Monongah Coal Mine Disaster and Memorial Photographs
(Monongah Coal Mine Explosion (s): The Worst Mining Disaster in United States History)
By Monongah native son Larry Brian Radka*
Millions of tons of Monongah No. 63 coal were loaded from the remaining Monongah coal beds left after the explosion (s) of the Monongah No. 6 and No. 8 coal mines—by Larry’s grandfather Wilhelm, father George, neighbor Buster Davis, and many other brave coal miners.
This page is dedicated to them as well as to the 60,000 U. S. coal miners who lost their lives between 1870 and 1918 (one for every 180,000 tons of coal mined), and especially to the 3,242 American coal miners who perished in Monongah and elsewhere in the dreadful year of 1907.
The Monongah mine explosion,** the worst mining disaster in United States history, occurred on December 6, 1907 at Monongah, West Virginia. The blast spread through two of Fairmont Coal Company's mines,*** No. 6 and No. 8, connected underground. At 10:30 a.m.,**** the earth shook 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 Monongah tragedy is recalled in the pictures below. In honor of those coal miners who abruptly passed away on that sad day, West Virginia government and religious dignitaries presided over heartfelt ceremonies and dedicated lasting monuments at Monongah before a domestic and foreign audience on December 6, 2007. These memorials guarantee that the breadwinners of a thousand widows and orphans "will never be forgotten."
(West Virginia Governor Manchin praying in silent remembrance on Dec. 6, 2007 )
Monongah is located in Marion County, West Virginia, and Governor Joe Manchin III, a Marion County son, has a close understanding of coal mining and its problems. According to Russell F. Bonasso, his grandfather “Papa Joe” Manchin “was active in union organizing in the 1920’s and 1930’s to the extent that he was evicted, along with his family, out of the coal company housing and had to live in hastily constructed ‘shacks’ called Barracks.”
On that dark day in December 1907, many men, horses, mules, and slate-picking boys like these paid the ultimate price for the persuasive power of West Virginia's black diamonds. Horses and mules were more important to a mine owner than men (or boys). “Although Fairmont Coal admitted it had no exact record of the number of men in the two mines, newspaper reporters on the scene could not help but notice that the company did have a precise count on the number of horses and mules inside at the time.” The winter 1993 edition of GOLDENSEAL went on to add: “Such stories contribute to the pervasive miner’s lore that coal companies cared more for mules than men.” Need we wonder why coal miners unionized?
Monongah child labor was alive and well until the mines blew up.
Above is a picture of Perry Vernon with his lard oil miner's lamp in the Monongah Mine previous to that mine's explosion in 1907. Mr. Vernon, who resided in South Side Fairmont, hastily gathered a group of rescuers a few minutes after the Monongah explosion occurred and was the first party to reach the scene of the explosion. The group traveled by a special streetcar that was operated by James O. Watson, II. Note the mule or horse-drawn coal car. Kids often drove the mules in coal mines and controlled the doors that directed the air flow to the proper areas of the mines, as the photographs below show. The Monongah twin mines were certainly not an exception, and trapper boys working in or near the Monongah No. 6 and 8 mines paid the ultimate price for trying to feed their families. “Charles Honaker, 15 years old, a trapper, was caught at the entrance of No. 8,” wrote Davitt McAteer; “his body blown 200 yards into the river and lost. Poor little Honaker, with clothing ablaze—literally a human torch—was enveloped in the fiery torrent.” This, however, did not halt child labor—or the untimely demise of young children working in coal mines. In Russell F. Bonasso’s Fire in the Hole, Robert E. Miller relates that “a 1914 mines department report revealed 11-year-old Clarence Broyles, who worked at a Keystone Coal and Coke Company mine, was one of 40 youngsters who died while laboring in the mines during the year, ranging in age from 13 through 18.”
No Safety Lamps Here!
“The coal in the mine constantly gives off various gases, one of which, the notorious ‘fire-damp’ (methane or marsh-gas), is responsible for many explosions. In recent years, it has been discovered that coal-dust itself, when mixed with the right proportion of air, is violently explosive. Mine explosions may be minimized by requiring the use of ‘safety lamps’ (oil, gasoline, or electric); by providing devices to prevent sparking in electrical apparatus; and by using for blasting operations only so-called ‘permissible’ explosives, which give a shorter and cooler flame than black powder. Coal dust explosions can be largely prevented by wetting the walls of the mine, or by the new process of ‘rock-dusting,’ which consists of applying dry incombustible powdered rock to all surfaces. Unfortunately, none of these precautions are employed as generally as they should be.”
The Monongah mines violated most of these safety procedures in 1907, and the catastrophic results are illustrated above and below.
Photographers raced to Monongah to take pictures of the destruction, to make an easy buck by placing them on postcards for sale like the one below. Sometimes they may still be purchased in Ebay auctions.
Huge fragments of the heavy concrete roof of the engine house at the number 8 mine were blown 500 yards, into the hillside across the West Fork River.
Neither boiler house, gigantic fan for airing out the mines, nor men working near them survived the blast.
Both mines exploded fast! Describing the condition of the first three miners that the rescuers found inside the other end of the No. 8 mine—near the entrance to the No. 6 mine, down the river a mile away, Davitt McAteer reported: “Two were lying on the ground, the third on a bench, all dead. One of the victims, Fred Cooper, was lying on his back with his head to the door and his mouth wide open. John Herman was sitting on the bench on the other side of the shanty with his dinner bucket between his legs, his head and arms down. Lester Trader [one of the rescuers] pushed his head back and coffee ran down his lower lip.” Obviously, he had no time to finish swallowing it.
Only God knows how many died here.
Five railroad carloads of coffins arrived in Monongah the day after the explosion. They were hardly enough. The day before, at the tender age of twelve, (Carrie) Mae Davis, the grandmother of James E. Davis who later worked in the No. 8 (renamed No. 63) mine and is pictured among the coal miners in the colored photograph below, had to wade through coffins like those above to walk home from school. The body parts of burned and mangled miners laid in wooden boxes for all to see. This gruesome display continued to haunt her for nearly seventy years as she reminded her coal-mining son and grandsons of the danger below—till the day she died.
Mae Davis’s experience was not the only ugly display the people of Monongah observed. The emotional reactions of the victims’ families near the gravesites and some of the despicable activities carried on at the cemeteries required monitoring by National Guard troops. The orderly rows of tents on the right in the postcard photograph below served as their quarters, others nearby served as morgues—after the ad hoc arrangements in town filled to capacity. Only a foot of dirt separated the graves so each line of resting places appears to be a trench.
However, this is not the only deceiving aspect of the events taking place at the graveyards. To save funeral expenses, a relative would sometime not identify their loved one so the coal company would pay for burying the miner as an “unknown.” Then, under the cover of nightfall and the sleepy eyes of the Guard, the person would lay a stone or some other inconspicuous marker on or near the grave so someone could place a headstone on it later.
The attitude of the local religious leaders toward burying the dead was equally troublesome, considering the untimely demise of hundreds of miners and the problems with quickly laying all of their decaying bodies to a proper rest. According to A. A. Hoeling’s Disaster, Major American Catastrophes, the official report of Frank Hass, Fairmont Coal Company’s Chief Engineer, points out:
“At the time of the explosion, both the Italian and Polish Catholic churches had cemeteries immediately adjoining, separated by a wire fence. At the very start, 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.
“For this reason, a new cemetery was located, adjoining the Polish, to be used as a burying ground for Protestants and unknown. This fact made it necessary to have representatives of the Catholic churches present who had lists of the members of their congregations and whose advice was followed in determining the cemetery in which each body was interred.” This speaks poorly of religion and its leaders in a time of great crisis, and to the need for all to work together to bring ease in such a great tragedy—for the common good.
However, others did not follow the lead of their pious leaders, but overlooked differences in religion and nationality. After describing the grieving that was still taking place at the St. Stanislaus’s Church, three days and 110 dead Polish and Slovak corpses after the explosion, Paul U. Kellogg, an eyewitness to the aftermath of the explosions, pointed out: “Outside, an Italian laborer offered his services for carrying the dead to the church yard. He spoke to a Slovak and said that everyone is the brother of the other, no matter what nationality he belongs to. He said it in broken English.” The common man nearly always holds greater values than the pious priests who may try to teach him others.
To the credit of the coal company, it purchased an acre of land to be used in great part for those of the Muslim faith. However, not all of those miners lost had the privilege of a proper burial—in any cemetery for that matter. Their bodies remained in the mines, and some of their bodies or parts thereof were not discovered for some time, after the anxious coal company had reopened the mines, with many new foreign workers—about two months later!
No. 6 pillar & trestle***** running to the west side of the river
Officially, three hundred and sixty-one men and boys died in the two mines at Monongah, but only God knows how many really passed on in that tragedy. Unofficial but reasonable estimates set the figure at well over five hundred men and boys lost. “Since the names of the men who were hired by individual miners did not appear on the Coal Company’s roster,” explained Bonasso, “the accepted total of those who lost their lives is probably somewhat conservative. Leo L. Malone, the General Manager of the two mines in question, was quoted by The Fairmont Times as stating that 478 men had been checked off as entering the mines, on the morning of December 6th. This figure, it is said, did not include the 100 trappers, mule drivers, pumpers, and other men [and boys], who were not subject to the check system.
A study of the Monongah cemeteries appears to indicate that the actual death toll exceeded 500 victims, although a surviving gravedigger insists that the total was 620.”
He also pointed out that “one newspaper report, a Washington dispatch dated March 9 of the following year set the figure as high as 956 lives lost.” This figure may be a little too high. Regardless of the true number, however, the Monongah explosion still remains the worst mine disaster in the history of the United States.
Its victims died in darkness but not in vain. Their deaths lit the way for coal-mining reform. Ironically, though, the initial cause of their demise is still not known.
Monongah’s coal mine disaster left more than 1,000 widows and children.
In Eugene Wolfe’s article “No Christmas in Monongah,” printed in two different recent issues of Golden Seal, he pointed out that
The Mannington Relief Committee was set up to assist them. The coal company distributed $17,500 to the relief fund and ultimately made an additional small settlement to individual survivors.
Former Governor A. Brooks Fleming, Fairmont Coal Company lawyer, answered the consul with noticeable coolness, according to John Alexander Williams in his book, West Virginia and the Captains of Industry. Fleming carefully noted that the company had given the funds it distributed as “gratuity or donation,” and under no legal obligation.
“The Company never for a moment considered it was legally liable,” he stated. “I think the $2,000 distributed principally among 41 children and 20 widows would be quite a Christmas present.”
Brooks Fleming was a Fairmonter. The Fairmont Coal Company had been founded by his wife’s father, J. O. Watson, along with her brother, Clarence “Big Bud” Watson. Fleming was also a close friend to the three most powerful developers of West Virginia’s natural resources: Johnson Camden, Henry Gassaway Davis, and Stephen B. Elkins.
Such men understand that coal production had to go on. Certainly the Monongah mines were too large and too profitable to be stopped by the explosion. In a short time, they were cleaned up and reconstructed. A new army of miners reported to work. Coal again streamed out of both black cannon barrels. It would pour out of No. 8 for another 50 years.
In 1961, No. 8 (63) closed, and old No. 6 retired many years before. For almost fifty years, the quiet absence of their rumbling coal cars tended to dismiss Monongah's consciousness of the enormous explosions that once rang out from them. However, memories of the breadwinners in the worst coal mine disaster in American history warmly rebounded on that wintry day when the Governor came to Monongah to honor those who died on that black Friday in December of 1907.
*Larry Brian Radka was born and grew up in Monongah, attended Thoburn Grade School, graduated from Monongah High School in 1961, attended Fairmont State College, and later earned two degrees from the University of the State of New York.
He is a veteran of the U. S. Army Security Agency and Air Force Communications Service, a retired broadcast engineer, and an amateur radio operator (KB3ZU). The self-taught writer and editor has produced several magazine articles as well as a few books, which include Historical Evidence for Unicorns and Astronomical Revelations or 666. His latest release is The Electric Mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse and Other Ancient Lighting, published in 2006. He is a meticulous researcher who maintains two websites: http://ancientskyscraper.com and http://einhornpress.com. In his copper years of retirement, from his thousands of old publications purchased over the years, he continuously updates his Web pages with a variety of freely-offered illustrations and history for all to see and appreciate.
**Actually, the Monongah mine explosion consisted on two large initial explosions at 10:30 a.m. on the 6th of December, and several smaller ones that lingered on for ten minutes or more thereafter. Volunteer rescue workers did not have the proper equipment to safely enter the mines, and no organized rescued teams in this country existed then. Rescue was an ad hoc affair. In fact, no fresh-air headgear to protect against smoke and dangerous gases in mines was even available in the United States at the time. Fire protection was another issue.
Three men lost their lives in the rescue work at Monongah, apparently overcome with smoke or poisonous gases lingering in the mines because they had no proper equipment for entering exploding mines, or proper equipent to revive rescuers or miners who had succumbed to their smoke and poisonous gases. The U. S. Department of Interior photograph above and one below show that some official action was finally taken by 1917.
The Monongah Coal & Coke Company had originally opened and operated some of these mines. In 1895, it conveyed the mines and coal property to the Monongahela River Railroad Company, which in turn sold its mines and undeveloped coal to the Monongah Company in 1899.
***Fairmont Coal Company owned several coal mines dug into the base of the bluffs and hills along or near the West Fork River, in and near Monongah.
The Coal Baron J. O. Watson, pictured above, then merged his Fairmont Coal Company with the Consolidation Coal Company in 1903.
So, at the time of the terrible coal mine catastrophe at Monongah, Consolidation Coal Company. the owner of several coal mines in the George's Creek coal fields of Maryland and headquartered in Baltimore, was the real owner of the Monongah mines.
The repaired Monongah No. 8 Mine in the colored photograph below, taken shortly after the Monongah disaster, with the "Fairmont Coal Co." sign replaced, shows the real owner in 1907—Consolidation Coal Company! Apparently, to disassociate the mine with the United States's worst industrial catastrophe, the city of "Clarksburg," 19 miles away is mentioned on the postcard instead of "Fairmont," which was nearer, only 6 miles away. The name "Fairmont" would have reminded people of the "Fairmont Coal Company Monongah Mine No. 8" advertisement on the sign in a photograph above, taken immeditely after the explosions.
The Monongah mines originally grew from the seeds planted by various wealthy entrepreneurs in 1885.
Around that time, one of those investors, U. S. Senator Johnson Newlon Camden, the greedy gardener behind the shovel, slyly proceeded, through his associates, to buy up land—and especially the mineral rights (which included coal seams)—in and around Monongah.
The plan, in conjunction with the B & O railroad, was to build a company-owned mining town and to dig several mines into the rich Pittsburgh seam of coal, and have a spur line built from Fairmont to Monongah to get the coal and coke hauled out to the lucrative steel, railroad, power-plant, and maritime shipping markets of the time.
The domestic market was a sideline. Camden got a bargain by having his surrogates to talk the uninformed local farmers out of their underground treasure for a paltry five to thirteen dollars an acre, each of which could produce up to 10,000 tons of coal.
Armed with the deeds in 1889, Camden’s agents hired the firm of Dickerson and Clayton to build a coal company camp on the Watkins and Davis farms in Monongah. Part of the town in the early 1900's and its No. 6 coal and smoky coke operations in the distance are illustrated in the old faded photographs above and below.
The entrance to the No. 5 mine was located a mile or so outside of Monongah, on the East side of the West Fork River, near Booth's (Booths) Creek, next to the family home left on the eleven-acre remnants of the Davis farm.
Remnants of the abutments to the No. 5 mine bridge, a rusty gas line, and the brush growing up on the old Davis Farm on the hill above Booth's Creek are most of what remains of old No. 5's once bustling coal mine operation.
The old Monongah mine used electric haulage, employed 25 laborers and 85 miners, and produced 700 tons of coal per day in the early twentieth century.
Jim Davis, who once lived in the Davis farmhouse next to the mine, informed me that his Grandmother Mae “said she used to walk through the mine with a lit torch” to exit along Booths Creek in downtown Monongah, near Johnny Mascara’s Champion Block Company, built in later years, closed up in 1999, and torn down in 2000.
The mission was to get store goods; and she wandered home with the flaming torch, to light her way, once again, through the darkness of a pitch-black coal mine. He also added, “She said the family didn’t have enough money to cover all the expenses, so the members used to ask the motor men to drop off lumps of coal for feeding their fireplace grates.” Perhaps, after Camden acquired most of the Davis farm, above and below, somebody squandered the meager payment, and the family could not afford to buy her a safety lamp to use in place of the torch?
Nevertheless, putting speculation aside, it was, in fact, very risky business for a child stumbling through a coal mine with an open flame because of the danger of encountering methane gas. Sometimes, methane, a colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas, quietly leaks out of coal seams into a working area, and the notorious “fire-damp” (methane or marsh-gas) has been responsible for many mine explosions. However, if a pocket of methane does not mix with coal-dust, it will likely not cause an explosion but simply ignite abruptly instead.
Jim Davis, Mae’s coal-mining grandson, now retired, quite seriously but a little humorously, recalls his unexpected encounter with methane in the following email that he recently sent my way:
“Larry, I was in a methane ignition at Four-States Mine. The gas created an orange-color flame, and I was lucky to escape its inferno intact. My head felt like it was in a vice, very tight, when it ignited; and I felt like someone was pulling my eardrums out. Merv Thompson, a miner from Fairmont, was right in front of the fiery flash, and it burned the hair off around his eyes. I was scared, but my mind kept telling me what I needed to do to control the problem, and everything turned out okay. However, since then, I used to always carry an extra set of underwear—just in case!”
The mine apparently connected with the Monongah No. 2 mine, which opened, and apparently still does according to the photograph above, a short distance above Booth's Creek in downtown Monongah.
On the left above, a miner is using compressed air to coat the walls of a mine with "cement" around 1917. The right hand picture, taken some years later, shows miners using electric motors to spray the mine walls with a fine rock dust, a whitish powder, largely limestone, which dilutes the coal dust. The old method of spraying water in the mine or using one of these two methods will prevent the buildup of fine coal-dust in the air and the danger of the accidental ignition of methane from causing an explosion..
****In his well researched work entitled Monongah, The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History, Davitt McAteer tells us, “The No. 6 mine, which was equipped with a pressure gauge and clock to constantly record the pressure, showed the time of the disruption as exactly 10:30 A. M.” For a well documented but easy read of the Monongah tragedy of 1907, I recommend this book.
*****According to McAteer, this bridge, seen here running to the east side of Monongah, was largest steel trestle built in the United States in the 1890's. I obtained this postcard, dated 1916 on the back, from Germany. It is—judging from all the 1908 black and white postcard photographs of the Monongah mines in Ebay auctions—an accurate representation of the No. 6 mine trestle and coal-mining operation in 1907.
The power plant supplied electricity to the mine on the west side of the river as well as to a four-story coal preparation plant or tipple, machine repair shops, and mine offices on the east side. The smoke in the background is rising from some of the 320 beehive ovens producing coke from Monongah's coal, in competition with Connellsville and Uniontown coke ovens, to feed the fiery ovens in West Virginia and Pennyslvania steel mills.
Other coke ovens were blazing away a mile up the river, behind the No. 8 Mine tipple, on the same side of the river.
Coke is a carbonized product of coal. It is produced by a decomposition process of heating bituminous coal to a high temperature, about 1800 degree Fahrenheit, in a closed chamber out of contact with the air.
The intense heat drives off volatile matter, such as gas, tar, ammonia water, and oils. The residue, or char, that remains is called coke. At one time, smoke from nearly 50,000 coke ovens darkened the American skies.
In the early 1900’s, the coal supplies in the United States were estimated to be large enough to supply the furnaces of the world for centuries to come.
This old one-cent stamped postcard, postmarked “Fairmont, W. VA, Nov 8, 4 PM, 1921” that I purchased on Ebay recently should present a good firsthand personal view of the smoke problem generated by the coal operations in Monongah. It also gives us a figure for the amount of coal exported in 1920. I cannot very well make out the writing on the back—which looks about like mine—but I will try deciphering the vertical portion of it here. I believe it says:
“1020 Fairmont ave. Fairmont W Va. This picture will show you why I complaine of a smokey city—Count the smoke stacks on this bldg. These multiply it by— In 1920 there were shipped out of this Country 4,888 841 tons of coal— But today is clear—and as warm as [. . . name of a place ?]—after several days of rain—Love to you and all [Carrie?]”
If anybody can read the writing any better, and wants to fill in the brackets and/or make any corrections, please let me know, and I will add the input to this page—if it makes more sense.
By the time I arrived in this world in 1943, beehive coke ovens, resembling beehives in shape, were becoming obsolete. These ovens, which poured great volumes of black smoke over the countryside, were prodigiously wasteful of the by-products of coal, and much better methods of producing coke were in operation by then, to save the valuable by-products that previously escaped into the atmosphere. The Wonder Book of Knowledge tells us that “one ton of good bituminous coking coal, when processed at a by-product plant, will produce from 1,400 to 1,500 pounds of coke; between 10,000 and 11,500 cubic feet of gas; from 9 to 10 gallons of coal tar; 20 or more pounds of ammonium sulphate and smaller percentages of benzol, toluol, xylol, and crude naphthalene.”
And to think, after all these by-products were released into the atmosphere, my mother survived! And to add insult to injury, she also had to daily breath volumes of smoke from my father’s three-pack-a-day cigarette-smoking habit for over 40 years, the black residue from steam engine smoke stacks pumping torrents of smoke across the West Fork River into our house, and all the other smoke-belching chimneys in Monongah that pumped out volumes of smoke daily. Yet, she survives today, in excellent health, with no breathing problems whatsoever—at 87 ripe years of age. This does not speak well for the nicotine nazis, who argue that the insignificant secondhand smoke from cigarette smokers like those in the steel mill above is a huge problem today.
If these powerful paper pushers are allowed to continue to get away with this enormous scam to steal money from the poor pockets of hard workers like these, with their heavy and unjust taxes, their perverted whims will soon be satisfied with a huge tax on the fat food consumed by obese eaters
—many of whom have grown into their bloated condition because they stopped smoking!
These hypocrites should, however, remember: “What goes around comes around,” and, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones!”
Nevertheless, most of Monongah's secondhand smoke had vanished by the early 1960's when I left Monongah to join the Army. Most home coal fireplaces had been replaced with natural gas furnaces, steam engines with diesels, and the operation of the coke ovens had ceased long before that time. Upon one of my visits to the old home town recently, I discovered that the Nol 6 coke ovens, the tipple and the No.. 6 Mine buildings, except for the old powerhouse that Consol now uses for offices, had vanished. The steel gate across the entrance to the No. 6 mine on the west side had also been removed, as well as the huge exhaust fan that blew air across the path where, as a kid, I had run my rabbit hounds.
A wooden bridge with two decks had once spanned the West Fork River at the No. 8 mine (No. 63 later) a mile up the river. The top deck carried coal laden mining cars across the sulfur-filled river to the tipple dumping coal in waiting railroad cars below. The bottom deck, laid with huge, rattling wooden planks, spaced several inches apart, simultaneously supported trucks and automobiles crossing over. As a little boy on my way to pick blackberries near the old No. 4 mine with Jim Davis, as we walked across the noisy bridge with heavy mining cars rattling across above, I often wondered if they would shake us down through one of the cracks between the planks into the river below.
Upon one of my recent visits there, I discovered that nothing was left of the Number 8 trestle except a stone support on each side of the river and a lone pillar standing in the middle. I guess their huge stone blocks were too heavy and inaccessible to tote off.
Beyond those pillars, on the West side of the river, once ran the tracks and overhead electric cables for the Monongahela Valley Traction Company’s streetcars. They had been removed (see the article below) in the late 1940’s; so their absence was no surprise to me.
However, a nostalgic look back reminds me of when the trolleys on the interurban line, later called the Monongahela West Penn Trolley, zipped right past the front of our house, to and fro from Fairmont, through Monongah, to Clarksburg, Weston and several mining towns between. They were among the most modern and fastest at the time. The 36-mile trip from Fairmont to Weston took a lightning 36 minutes or less, which is less time than the treacherous trip requires now—on the meandering West Virginia roads—by the automobiles that replaced them.
The traction company's Monongah streetcar and power station sat near the entrance to the west side of the old automobile bridge crossing the West Fork River to downtown Monongah.
To my sad surprise, that old brick structure had also been razed, as one of my 2008 colored photographs below, of the vacant spot at the end of the bridge, shows. The old wooden-floor bridge with the bent railings in the photograph above brings back memories of my walks over it to the old Monongah movie theater—pictured below a little before my time, with its horse and buggy. One of the last films I saw in the old movie house was in 3D, and we had to wear glasses with red and blue plastic lenses to see “King Solomon’s Mines.” Those paper goggles brought the film's big lion leaping right out of the screen into the audience, or so we thought for a moment.
Afterwards, with visions of the lion still in mind, I hurried back across the creaky bridge in the dark, past the ghostly streetcar station that had closed its doors for good by then. Some years later—after old Max Rauer moved out—his old brick home fell to the wrecking ball.
However, the station's long concrete stairway pictured below, running up to the road above, still remains. A close-up of the bottom of the stairs is pictured above by the trolley tracks, with the kids holding on to its steel railings.
They were much steadier than the floppy banisters along the wooden walkway, a pontoon bridge, temporarily strung across the West Fork River after the old bridge was torn down. The west end of the new bridge in 2008 is shown above, and at its 1952 dedication in the old out-of-focus photograph below.
That was five years after my mother had helped me down our steps and a couple of hundred yards along the trolley tracks, which ran past our house on Traction Avenue (pictured below) to the streetcar station to ride to Fairmont, to visit Santa Claus at Hartley’s Department Store.
The old fellow, with his wrinkled face and long beard, almost scared me to death when I was placed on his lap for a photograph, so the shocking experience still jars my memory.
On the opposite side of the river from the vacant streetcar tracks that slipped me down to see Santa Claus, the bustling B & O railroad tracks had also been ripped up and carried off at some time after the No. 63 mine closed in 1961.
Before diesel locomotives came along in the early 1950’s, those shiny rails still carried many smoke-belching steam engines, chugging along as they pulled long trains of coal cars down along the West Fork River past Consol's old company store (Champion Store) in East Monongah.
Those iron monsters and their rattling hoppers were dirty and noisy, but quite charming creatures at times. My old childhood neighbor, Jim Davis, who claims this is a “true story,” in an email to me, attests to the fact when he wrote:
“When a steam engine would regularly pull coal from the No. 63 Mine [old No. 8] at night, it would stop right across the river from our homes at 9:15 p.m., disconnect from the coal cars, go down to Monongah’s water tank by the company store, and fill up with water. I can still hear the squeak in that arm sliding down from the water tank, to pour water into the thirsty steam engine.
“Once he drank enough water, he would back up, connect to his trip of coal cars, and begin to pull with a loud Chug! Chug! Chug! The faster he would steam down the track, the more the click! click! click! rattled the rails. The ‘click’ was caused by loose ‘fish plates’ on the rails, which bolted them together.
“How do I remember this? Well, when the train was coming down the track, my brother Bob would always get ready for bed, at 9:15 p.m.; and he always said the sound of the train would put him to sleep. He can tell the story better than I can. The train usually started to pull the trip of coal cars at roughly 9:30 p.m.”
I can also recall the sounds generated by that engine (and many others), both from its regular stops to release its cars and its backups from the water tank to reconnect to its idle train of coal cars. This allowed for an efficient use of the engineer’s time if the No. 63 Mine tipple was filling any waiting empties. When the engine finally stopped to release its load, there was always an almost endless chain of rattling and banging as the hopper-car couplings rammed each other. Again, when the old iron horse backed up from its drinking hole, to reconnect, I heard another loud procession of metallic noises, as the coal-car couplings banged against each other in the opposite direction. Then the steam engine lurched forward with a few loud initial chugs, followed by softer sounding efforts as it began to distance itself; and the same coupling noises once again preceded the rhythmic sounds created by the laboring engine as it rolled on down the line to Fairmont. The regular clicks generated by its hoppers' wheels rolling across loose fish plates—like the hypnotizing ticks of a clock—were obviously what put Bob to sleep.
My old coal-mining buddy tells me that “I remember the old steam engine moving out after idling. That noise you heard when he lurched forward was the slack being taken up in his train of coal cars. In mining terms, he was ‘tightening the Jennys.’ The Jennys (couplers) keep all the coal cars properly connected. When we ran a ‘trip’ (train) of coal cars through the mine, we kept the slack out of the Jennys. Otherwise, we had big trouble! Trips of coal running down the rails inside a mine can be compared to trains of coal running coal down the tracks across the West Fork River—except instead of a steam engine pulling a train with a caboose tagging along, one electric motor pulled the trip of mining cars while another pushed. The push-pull combination usually allowed us to manage a trip of 30 to 50 cars, with each bearing about 50 tons of coal.”
Jim’s notice encouraged me to do a little research. I found that in 1897 Andrew Beard patented an improvement to railroad car couplers commonly called the Jenny Coupler. His invention safely accomplished the dangerous job of linking railroad cars together. Beard had lost a leg in a car coupling accident. The missing appendage inspired the ex-railroad worker to come up with an idea that probably saved countless lives and limbs thereafter, and his ingenuity paid off indeed. He received $50,000 for the patent rights to his Jenny coupler. That was a lot of money in those days!
The Jenny Coupler should not be confused with the Janney coupler. The Janney coupler was named after Eli Janney who patented the invention in 1873 (U.S. patent #138,405). The Janney coupler had been an improvement in railroad car couplers that became the standard for the railroad freight car couplers—and some are still used today.
Before I went to school, I used to sit on my front porch on Traction Avenue, across the river from the railroad tracks, and spend hours counting coal cars coupled together with Janneys or Jennys. Sometimes, two steam engines were pulling the loaded hoppers, so I received a good lesson in math on those occasions. My calculations show that the steam engine above, hardly the largest ever built, must be pulling around 12,000 short tons (2,000 lbs. per ton) of coal. I base this estimate on information provided by my old buddy in another email. He wrote:
“When I was working in the mines, the hopper would hold 100 tons of coal, give or take a few tons. The unit trains still carry 100-ton hoppers, and sometime a unit train will be 100 cars. Some mines, such as the one I worked at Robinson Run, Consol 95, at Shinnston would supply the power plant next to it by belt line, and a tonnage meter attached to the belt indicated the number of tons of coal that passed over it in a 24-hour period. Coal mining has come a long way in the past 50 years. A coal miner can sit outside and look at a computer screen while the computer figures out everything he needs to know about that coal mine. Amazing!”
Above we see an example of one of the people and a little bit of the electrical equipment controlling coal-mining operations at the Four-States, West Virginia coal mine, in 1981. The coal miner is Larry Martin (deceased), a rotary-dump operator. On the right are some of the electric relays, wiring, and other devices performing the tasks. Note Larry's standard coal-miner's dinner bucket sitting on the table, and the telephone box on the wall. Some things just don’t seem to change a whole lot, as the postcard below indicates. This faded memento is postmarked August 10, 1912. I wonder if the fellow had ever run into the weather-forecasting groundhog anywhere in the mine? That little furry fellow's natural instinct seems to regularly overshadow the sophisticated computers of the Weather Channel.
Nevertheless, returning now to the observations made on one of my trips to Monongah, I found that its old West Fork River flowed clean and clear—no longer yellow as it did when I was a kid.
Modern environmentalists, free from subservience to the old coal Barons, apparently have put the plugs on some of the yellow sulfur that drained into it from the old mines.
It looked like a little boy could catch a fish there now.
Otherwise, the remnants of a once-bustling town and what was left of the mighty Monongah coal mines were a sad site to see. Time changes everything!
I would like to thank Janet Lieving of Consol Energy and James Edward Davis—who once mined coal from the old Monongah No. 8 Mine—for their help with the acquisition of some of the information and photographs on this Web page and others.
Other Sources of Info & Photos for this Web Page
Bonasso, Russell F., Fire in the Hole 2003 (Several photos)
Buckley, Geoffrey L., Extracting Appalachia, Images of the Consolidation Coal Company 1910-1945, 2004 (Many photos)
Burgess, Frances C., The State of West Virginia, Supplement to "New Geography, Book Two" of the Frye-Atwood Geographical Series 1929 (Several photos and maps)
Burrell, George A. & Seibert, Frank M., The Sampling and Examination of Mine Gases and Natural Gas 1913
Callahan, James Morton, Professor of History and Political Science, West Virginia University, Semi-Centennial History of West Virginia 1913 (Many photos, and maps); Genealogical and Personal History of the Upper Monongahela Valley, West Virginia, Under the Editorial Supervision of the Bernard L. Butcher, Volume II, 1912
Conley, Phil, West Virginia Yesterday and Today 1931 (Many photos, and maps)
Dunnington, George A., History and Progress of the County of Marion, West Virginia 1880
Editor, Harper's Weekly, "The Mine Catastrophe in West Virginia," December 28, 1907 issue (Several photographs)
General Offices of the Consolidation Coal Company, Fairmont Coal Company, and Somerset Coal Company, The Coal to Buy and How to Burn It, Being Practical Hints on the Selection of Coal for Present-Day Requirements 1903 (Many photos, and maps)
Hoehling, A. A., Disaster, Major American Catastrophes 1973
Husband, Joseph, A Year in a Coal-Mine 1911
Kaempffert, Waldemar, Editor, Volume II, A Popular History of American Invention 1924 (Many photos)
Kellogg, Paul U., a 19-page article titled “Monongah” in the January issue of Charities and The Commons 1908 (Several photos)
Mangano, Antonio, "The Effect of Emigration Upon Italy," Charities and The Commons, January 4, 1908 issue (Several photographs)
McAteer, Davitt, U. S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, Monongah, The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History 2007 (Several photos)
Mitman, Carl W., Catalogue of the Mechanical Engineering Collection in the United States National Museum 1922 (Many photos)
Nicolls, William Jasper, Above Ground and Below in the George’s Creek Coal Region 1898 (Several photographs)
Rice, George S.; Frazer J. C. W.; Haas Frank; Larsen, Axel; and Scholz, Carl , The Explosibility of Coal Dust 1910 (Several photos)
Rutledge. J. J., The Use and Misuse of Explosives in Coal Mining 1914
Shaw, Albert, magazine editor, “The Greatest Coal Mine Disaster in our History.” the title of his February 1908 review in The American Review of Reviews of Paul U. Kellogg's January 1908 article titled “Monongah” in the Charities and The Commons, Vol. XIX, October 1907 through April 1908 (Many photos)
Shawkey, M. P., A. M. PedD., West Virginia, A Book of Geography, History, and Industry 1922 (Many photos, and maps)
Stose, G. W.; Swartz, C. K., Geologic Atlas of the United States, Maryland-West Virginia-Pennsylvania, Folio 179-Field Edition published by the Department of Interior, United States Geological Survey, 1912 (Several maps)
Talman, Charles Fitzhugh, "The Story of Coal" in The Mentor, May 1, 1918 (Several photos)
Textbook, History and Government of West Virginia 1915 (Many illustrations)
White, I. C., State Geologist, West Virginia Geological Survey, Volume Two of 1903 and Volume II (A) Supplementary Coal Report 1908
Williams, John Alexander, West Virginia and the Captains of Industry 1976
Williams, Whiting, Personnel Director of the Hydraulic Pressed Steel Company, What's on the Worker's Mind by One Who Put on Overalls to Find Out 1921 (Several photographs)
Wolfe, Eugene, "No Christmas at Monongah," published in Goldenseal, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1993, reprinted in the Winter 1999 issue
Writers for Mines and Minerals magazines, Volume XXVIII, August 1907 to July 1908 (Many photos, mine maps, tests, and technical information)
Workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of West Virginia, West Virginia, A Guide to the Mountain State 1941 (Many photos)
A NOTE ON ARC LIGHTS
Arc lights were used extensively in coal mining operations in the early 1900's. Above we see one hanging from the inside of a tipple, and a carbon arc lamp can be seen hanging from the pole at the end of the coal-haulage bridge over the West Fork River on the postcard of the Monongah No. 6 mine posted previously on this page.
However, one may not realize that luminous arc lamps were used on mining motors at the time.
These differ from the carbon arc lights of the day in that they used electrodes made of metal instead of carbon, for greater brilliancy.
Above I have posted a few pictures of pages in a 1922 Imperial mining-supply catalog that attests to the fact that they were indeed employed in coal mining operations—perhaps as well as on connecting railroads to where I now reside.
Fairmont Coal Company appears to have used arc lights on their mining motors well before the Monongah Mine Explosion of 1907. I base this assumption on what looks like a large vent and two opposing vertical rods inside the lamp on the mining motor below.
Below is a picture of a headlight on another mining motor, operated by a Pennsylvania coal company acquired by Watson's Fairmont Coal Company and the Consolidation Coal Company of Maryland in 1903. Its features closely resemble the "M1 Imperial Luminous Arc Headlight" pictured in the catalog illustration above.
We know Watson was an advocate of new electrical technology from the pictures of the carbon arc lights hanging down outside the Monongah mine entrances in some of the photographs above. If he indeed had arc lights blazing away on the Monongah mine motors, a leaky screen on a motor's headlight could have sparked the methane and coal dust explosions that killed so many in Monongah. Whether this was the case or the cause was an open lamp, a misfired shot, or a collision by a runaway train of mining cars has never been determined. But regardless of the initial spark, Monongah still suffered the worst coal mining disaster in United States history. And the pictures above are an appropriate memorial of the tragic Monongah coal mine explosions of 1907.
This page was last modified on Wednesday, January 20, 2016