Monongah Mine Disaster Tombstones
Monongah, West Virginia, is the site of the worst mine disaster in United States history. The tragedy occurred on December 6, 1907, when a series of explosions and fires wrecked two large coal mines there. The two Monongah Mines, No. 6 and 8, were leased from ex-Senator Camden, by the Fairmont Coal Company, a constituent part of the Consolidation Coal Company, a Baltimore corporation that operated scores of coal mines in three states.
With disregard for the safest mining practices of the time, the mines were connected underground on the west side of the West Fork River. As a result, the explosions needlessly killed workers in both mines. The official death toll was 361 miners killed, but unofficial and more accurate estimates, put the toll well past 500.
(Monongah mine "Rescue Workers" drawn by Joseph Stella in Charities and The Commons, Jan. 4, 1908)
In the photograph below, we see some of the rescuers who are working hard, among the debris at the No. 8 mine, to save workers who shared the same calling. “It was that spirit that brought president and vice-president and directors of the coal company to Monongah by special train,” recalled Paul U. Kellogg, “and kept them at work day and night.” In his article titled “Monongah,” in a 1908 edition of Charities and The Commons,* he went on to relate: “It was in that spirit that brought other miners from other pits of the Fairmont Coal Company and volunteers from Pennsylvania and Maryland and Ohio, and other states, men who were expert in feeling their way in ‘after air,’ in building brattices and clearing entries, and men who were unafraid to work twelve, twenty-four, forty-eight, or seventy-two hours at a stretch if there were hope or help in it.”
“This mustering of the minute men of the coal pits is one of the finest things in industrial life in America to-day. Some come because of the good pay there is in it, and some because of adventure, but for many it is the response of working men to a human call stronger and more stirring that either of these.”
("Here the explosion shot out as of from a port hole." Jan 4, 1908 issue of Charities and The Commons)
Tragically though, these dedicated rescuers found few survivors, the overwhelming majority were dead. They called for coffins—many coffins, right now! So locomotives poured on the coal to get'em there fast.
“There were two carloads of coffins on the train that brought us there,” wrote Kellogg, who arrived shortly after the disaster; and there was “a barricade of them on the main street of Monongah, opposite the bank building, which had been turned into a temporary morgue.”
Carloads had been ordered from Zanesville, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Most were nothing more than plain wooden boxes, so men were employed to tack cloth on the insides to keep the bodies from the bare walls. If relatives of the dead objected to their kin being buried in such crude coffins, they were honored with caskets for their loved ones at the company’s expense.
Almost every undertaker and assistant in Marion Country arrived on the scene. In the wait for embalming and identification, the morgue in the bank building overflowed into the town’s theater, then upon the sidewalks, and finally into tents near the mine entrances. “The tents were soon filled with the lifeless bodies of ghastly men,” wrote the captain of a National Guard detail, thirty-three-year-old Mathew Neely. “On every hand there was weeping fathers and mothers, wailing wives, and sobbing little children, and scenes of horror and outbursts of agony so heartrending that earth has no language adequate to describe them.”
Some of those coffins could not be filled because fallen coal and debris inside the mines had covered the victims up, where anybody would find them anytime soon, and sometimes never. Most miners, however, were fortunate enough to be carried outside—sometimes only in pieces—and buried under small stone markers behind the memorial below. The Italian government was behind the acquisition of this beautiful monument and saw that the reminder was erected at Mr. Calvary Cemetery in 2006.
This megalith's polished black face reflects the shiny facets of King Coal—and the gleam on the face of a miner who dug black diamond.
Some miners were interred elsewhere, behind smaller memorials, under less manicured lawns. The Protestant cemetery, across the street from the one above, is an example. However, most of its tombstones are so weather-beaten now—after a hundred years of neglect—that they are completely illegible. One example, with the badly faded picture of a fellow in suit and tie still upon it, is standing below:
(Can't make out the writing on this monument, like so many others)
This one, which covers a 56-year-old miner who knew no retirement, seems to be the only clear-cut exception.
(Fielding E. Snodgrass, White American in Protestant Cemetery)
One of the nicer resting places for the victims of the Monongah mine disaster is the Grove Cemetery, high atop Tower Hill. This quiet recluse, out of Monongah's view, lies behind a forested ridge facing the town, next to AM Radio Station WMMN's broadcast facilities.
Its transmitter building and tower stand out in the background of the photograph above. In 1938, this station, established ten years before, began using three 280-foot self-supporting towers, radiating 5,000 watts, day and night, in a directional pattern.
The tall trio of red and white towers, with their irregular rhythm of flashing red lights at night, stood watch over Monongah for a long time thereafter. However, due to bad bones, two of these aging giants fell into the obituary columns a few years ago. The survivor, now punching out 5000 watts in the daytime and mellowing down to 200 at night, still steadfastly entertains residents in Monongah and surrounding communities.
The vintage postcard above—recently purchased on Ebay—shows a distant view of Monongah's Tower Hill, behind the old No. 6 Mine operations. No towers appear in the scene because the owners of WMMN secured their new license and land around the Grove Cemetery several years later. Since the graveyard lies behind a windbreak, most of its 1907 miner-memorials still stand up and clearly announce their epitaphs; much more so than those in the Protestant cemetery or, for that matter, those in the Mt. Calvary Catholic Cemetery—two typical examples of which are presented below. Therefore, the Grove Cemetery tombstones dominate this Web page.
(Peter Rossa, a Russian Immigrant in Mt. Calvary Cemetery)
Recounting one of his observations of the mourning Slavs and Italians during one of his walks down the streets of Monongah—two of whom are interred under the stones above and below—Kellogg said that “A hearse drove up to the corner house and the driver beckoned to me and a workman who had come up. There was a coffin to be taken away, and he needed help in lifting it. The women had to be pushed back while he worked at closing the lid. Their cries rose and fell in that half unison of Slavic peoples, which makes almost a ritual of sobbing. The wife stood on the porch as they drove off; bare-armed, stupid in her loss, her face knotted; with two little open-mouthed children whimpering and plucking at her apron, and behind them a grandmother. Across the street, the tears were running down the face of the Italian storekeeper, and she was giving herself up to the impetuous crying of her race.”
(Carmine Prozzillo, an Italian Immigrant in Mt. Calvary)
Describing the events and grieving that took place in and around one of the Monongah churches on December 9, 1907, Kellogg recalled:
“Monday night it was raining heavily, and a hearse was ploughing up through the mud when I reached the little Italian church where for five-years Joseph D’Andrea has ministered unto a great parish of South Italians,** and where last year alone he baptized one hundred and seventy American born children. This year, many others will be born, fatherless.
[Monongah's Italian Roman Catholic church and clerical quarters, early 1900's]
“He was a young, spare man with a quick smile on his dark face. His beard had gone three days without shaving and his eyes were hollow for sleep. ‘It was only one cry all day until now,’ he said, and turned his palms out and dropped his shoulders. Then, in answer to the door, he directed a driver who for two hours had been searching for the right house, and was going back with the body.
“This morning five priests had held mass in St. Stanislaus’s Church and over twenty coffins were ranged in the low-ceilinged room in the basement. They were the first of one hundred and ten whom Father Joseph Letson counted as lost. Many of his people had come early to the church, a-foot, with bowed heads, sorrowing in low voices. Sometimes, a woman was half held up by her companions in that basement, where the coffins lids closed in on blistered, swollen faces, and parts of men. Four or five widows wept convulsively. An older woman read from a religious book held to the flickering light of a candle at the head of a closed coffin.
“A peasant, ugly with her pitted face, but beautiful in her great sorrow, bent often and kissed the lips of her husband. All of a sudden, there was a cry more piercing than the others. It was from an old mother who had lost seven—her husband, a son, two sons-in-law, and three nephews. She had come upon one of them, and the people with her could scarcely hold her. She threw her head on the casket, and spoke to the boy fondly, trying to caress the crumpled face with poor, wrinkled hands. She had moaned all the way that morning from her lonely house to the church door, giving infinite sorrow to those who heard, and here her grief had at last found vent.”
(Rev. K. D. Ryalls, Black American in the Grove Cemetery)
The tombstone above demonstrates that God-fearing miners were not exempt from the wrath of the mighty Monongah mine explosions. They too bowed down to Beelzebub's blasts. And, religious or otherwise, all the family members of the missing miners had a hard time dealing with their ungodly absence.
Kellogg mentioned a “young widow of the English machine man who lived just over No. 8 mine,” who tore out her beautiful yellow hair in grabs,” and went on to add:
“George, the son in this family of womankind, was also a machine man, and as we stood there on the door step, the sisters showed me his picture, that of a clean cut young fellow, taken with his dog in a field. ‘Many the woman was dependent on each day’s wages,’ they said—‘nothing at all ahead—and now that’s cut off. We’re not that way—not quite. Pap was all we had and he was gettin’ old and couldn’t do so much. But George—soon as he’d get through cutting, he’d come to help load, and so Pap’d make more. That was the way with George—five girls, the only brother we had, and he that good to us! And such a good wife.’
“One after another the sisters broke in with parts of the story. ‘Pap was singing the morning he left when he went to work—we heard him as far’s it carried. It was Nearer My God to Thee. That’s what he was singing. They worked three miles in—Pap and George—right under us.’
“Two of the girls broke off there and ran into the house, and a third, who had come out and was combining her hair while we talked, gave it a savage twist that would have brought tears to her eyes if they hadn’t been there already. ‘Oh, we know we’ve got to give him up. We know he’s dead; but if we could only get his body out of the pit.’”
(Richard Farmer, a Black American in Grove Cemetery)
Black coal miners, 11 in number, died beside their white comrades in the pit. Only one escaped. “John Newton (colored),” according to Davitt McAteer, “who was standing about fifty feet from the entrance of No. 8 mine, was the only man directly affected by the explosion who escaped with his life.” In Monongah, The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in US History, he added: “He was injured by the force of the explosion, suffering the loss of his right eye and the middle finger on his right hand.”
((David Riggins, a White American in Grove Cemetery)
“No kindred were within reach of many of the foreign families who were stricken,” wrote Kellogg
“That was the great lump in the throat of women who rushed down the river banks to the mines that fierce day when the earth shook as far as Fairmont. They knew—those wives and sweethearts and mothers—which opening their men worked in and down the steep hill roads they came, slipping and heaving in the mud, dragging their children and stumbling along the tracks and hurtling across the bridge that leads from No. 3 hill. The first dispatches told of women who tore their hair, or clawed their nails into the flesh of their cheeks or threatened to throw their babies in the river.
[No. 3 Hill sits across the West Fork River, behind the No. 8 Tipple and B & O tracks, bridge is not shown]
“The wife of the Presbyterian minister told me that she saw these things. Such a woman had run back along the railroad tracks tearing at her face and hair. They quieted her. Three sons, three brothers, a husband—all were in the mine she said.”
[The west side of the bridge from No. 3 Hill spans the streetcar tracks by the No. 8 mine damage above]
Some of the dead miners were well known. “One such was was John M. McGraw, member and leader of the First Regiment Band of Fairmont, whose father had been killed in the mines ten years earlier,” wrote A. A. Hoehling, in Disaster, Major American Catastrophes. “Many more were little known, such as José Abatta, fourteen, a trapper boy who had not lived long enough to cut much of a figure around Monongah.”
“Five Greeks had shared one house. It echoed now only to the footsteps of the vandals who thoroughly ransacked it before the National Guard’s patrol and shoot-to-kill orders had proved effective.
“Some families had been rocked so many times by violence that they were numb: that, for example, of Fred Rogers, the fourth member to perish in an accident. Many miners, men in their late thirties or forties, left large families, five or six children, in ages descending to the crib. On one street, not a husband, father, or son of legal age had been left alive. By one count, there were 250 new widows and 1,000 children denied the support of a father, older brother, or other breadwinner.”
(Calvin Johnakin, Black American, Grove)
(Charles Farmer, a Black American in the Grove Cemetery)
Homer Pyles, White American, Grove)
“One of the relief workers told me of a group of English speaking families,” recalled Kellogg. “The names are of my invention. Tom Morley and his son were killed. His wife has five other children, the youngest but a year old. He had paid up a $2,000 insurance policy on Thanksgiving Day, and Daniel Rupert, dead in the same entry, left a house over his wife and children, which he had built himself. These widows were fortunate as fortune went, but you must remember that the oldest Morley boy is twelve and that the oldest Rupert boy is eleven. David Keefe died four years ago, and during most those four years Mrs. Keefe had taken in washings, keeping three of her children with her, the boys, and her people caring for her two little girls.
“The older boys, sixteen and fourteen, worked in the pit and Tom was killed when the mine blew up. ‘Do you wonder I dread the mine,” she said. ‘Larry shan’t go in again. He must get work elsewhere, and I’m going at the washings, once more; but the town’s a wreck, and how much there’ll be of it I can’t guess.’ ‘She fought a brave battle those four years, did Mrs. Keefe,’ my informant said. ‘And she’s pretty well broken down with overwork. The boys’ earnings had come in the nick of time; but they had no money ahead. She had forty-five cents when they brought Tom home.’”
Willie Walls, White American in Grove Cemetery)
In one his interviews with mourning Monongah, immediately after the grim reaper swept through, Kellogg said an Italian woman exclaimed to him in broken English, “Woman cry all time.” “She told me of a country-woman, the mother of four little children, who had lost her husband, one son of nineteen, and a trapper boy of thirteen.”
(Robert Charlton, Jr., a White American Boy in Grove Cemetery)
The young fellow lying under this tombstone was only 13 years old when he paid the ultimate price for mining Monongah's black diamonds. However, Robert Charlton, Jr. was not alone. McAteer pointed out that “Charles Honaker, 15 years old, a trapper, was caught at the entrance of No. 8, 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.”
The West Fork River, looking south toward the No. 8 Mine)
This, however, did not halt child labor—or the untimely demise of young children working in coal mines, as slate pickers, mule drivers, and trapper boys thereafter. Others also met premature deaths. 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.”
For anyone seeking to eventually lie down close to heaven in a fine cemetery, with dead heroes like these who were just trying to feed their families when they abruptly passed on, note the information provided on the front and back of this business card.
On a livelier note, we should mention that after the tragic explosions in the Numbers 6 and 8 Monongah coal mines in 1907, Peter Urban, shown in the U. S. Bureau of Mines photograph below, was one of the few miners found alive.
He escaped the full blast of the explosion and was brought up to the light of day through a toad hole near the No. 8 portals. However, sad to say, this hard-working Polish immigrant, who survived the worst industrial accident in United States history, died 19 years later in an accident in the same Monongah coal mine from which he previously escaped. The poor fellow's luck finally ran out!
*Charities and The Commons was a weekly magazine published by a New York charity-organization. Its January 4, 1908 issue contained a long, nineteen-page story on "Monongah" and included several photographs, and illustrations by Joseph Stella. This Italian-born American Futurist painter (1877-1946) is best known for his depictions of industrial America.
**The emigration of non-literate peasants from southern Italy to the United States was becoming a problem for both countries by 1906, and some of these immigrants came to Monongah to seek their fortunes in the coal fields, wherein many would unfortunately find permanent rest at a premature age. In fact, the immigration of Italians to America was threatening to depopulate southern Italy. In an article in Charities and The Commons, under the title of “The Effect of Emigration Upon Italy, Threatened Depopulation of the South,” Antonio Magano pointed out:
“While we, in America, are considering the restriction of immigration by means of an educational test, the Italian parliament has spent several sessions discussing the possibility of forbidding the emigration of those who cannot read and write. This would leave the educated classes free to emigrate, but would greatly restrict the emigration of the southern peasants who are needed to till the fields. Only last March, one of the members of Parliament pointed out the fact that emigration, if it continued at the present rate, would surely prove a severe injury to the country. Mr. Celsea said:”
'The exodus of our people threatens to be in the near future far and beyond that which we believe and threatens to absorb that gradual increment of population which for some years past had been our pride. Allow me to remind you that tour emigration from 88,000 in 1886, from 503,000 in 1903, enormously increased in 1905 to 726,000. During the first half of this year (up to March), the number is 458,000, a tremendous increase over 1905. Alongside of this fearful increase in emigration is the decrease in the number of those who return. For if in 1905, 78 per cent returned, in 1906, only 23 or 28 per cent.
[Italian emigrants lined up in Naples to buy tickets for America from ill-starred Titanic's White Star Line]
'In the southern provinces, we found almost universal desire to emigrate.'"
That desire to emigrate sent several of these poor Italian souls up in the smoke from the tragic 1907 Monongah coal mine explosion.
This page was last modified on Wednesday, January 20, 2016