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 Post subject: March 12, 1910
PostPosted: Fri Mar 12, 2010 11:08 pm 
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Location: Anthracite Region of PA
100 years ago today, March 12, 1910, was a sad day in South Wilkes-Barre
By Bill Hastie and Bob Wolensky (Guest Writers)
Published: March 12, 2010


One hundred years ago today, on Saturday evening, March 12, 1910, seven men perished at the No. 5 Shaft of the South Wilkes-Barre Colliery operated by the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company. They all suffocated from "afterdamp" or a mixture of poisonous gases resulting from a methane explosion.

One victim was Irish, and the other six Welsh: Cornelius Gaffney (age 40, laborer), Owen Griffith (29, miner), William M. Jenkins (40, timberman), John Owen Jones (35, laborer), William Jones (35, laborer), Hugh Price (42, laborer), and Evan Williams (40 pumpman). They left 22 children and seven widows. The bodies were not burned and looked fairly peaceful, indicating that bad air rather than massive concussion had killed them. Recovering the remains took several hours because of the mine's unsafe condition.

Colliery superintendent C.F. Huber, as well as mine inspector Thomas H. Price, could not understand the cause of the explosion, particularly since the fire boss, Jacob Jones, had inspected for methane only two hours previous. Because the mine was "gassey," the workers also carried safety lamps and were instructed to check for gas before lighting the open-flame lamps on their mining hats. Officials were further perplexed because the blast occurred in the main underground airway where strong air currents should have prevented a methane build-up.

The official investigation into the tragedy as reported in the state mine inspector's report for 1910 could not fully explain the accumulation, but speculated that something had hampered the air current. The investigators did find that the workers had not used their safety lamps because the devices had not been lit and were still in the victims' coat pockets. It was further surmised that the concussion only knocked the men out so, if the impact had been less, they could possibly have recovered and escaped.

Despite the tragic loss, there were two lucky men that day. One was Mart Williams who had been part of the fatal crew but left his workplace in search of materials. He heard the explosion and attempted to approach his "butties" but was driven back by heat and afterdamp so he fled to the surface. The other was Henry Gaughan who was scheduled to work but stayed home because his wife urged him to attend a church program.

One distinguishing feature of the accident was that all of the deceased were English-speaking and "American." Foreign born mineworkers constituted the majority of anthracite's work force by 1910, so disaster victims were usually Eastern and Southern Europeans.

To assist the victims' families, the Poli Theatre of Wilkes-Barre offered its facilities for a fund raiser. City treasurer (and later mayor) Dan Hart agreed to enlist the entertainers. Thousands of dollars were raised for the grateful families in the days when private charities, rather than public programs, aided workers and their families.

The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed numerous mining disasters across the country. Between 1906 and 1909, for example, there were 8,329 deaths in American mines, including 1,953 in anthracite. The tragedies included the worst ever U.S. disaster at Monongah, West Virginia, in 1907, where 362 bituminous workers died in a gas explosion. To bring greater safety to the mining industry, the federal government established the U.S. Bureau of Mines on May 16, 1910, about two months after the South Wilkes-Barre mishap. But enforcement at the state and federal levels remained fairly weak.

As apparent over the course of anthracite (and bituminous) history, and as still seen today in China and elsewhere, coal mining has been one of the world's most hazardous occupations.

Bill Hastie is a retired miner who has written and spoken widely on anthracite history. Bob Wolensky is an adjunct professor at King's College whose research interests include anthracite history. This article is part of the authors' series on lesser known regional mining tragedies. They will speak on the South Wilkes-Barre Colliery disaster at 7 p.m. on March 23rd at the Earth Conservancy Building, Main Street, Ashley. The talk is sponsored by the Huber Breaker Preservation Society. The public is invited

_________________
Scott K
"Watch Your Top"


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