“Monongah,” a long article by Paul U. Kellogg, in the January 4, 1908 issue of Charities and The Commons, was reviewed in the February 1908 issue of The American Review of Reviews.
Therein, under the department of “Leading Articles of the Month,” the reviewer, under the title “The Greatest Coal-Mine Disaster in our History,” wrote a very informative review that brings our attention to the coal mining problems that existed in the Monongah mines at the time. The entire review, with our illustrations and bracketed descriptions included, runs as follows:
To the long list of mining disasters in this country that in the mines of the Fairmont Coal Company, at Monongah, W. Va., on December 6, 1907, must be added, with the observation that its death tally is the most appalling in American coal-mining history. Death made a clean sweep that day, and his harvest was 344 souls—miners, bosses, and engineers—every man below ground when his signal came, save four, who escaped somewhat miraculously through a toad hole.’
[Polish Immigrant Peter Urban,
one of the four toad-hole survivors]
That desolation’s hand is heavy on the bereaved in Monongah, and that it is still resounding with a ritual of sobbing, is inferable from the statistics of this awful visitation. Approximately 250 widows, 1000 children, and many aged persons have been left without means of support, and this does not include unborn children—the greatest hardship of all.
The population of the town was about 3000, so the disaster has destroyed about one-half of its breadwinners. Most of the families live in the company’s houses, and as many of them desire to return to their relatives in Europe, the little town may be materially depopulated within a short time.
[Fairmont Coal's company-owned houses overlook the bluff above the entrance to the No. 6 mine]
In Charities and The Commons for January 4, Mr. Paul U. Kellogg contributes a graphic and comprehensive article on the explosion, its apparent causes, its effects on the people, the economic and social questions involved, the rescue work, and the measures for precaution in mine-working, as well from the viewpoint of the employer and employee as from the State itself. “West Virginia mines,” says he, “have a bad name. We know that they kill a great number of men in the course of a year.”
Number 6 and 8 (in which men lost their lives) of the Monongah mines are splendidly equipped from a production standpoint. No. 8 is a new mine; its tipple is the biggest in West Virginia.
[The No. 8 Mine tipple is located across the West Fork River, at the center, behind the railroad tracks]
A giant fan whirred at the mouth of a separate air-way. Machines did the cutting and electricity ran the cars that carried the coal.
When the mine was running, the great fan referred to sucked the wind up the air-way at the rate of fifty miles an hour—against which a man could not stand in so small a passage.
Thus, to falling masses, and darkness and gas, new hybrid forces, half safe-guards, half dangers of the air—explosives and wind and lightning are added. Despite the electric apparatus, the West Virginia statues prescribe no standards to safeguard the lives of the miners. No apprenticeship is necessary, and no examination, for such positions as mine foreman or fire boss. The machine has led to an influx of foreigners—instructions in seven languages are hung at the mouth of the Monongah mines—who know practically nothing about the dangers within a mine, and consequently, are unable to exercise the care essential to their own safety.
In the light of the recent explosions, the vital question is whether mere wiliness to sell your labor is to remain the badge that admits to a mine, or whether some positive standard of efficiency shall not be required by law, even if it raises the labor cost, before a man is turned loose in the offings.
DUST VERSUS GAS AS THE CAUSE
Various rumors were current as to the cause at Monongah. Some laid it to gas. A mining engineer held that a runaway trip of cars had smashed the electric wiring deep in the mines, and that the presence of coked dust throughout the headings after the explosion proved that coal dust rather than gas was to blame.
[Electric motor pulling a trip of coal cars from the No. 6 Mine, across the West Fork River to the tipple]
The officials claimed that a “windy shot” had caused the trouble, for under the West Virginia code there is no provision for clearing away the dust from a chain saw after a machine operation before shooting the blast, as there is in France.
[Survivors of the Courrières mine disaster in France on 10 March 1906—when 1,099 coal miners died]*
The general manager stoutly maintains that there never has been any gas in the mines, and that economy in operation and equipment has never been attained at the expense of the miners’ safety. These however, are questions for the consideration of the State and federal authorities.
MAGNIFICENT RESCUE WORK
Of the rescue work, the writer speaks in tones of commendation. An Italian laborer, outside the Catholic church, where services were being conducted for the dead, offered to carry the coffins to the churchyard, remarking in broken English: “Every one is the brother of the other, no matter what nationality he belongs to.”
It was that spirit that brought the president, vice-president, and directors by special train to the mines and kept them there day and night. Likewise, other miners from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio—all volunteers, expert in feeling their way in “after air,” in building brattices; and clearing entries, and willing to work seventy-two hours at stretch, if necessary. “This mustering of the minute men of the coal pits,” says he, “is one of the finest things in industrial life in America to-day.” Nos. 6 and 8 were on the same bank, a mile and a half apart, and connected underground. The roof caved in only in a few places, and it was mainly “after-damp” that the rescuers had to fight. Their principal weapons were boards, canvas, and cement, and a spinning fan at the mine mouth.
[Monongah mine "Rescue Workers" drawn by Joseph Stella in Charities and The Commons, Jan. 4, 1908]
He describes the work as follows:
“The entries of a mine are parallel tunnels connected every so often with cut-offs, like rungs on a ladder. Butt entries similar to the main entries branch off at right angles to the latter, and from these butt entries open out the chambers, or rooms, from which the coal is cleared. The fans forced the air down one entry until it came to a cut off, around which the current set, coming back up the other entry. The men followed the air, until they reached the cut-off, where they set up a brattice, or temporary partition, blocking the connecting passage. Then the air current had to push on to the next cut-off before it could find an outlet to the other entry.
“The men followed a gang of from fifteen to thirty-five, the explorers leading, lifting their safety lamps to the roof and watching the flame. If it lengthened there was fire-damp** there, and they would know they were treading on the heels of another explosion and must wait; or else they lowered their lamps and watched the flame.
“If it died down, there was black-damp,*** heavy-settling, but ready to reel over the man that breathed it. Again, they must wait, must go ten feet ahead and try; must hold canvas barricades against the after-damp till their arms ached, while the brattices slowly went up; and all the time must forage for death in that breathless sweater, finding it in a disemboweled mule, or the charred, crushed thing that had been a miner, or a headless trapper boy, or empty shoe.”
[Little trapper boys, like this young fellow, died with their coal-mining fathers, uncles, and other men]
The rescuers**** were mostly English-speaking. The son of a Michigan judge, a young volunteer in a gray sweater, and former mine superintendent, was placed in charge of the explorers. Some of these had no rest for three days and nights.
The company’s policy has been considered liberal in case of the accidents. It never disposes widows, and gives them a chance to make a living at washing or keeping boarders, and requires others to patronize them. It also gives the children employment, and its record for safety precautions was above the State’s standards.
[The Company provided employment to children like this humble little coal miner]
Still, it was not what it might be. The managers of mines in West Virginia have resisted and blocked, says the writer, preventive legislation in that State for many years. “They had kept down unions through which the work sense of the men might have found expression; and they had resisted State supervision. And 344 men were dead.”
Reverting to the families of the suffocated miners, the writer claims that their destitution to-day is owing to the failure of the social mechanism to keep pace with Industrial development by devising ways in which these mobile family groups shall have lodged in them some measure of economic integrity, which shall survive the death of the breadwinner in the mines. The fact that the very homes of the miners were part of the production plant emphasizes the break where an industry turns back to society the families it has used and crippled. A relief fund of $200,000 is being raised for the widows and other sufferers, to which the Fairmont Company contributed $20,000, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission $35,000. It is intended to give to each widow $300, and, also, $200 for each child under sixteen years.
[The sign is located outside the Monongah Municipal Building, along the main street to the the town]
The official death toll of 344, mentioned twice in this review, is not the final official figure, nor is the official figure close to the actual figure. 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.
[This beautiful monument stands in the Mount Calvary Cemetery, along Park Avenue, in Monongah, West Virginia]
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 Russell F. 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.
[Little dirty-face boys like these paid the ultimate price for trying to feed their families]
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.”
The publisher of Fire in the Hole 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 remains the worst mine disaster in the history of the United States.
NOTE: Unfortunately, at the ripe age of 87, World War II veteran Russell F. Bonasso, after a “lifetime of service” to West Virginians and its coal-mining community, passed away on July 30, 2009. Colonel Bonasso lifted himself up by his bootstraps and achieved much throughout his life. However, his greatest memorial—as is witnessed on the back cover of Fire in the Hole—is the honor he gave others:
*This is a cropped postcard photograph of a group of 13 neglected survivors, with their Doctor (#6). The French company cut off rescue operations after only three days, and walled up access to where miners were trapped, in order to protect the remaining coalfaces from the fire burning in the mine. On March 30, 20 days after the fire started, 13 miners emerged through a tunnel to the light of day, without any outside help. Clearly, more lives would have been saved had the company not prematurely cut of rescue operations. The survivors sustained themselves by eating the food of their dead comrades, a dead horse, and oats from the underground stables. A group of volunteer German mine-safety workers found a final survivor, 32-year-old Auguste Baron, on the 14th of April, with no help from the company.
**The Pittsburgh coal seam that runs through the Monongah mines is notorious for containing fire-damp or Methane gas, the pure form of natural gas. Methane gas is carbureted hydrogen, or marsh gas, which is extremely explosive. Like coal, this colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas forms from the decay of organic matter, and it is difficult to detect. Coal miners often used canaries to detect this invisible presence of this grim reaper before the safety lamp was developed and made readily available.
***Black-damp is a gas that forms as the result of a methane explosion and is generally 15 percent carbon dioxide and 85 percent nitrogen. This fatal gas is heavier than air and lies near the mine floor, waiting to suffocate its victims quickly. Mine explosions also produce Carbon monoxide, which also asphyxiates its victims.
****Three rescuers lost their lives, apparently from being overcome with gas, in the Monongah rescue operations. One of them, Selwyn M. Taylor, came to help from a neighboring mine.