Friday, November 13, 2009

1909 Cherry Mine Disaster

I recently received an email from Ray Peacock. Many of you know him from his website and his contributions to this blog. Here is part of the email he sent me:

I went to our NRHS chapter meeting in Rockford, Illinois Saturday night, the presenter was from LaSalle IL by the name of Ray Tutaj Jr. He put on a 25 minute program about the Cherry IL mine disaster, which happened in November 1909 and killed 259 coal miners in North Central, Illinois.

There was a mine at Cherry that pulled coal out and Milwaukee Road tapped it for coal reserves for their system, using the Janesville, Wisconsin gateway. Ray Tutaj Jr. spent 10 years researching this and put together an entire HO layout of the Cherry Mine, featured on display in Cherry IL. Library.

The Cherry Mine had been opened in 1905 by the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad to supply coal for their trains. The miners included a large number of immigrants, heavily Italian, many of whom could not speak English. Boys as young as 11 years old also worked the mine.

On Saturday, November 13, 1909, like most days, nearly 500 men and boys, and three dozen mules, were working in the mine. Unlike most days, an electrical outage earlier that week had forced the workers to light kerosene lanterns and torches, some portable, some set into the mine walls.

Shortly after noon, a coal car filled with hay for the mules caught fire from one of the wall lanterns. Initially unnoticed and, by some accounts, ignored by the workers, efforts to move the fire only spread the blaze to the timbers supporting the mine.

The large fan was reversed in an attempt to blow out the fire, but this only succeeded in igniting the fan house itself as well as the escape ladders and stairs in the secondary shaft, trapping more miners below.

The two shafts were then closed off to smother the fire, but this also had the effect of cutting off oxygen to the miners, and allowing the “black damp,” a suffocating mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, to build up in the mine.

Some 200 men and boys made their way to the surface, some through escape shafts, some using the hoisting cage. Some miners who had already escaped returned to the mine to aid their coworkers. Twelve of these, lead by John Bundy, made six dangerous cage trips, rescuing many others.

The seventh trip, however, proved fatal when the cage operator misunderstood the miners' signals and brought them to the surface too late - the rescuers and those they attempted to rescue were burned to death.

One group of miners trapped in the mine built a makeshift wall to protect themselves from the fire and poisonous gasses. Although without food, they were able to drink from a pool of water leaking from a coal seam moving deeper into the mine to escape the black damp.

Eight days later, the 21 survivors tore down the wall and made their way through the mine in search of more water, but came across a rescue party instead.

Photo: Jeremy Oehlert - June 14, 2007

LINK: Photographs Courtesy of the Library of Congress

LINK: Ray Tutaj Jr. Bio and Videos on YouTube


Ray Peacock said...

Richard, thanks for posting this story. For all those interested, be sure to check out Mr. Tutaj's Coal Miner Blues composition, it is really great:

Major Pepperidge said...

Wow, I can't imagine anything much more terrifying than being trapped far below ground with a fire (and smoke) raging out of control nearby.