory, its coal mines were, measured by the number of accidents they endured, the most dangerous in the United States. Between 1867 and 1906, in order to be termed a “disaster” in the Indian Territory mines, at least five miners had to have been killed. During that time 187 miners died in disasters, while scores and probably hundreds died, individually or in smaller groups in the mines. Mines could kill in a number of ways, including explosions, fires, floods, toxic gases, collapse, falls, and tram accidents. The rate of deaths in the mines of the Indian Territory were more than twice that of neighboring Kansas.

There was also the possibility of death from what the miners called a “windy shot”. In those days of blasting using black powder, rather than the safer dynamite, a miner first excavated a hole in the coal seam, after which it was packed with black powder, which had to be tamped down. If the miner improperly tamped the powder, or if he used too much powder, the explosion caused a blowback of sparks and flame, which could easily ignite the methane gas or the coal dust present in the mine. Windy shots were well known, occurring with a frequency which made them a tragic though not wholly unexpected event in the mines.

It was a windy shot which ignited the Indian Territory’s worst mining disaster in 1892, near Krebs. The Osage Coal and Mining Company operated its Mine Number 11 at the location. The mine, as were most mines in the Indian Territory was notorious for the buildup of methane gas, a problem which had led to several disasters before that of Krebs. A poorly prepared black powder charge resulted in a windy shot which ignited the gas in the mine, and the flash explosion swept through the mine before there was time to react. One hundred men were killed outright, and another two hundred men in the mine were injured.

The Krebs mine explosion was one of several which occurred in the Indian Territory, where the mines were unregulated and the miners’ were unorganized labor. Demand for proper ventilation of the mines, to reduce the buildup of methane gas and thus the potential for explosions was non-existent. In the aftermath of the Krebs explosion, miners began to lobby for safer working conditions. They found support from the federal government in Washington, which created a position for a mining inspector for the Indian Territory in response to the disaster. The position did little to improve conditions in the mines.

The main role for the mining inspector was to document accidents and disasters after they occurred, rather than to take steps to avoid them. There was little authority over the operation of the mines, which remained in the hands of their owners. The mines of the Indian Territory continued to experience an inordinate share of accidental detonations of coal dust and methane gases, even after the arrival of organized labor, which lobbied for better working conditions. Even the adoption of the safer dynamite to blast did not fully eliminate the problem, as other ignition sources continued to ignite methane pockets.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
Women and family members wait outside Monongah Number 8 for word of their loved ones. Wikimedia

The Monongah Mine Disaster

The Fairmont Coal Company operated mines throughout West Virginia, including those of the former Monongah Mine Company, from which it purchased six mines in 1901. The Fairmont Mines Number 6 and Number 8 were operating on Friday, December 6 1907, with a shift of 367 men working in the two mines. According to long custom, some of the men were accompanied by family members who entered the mines to help, a practice which was unsanctioned by the company. The mines were not known for being particularly plagued with methane pockets, but as in all coal mines methane gas was present, as well as coal dust in the atmosphere.

Just before ten-thirty that gray December morning the residents of Monongah felt and heard a blast from the direction of mines Number 6 and 8. The destruction from the blast was visible on the surface above the mines. Nearly all of the workers in the two mines were killed, from the force of the explosion, which was either from coal dust or methane gas or both, or the toxic gases which ensued. What ignited the explosion remains unknown, but it was fed with blasting powder in the mine. The most likely cause was an electrical spark, or the inadvertent ignition from a carbide lamp worn by the miners in order to see. The mine’s ventilation systems were destroyed by the blasts.

In the absence of ventilation to provide fresh air in the mine there was an immediate buildup of toxic gases, which included methane, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Rescuers and volunteers attempted to enter the mine within a half hour of the explosions, but the absence of breathing equipment prevented them from entering areas where the toxic gases had built up. Simple breathing masks would not have helped, since the toxic gases displaced oxygen. Only five men of the shift which had been in the mines at the time of the blast were rescued from the mine alive, placing the official death toll at 362.

The first decade of the twentieth century had seen several mine disasters and accidents, but none on the scale of the death toll suffered at Monongah. Public demand for safer working conditions and improved working conditions grew steadily, and following the disaster at the Fairmont Mines Congress began a series of hearings on the issue. It took another year and a half before Congressional action led to the Bureau of Mines being established. As part of the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Mines was initially tasked with inspection of mines for unsafe areas and practices, and research into how to prevent both.

Some coal mining companies resented the intrusion of the federal government on their turf, so to speak, and lobbied for the states to retain inspection authority in mines within their jurisdiction. Others, recognizing the potential for enormous losses in manpower, materials, equipment, and profits were more openly co-operative with the federal inspectors. The Monongah disaster led to the development of federal training for miners and rescue services, through field offices which were established by the Bureau of Mines during the second decade of the twentieth century. But mine disasters continued to occur.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
A partially closed off ventilation portal for the Winter Quarters Mine in Utah. Wikimedia

The Winter Quarters Mine Disaster

Winter Quarters Mine Number 4 was located near the town of Scofield, about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah. It was part of the coal mining operations in the aptly named Carbon County. Coal mining began in 1878 in the Pleasant Valley region, which included the towns of Scofield and Helper, Clear Creek, Sunnyside, and other small towns which housed the miners. Pleasant Valley Coal Company produced about 60% of the coal mined in Utah by 1896, and in 1899 it opened new mines including Winter Quarters Number 4. The mines operated by Pleasant Valley Coal Company were considered to be among the safest in the west.

Winter Quarters mines number 1 and 4 were interconnected, and shifts of over 300 men worked within the mines at a given time. The Pleasant Valley Coal Company had recently been awarded a contract to provide 2,000 tons of coal per day, ensuring job security for the miners and increasing profits for the company. On May 1, 1900, workers near the entrance to mine number one were preparing black powder charges around half past ten in the morning when they felt a heavy shock, following with the acrid aroma of burning wood and coal. Men who could raced to the entrance portal of mine number one.

Men at the portal of mine number 4 heard a rumble deep within the mine, followed by a gush of smoke and flame rising up the mineshaft. Timber, portions of twisted steel rail, and the remnants of destroyed coal trams were ejected through the mine entrance. The blast was followed by an eerie silence. Rescue parties were formed to enter the mine to search for survivors. They encountered the phenomena which occurs after mine explosions, an unbreathable mix of toxic gases known as afterdamp. Without respirators they could not remain in the mine. Men who had survived the explosion had no chance of remaining conscious long enough to exit the mine.

The explosion in Winter Quarters Number 4 was blamed on coal dust, which was ignited either by a miner’s headlamp or possibly a windy shot. It was customary on the first of the month to load supplies of black powder into the work rooms of the mine, and these were consumed by and fed the blast. Special trains carrying officials of the Pleasant Valley Coal Company and reporters from Salt Lake City’s daily newspapers arrived on the scene, as bodies began to be removed from the mine that afternoon. Recovery was slow as searchers had to wait for the afterdamp to clear deep within the mine. Two hundred miners were killed in the explosion, most of them by toxic gases.

The mine explosion occurred on Monday, May 1 and by Wednesday mining work was resumed in Number 1, where about half of the more than 200 dead had succumbed to afterdamp. Official records list 200 dead, but some estimates were as high as 246, with several of the miners having relatives with them to assist them in their work. The Pleasant Valley Coal Company provided the heirs of the dead miners with $500, and absolved them of any debts to the company through the company store. A Carbon County Grand Jury found that the company had not been negligent, and that it was not responsible for the explosion.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
Mules worked in the mines pulling loads of coal in the days before automation. NIOSH

The Dawson Mine Disasters

On Wednesday, October 22 1913, people on the streets of Dawson, New Mexico, heard a sharp report resembling a rifle shot, followed by a muffled rumbling and vibrations of the ground and buildings. They then saw, from the mouth of the Stag Canyon mine number 2 more than two miles away, a column of smoke and flame erupting into the air. Rescue teams raced to the mine, where they found 23 men staggering around the shattered portal. There had been 286 men working in the mine when an explosion ripped through it, 263 did not survive the blast. Two rescue workers were killed by collapsing shoring timbers as they searched for bodies.

Stag Canyon Mine Number 2 was operated by the Phelps Dodge Corporation. Phelps Dodge sent a special train carrying doctors and nurses to the site, but there were few survivors to treat. A total of ten mines operated in the region around Dawson, a company town which was populated largely by recently arrived immigrants. As Phelps Dodge investigated the cause of the explosion in Stag Canyon Mine Number 2 the other mines remained in operation. It was eventually determined that the explosion had been caused by the detonation of dynamite when the mine had not been properly ventilated to clear coal dust, which was ignited by the blast of the dynamite.

Despite the explosion in Stag Canyon Number 2 being found to be a violation of safety regulations, the other mines continued to operate as before. On February 8, 1923, another of the Phelps Dodge Mines, Stag Canyon Number 1 was rocked by an explosion which killed 123 miners, some of whom were relatives of the men killed in 1913. In the investigation which followed the second explosion it was found to be caused by the ignition of coal dust from sparking caused by the wheels of a coal tram which derailed after knocking into a misaligned support timber. The tram had been moving at a higher than allowed rate of speed.

Combined, the two Dawson mine disasters killed 486 miners, the majority of them Italian immigrants or the descendants of Italian immigrants. Phelps Dodge continued to operate both mines following the explosions, as well as the others in the Dawson complex until the end of the Second World War, when demand for coal began to decline. The mines were shut down gradually, and as they did the town of Dawson declined with them. Demand for coal declined steadily, as the railroads shifted to diesel fuel for their locomotives, including the remaining steam locomotives, which were converted to burn fuel oil as their heat source.

Phelps Dodge provided the coal used by a short branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad, mostly trains which were used to haul coal, until its contract expired in 1950. With the expiration of the contract Phelps Dodge closed the remaining mines, with Stag Canyon Number 6 being the last of the mines to close. The former company town was abandoned, and the company owned miner’s homes were razed, as well as the company store, recreation facilities, schools, and administrative buildings. The town cemetery, where the bodies of many of the miners killed in the mines were buried, remained, with rows of iron crosses marking the graves.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
A postcard featuring the Speculator copper mind near Butte, Montana. Wikimedia

The Speculator and Granite Mountain Mine Disaster

Butte, Montana was a center for the mining of copper in the early twentieth century, a period in which the demand for copper increased dramatically as the electrification of the nation proceeded steadily. It was a field of work which drew immigrants from all over the world, and the safety notices and no smoking admonitions in the mines were printed in sixteen different languages by 1915. America’s entry into World War One increased the demand for copper yet further, and the mines around Butte worked 24 hours a day, employing over 14,000 men in the extraction of copper ore from the mines. Granite Mountain and Speculator mines were part of this operation.

The continuous operation of the mines led to deterioration of equipment and machinery, since they could not be idled for maintenance. It also led to increased fatigue of the men working up to a half mile below the surface. On June 8, 1917, a work crew lowered an electric cable, insulated with lead, down the shaft of the Granite Mountain Mine. The cable was need for the completion of a sprinkler system. The cable slipped from its clamps and ended up at the bottom of the shaft in a tangle, with part of the cable entangled in the shaft. It was basically a gigantic candlewick . As it fell some of the lead insulation broke away, exposing the inner insulation which was of oiled paper. That evening a shift of 410 men entered the mine.

At about eleven-thirty that night a party of four men were lowered to inspect the cable, and one of the men allowed his carbide lamp to brush against the cable, igniting the oiled paper. With the mine shaft acting as a 2,400 foot chimney, toxic fumes and smoke shot up the shaft. The support beams and timbers were soon ignited, and the shafts of Granite Mountain and the connected Speculator filled with smoke, toxic gases, and flames. The conditions made it difficult to both breathe and see, and the men in both mines were unable to orient themselves and find their way out of the mine. The flames also sucked oxygen from the air.

The mines were an underground maze of workrooms, crosscuts, manholes, and drifts. Rescue operations began immediately, as the fire was still burning, and some men in the mine took steps to isolate themselves from the toxic fumes by building temporary bulkheads. Some succeeded in surviving the fire, others were found days later, dead from the inhalation of the poisonous gases, or from oxygen deprivation. One group of more than two dozen men barricaded themselves in a side room for 38 hours before they were able to be removed to safety. Another of eight was found alive, though two of these died within a few hours of being rescued from the mine.

The Granite Mountain and Speculator disaster led to a death toll of 168 men, including two men who entered the mine early in the fire and succumbed to toxic gases. It was the largest death toll in a metals mine accident in American history. The mine was returned to operation despite the heavy damage caused by the fire, ironically caused by the attempt to install a fire suppression system. The mine’s excellent ventilation system, normally a safety feature, also helped the fire and smoke to spread quickly. The Granite Mountain and Speculator mines remained in operation until 1923, when they were closed as the ore ran out.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
The Cherry mine disaster was reported in the press around the nation though much of the early reports were incorrect. Library of Congress

The Cherry Mine Disaster

The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad needed coal for its trains in the early twentieth century, and formed the St. Paul Coal Company to provide it. In 1905 St. Paul Coal opened a mine near Cherry, Illinois. By 1909 the mine consisted of two vertical shafts which connected three subterranean horizontal shafts which were situated in three layers. The vertical shafts consisted of a main shaft, which was beneath a machinery tower, and a secondary shaft, which as in the case of the main shaft was equipped with wooden staircases and wooden ladders. The effect was of an elongated tic-tac-toe board, with the vertical shafts separated by about 300 feet.

Fresh air was supplied to the mine shafts by a fan that was installed near the secondary shaft. Obviously the deeper horizontal shaft did not contain air of the same quality as in the shafts above. The mine moved coal in cars which could be operated electrically, but frequent power outages led to the mine using mule pulled coal trams within the mine, with the mules lowered into the mind via the hoist in the main shaft. The majority of the miners who worked in the mines were immigrants, many of them recent arrivals who did not speak or understand English. The miners were paid a percentage based on their production, which led them to work longer than normal shifts.

November 13, 1909 was a Saturday, and another day in which electrical service was disrupted. The miners needed to use oil lamps and carbide lamps for light in which to work. About 500 workers were in the mine, as well as three dozen mules, when a fire began in a coal car which had been filled with hay with which to feed the mules. The fire spread to timber beams before it was of serious concern to the men in the mine, and in an attempt to reduce the buildup of smoke and toxic gases the fan at the top of the secondary shaft was reversed. This had the effect of causing the fire to spread to the secondary shaft and its wooden staircase.

With the secondary staircase in flames men struggled to reach the main shaft, which was closed along with the secondary shaft in the hope that it would smother the fire. About 200 men managed to reach the surface through the use of the main hoist or through manholes designed for the purpose. Several miners who reached the surface cleared their lungs and returned to the mine to help others. Several died in the attempt. Twenty-one men barricaded themselves in the mine, and remained there for the next eight days, surviving on water which seeped through a coal vein. When the water ran out they left to find another source, and were found by a rescue team.

One man of the party died two days after leaving the mine, from lung problems exacerbated by the toxic gases in the mine. He was one of the 259 victims of the disaster. The Illinois legislature cited the fire when it called for stronger mine safety regulations and more stringent enforcement. The mine was sealed for just over two months to ensure that all of the coal veins were no longer smoldering before it was reopened. It continued to operate until reduced demand for coal led to it being shut down during the Great Depression. Other than the disaster of 1909, it had a relatively good safety record.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
A coal miner chips at a vein with a hand pick, date unknown. Wikimedia

The Avondale Colliery Fire

The first state of the United States to enact laws for the purpose of creating safer working environments for miners was Pennsylvania, which did so in 1869. That same year one of the earliest unions for coal miners, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, found its membership increase by thousands. Both events were stimulated by what was up to then the worst mine fire in American history, the Avondale Colliery fire near the town of Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Avondale was a single shaft coal mine near the Susquehanna River, operated by the Nanticoke Coal Company, which was owned by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Rail Road.

The shaft of the colliery was lined with wood and divided by a partition, creating in essence two flues, one of which was used to provide ventilation which was powered by a furnace located 100 feet from the shaft, but connected to it, which allowed the fire in the furnace to cause air to move upwards in the mine shaft. The coal breaker was directly above the shaft, which was also the only way into and out of the mine. Placing the breaker above the shaft eliminated the need to move the coal to another point, and was thus a cost saving feature. The design was a common one in American coal mining operations at the time.

The colliery had only recently settled a work stoppage of over three months, and there remained bad feelings between workers of Welsh descent who had stopped work, and Irish workers who had replaced them. On September 6, 1869, the coal breaker atop the mine caught fire. The entire colliery complex, much of which was built of wood, was quickly ablaze, attracting a crowd who soon were aware that the men in the mine were trapped. But that time most of them were already dead, as the oxygen in the mine was devoured by the fire. The fire spread to the wooden shaft and destroyed it before it was extinguished.

After lowering a dog down the shaft to determine if there was air to breathe, rescuers entered the mine. Finding the shaft obstructed by the remains of damaged timber, they returned to the surface. Two other volunteers entered the mine several hours later, were overcome by afterdamp, and died. A donkey engine was brought to the site to ventilate the mine, and by September 9 all of the bodies of the dead miners, 108 men who were in the mine when the fire broke out, had been recovered. With the two volunteers who had died during the recovery effort, the Avondale fire killed 110 men. One congregation of the little town of Plymouth lost all of its male members.

What caused the fire has never been determined for certainty, with some claiming it had been the furnace, despite its distance from the shaft, others arguing for spontaneous combustion of the coal in the breaker, and others claiming arson. The official inquest found that the furnace ventilation was the cause of the fire. It also found that the deaths of the miners and the two would-be rescuers had been toxic gases they could not escape. What was known for certain was that the miners were doomed by the design of the mine. Pennsylvania passed legislation requiring all underground mines to have at least two separate entrances as a result of the Avondale fire.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
A railroad map shows the coal fields of the Hocking Valley and the routes available for coal distribution. Wikimedia

The Millfield Mine Disaster

The Sunday Creek Coal Company owned and operated a mine in the Hocking Valley of Ohio called Poston Mine Number 6, which was regarded as one of the most modern and safest in the industry in 1930. Despite the favorable reputation, sections of the mine were known among the miners and the company to be “gassy”, meaning that they accumulated larger than normal levels of methane gas, emitted naturally from the veins of coal. On November 5, 1930, the President of the Sunday Creek Coal Company was escorting company executives on a tour demonstrating newly installed safety equipment. They were just some of the more than 250 men in the mine that morning.

Just before noon, at a point over ten thousand feet from the main shaft of the mine, an explosion rocked the entire structure, causing walls to collapse, uprooting trolley rails, and smashing coal trolleys. About 120 men managed to escape the mine, either through the main shaft, secondary shafts, or in many cases ventilation shafts. Calls for assistance were sent out to Columbus, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Doctors and nurses were dispatched to the scene. Rescue teams entered the mine to locate survivors. They arrived within four hours of the explosion and were supervised by the United States Bureau of Mines.

Ten hours after the explosion one of the rescue teams found nineteen men alive in the mine, nearly three miles from the entrance, and only two of them conscious. The men had barricaded themselves near a ventilation shaft. All of them were carried out of the mine, and all of them survived. Eighty-two men died in the explosion and its aftermath, with the majority of them succumbing to asphyxiation caused by carbon monoxide. The company president and the executives he was proudly showing the new safety features were among the dead. It took several weeks to clear the mine of the deadly gases which had resulted from the explosion and fire.

The explosion was caused by an accident in one of the known gassy areas of the mine, which was disused at the time. A fallen electrical connection, which was not supposed to have power being supplied to it at the time, was found to have arced across a nearby trolley rail, which triggered the explosion. Why the connection had power applied to it was never determined, but it has been speculated that power was applied accidentally as part of the demonstration of some of the new equipment being examined by the company officers.

The Poston mine was reopened in October 1930, was declared clear of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and other gases the following month, and resumed operation before the end of the year. It remained in operation until the end of the Second World War, when it was closed down. Ohio’s state Department of Mines completed its investigation by finding the Sunday Creek Coal Company to have not been in violation of safety regulations and procedures at the time of the explosion. It also recommended that existing procedures and safety regulations be examined by the legislature for the purpose of creating a safer work environment for coal miners.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
The Centralia coal fires have burned for more than half a century, destroying towns, vegetation, and roads over an ever increasing area. Wikimedia

The Centralia Disaster

In the 1950s the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, adopted a disused coal strip mine as a landfill for the town’s trash and garbage. Such practice was not unusual, and in 1956 had spurred the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a precautionary law regulating the use of former strip mines as trash dumps, due to the dangers of fire. Centralia was warned by a member of the state’s Department of Mines and Mineral Industries that its illegal dump site needed to be cleaned up and refilled with non-combustible material. For reasons obscured by time, it was decided to clean up the dumpsite by burning it, and volunteer firemen were hired to perform the task.

The dump was ignited on May 27, and extinguished that evening. On May 29, the dump was reported to be burning again, and was again extinguished. During the first week of June the site was reported to be smoldering several times, and a hole in the pit wall leading to the coal seams underground was discovered as the burning garbage was stirred up to facilitate dousing it with water. By June it was evident that the dump fire had ignited a coal fire which was burning underground. Centralia’s town council asked for help from the Lehigh Valley Coal Company and the Susquehanna Coal Company

Attempts were made to put out the fire by digging out the burning material, which were unsuccessful, as well as drown it with a mixture of crushed gravel and water. The second project was defeated by the cold weather of the Pennsylvania winter, which froze the water in the hoses. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the fire defied efforts to extinguish it, and as time went on alternative versions of its cause were presented, which claimed the fire was burning underground long before the dump site was incinerated. One claimed the fire had spread from another mine fire which had begun in the 1930s, another claimed it was a case of spontaneous combustion.

By the 1980s the US government was offering compensation for residents of Centralia who were forced to relocate as a result of the fire burning beneath their feet. The fire continued to resist all attempts to control or divert it, and has caused the town of Centralia to be evacuated, though a handful of residents remain there, as well as spreading under the town of Byrnesville, which was also evacuated. The fire continued to spread throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first. In 2013 it passed its fiftieth anniversary of continuous underground and above ground destruction.

The Centralia fire has caused the evacuation of towns, the closing of some roads and the rerouting of others, the opening of sinkholes, and the release of toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are many other underground coal fires burning in the United States, which by 2010 had spent more than $1 billion in attempts to control them or mitigate the damage they caused. $42 million was spent by the federal government to relocate the citizens forced to move by the Centralia fire, which to date has not caused any known casualties, other than homes, towns, and businesses. Its environmental impact is still being assessed.

10 Stomach-Dropping American Mining Disasters from History
A diagram prepared to show the extent of the flooding and the routes of escape resorted to by miners during the breach of the Slope River Mine in 1959. Wikimedia

The River Slope Mine Disaster

The River Slope Mine was an anthracite coal mine alongside the Susqehanna River in Pennsylvania, which was interconnected with mines on both sides of the river in the region known as the Wyoming Valley. Numerous mine galleries were developed in the region, between and around the town of Exeter on the west bank, and Port Griffith on the east bank. Although it was legal to dig under the river there were minimum requirements for the amount of space between the bottom of the river and the roof of the mine gallery. The Knox Coal Company, which operated the River Slope Mine, ignored the requirements as it extracted coal from beneath the riverbed.

As the mine drew out into the river it climbed steadily upwards, passing the advised standard of fifty feet, and then passing the mandated standard of thirty-five feet. Once beyond that point, the “roof” over the heads of the miners grew thinner and thinner, and Knox Coal officials continued to demand more excavation of the anthracite coal being yielded by the digging. It also discontinued the use of boreholes, which were used to bore upwards to determine the distance to the riverbed, not wanting its miners and those of the other interconnected galleries to be aware of how close they were to the water, which by the end of 1958 was about six feet.

On January 22, 1959 the waters of the Susquehanna penetrated the mine, which flooded quickly, with the flooding spreading to the interconnected mines. Twelve miners were killed in the flooding, their bodies were never found. Sixty-nine others managed to escape the icy waters of the river. About 10 billion gallons of water poured into the mines around the Wyoming Valley, through a hole which widened to about 150 feet in diameter as the river cut through. Attempts were made to plug the hole by sinking railcars, more than 50 coal hoppers standing by, to little effect. Culm – the finely grained waste from anthracite coal – was poured into the breach, and washed away by the river.

It took rerouting the river through the construction of dams on both ends of nearby Wintermoot Island before the flow of water could be stopped, and the hole and mine gallery beneath were pumped full of clay and crushed rock before being sealed with concrete. The mines were then pumped out. The supervisor of the mine and its owner were indicted. During the investigation into the disaster it was revealed that the President of the local district for the United Mine Workers secretly held an ownership interest in the mine. He too was indicted. In all six officials of the company and the union were indicted, but all managed to avoid conviction.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania billed the Knox Coal Company for the cost of the cleanup and repair, which the company avoided paying by filing for bankruptcy protection. Several officers of the Knox Company were subsequently convicted for income tax evasion and paid fines and served short sentences in federal custody. Most of the mines damaged by the breach remained closed, having suffered significant damage in the flooding. It cost Pennsylvania approximately $5 million 1959 dollars to clean up the disaster caused by the Knox Coal Company greed, an amount equivalent to about $ 42 million dollars in 2018.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Coal Mining Disasters”, by Steven L. Sewell, entry, Oklahoma Historical Society, online

“Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Accident in US History”, by Davitt McAteer, 2007

“Winter Quarter mine disaster shook many Utah families”, by Eileen Hallet Stone, Salt Lake Tribune, January 3, 2016

“Remembering the Dawson mining disaster, 100 years later”, by Tom Sharpe, Santa Fe New Mexican, October 19, 2013

“1917 Butte mine disaster killed at least 166 men. Here are their stories”, by Mike Smith, Montana Standard, June 7, 2017

“The Cherry Mine Disaster”, by Wayne Hinton, Illinois Coal and Coal Mining, 2013, online

“Avondale mine disaster claimed 110 lives”, by Cheryl A. Kashuba, Times-Tribune, September 6, 2009

“Fire in the hole”, by Kevin Krajick, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2005

“Death Underground: The Knox Mine Disaster”, by Lauren Berger, The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Fall 2009