The Worst US and UK Coal Mining Disasters in History

Two of the worst coal mining disasters in history, one in US and one in the UK, took place only six years apart – in West Virginia in 1907 and Wales in 1913.  Let’s take a closer look at them both.

December 6, 1907 – Fairmont Coal Company, Monongah, West Virginia – 361 Dead

    Fairmont Mine Disaster, Monongah, WV, 1907
    Fairmont Mine Disaster, Monongah, WV, 1907

    On the 6th of December 1907, a massive explosion ripped through the Fairmont Coal Company’s No. 6 and 8 mines in Monongah, West Virginia. The powerful blast shook the earth above and was heard miles away.  It killed at least 361 men and boys, making it the worst mine disaster in U.S. history. Most of the men at the Fairmont Mine were recent immigrants from Italy, Hungary, and Russia living in the small village. The actual cause of the disaster is disputed to this day.

    Hundreds of men and boys entered the No. 6 and 8 Mines of the Fairmont Coal Company on the morning of Friday, December 6th, 1907.  Coal mining was, and still is, a dangerous profession and there were no child labor laws back then. American miners died regularly to produce enough coal to feed the booming steel and railroad industries of the U.S.  Ironically, the Monongah Fairmont Mine was thought to be one of the safest in the country.

    Then, at 10:20 AM, a huge explosion occurred in the No. 8 Mine.  The blast continued its destructive path to the connected No. 6 Mine.  It was so great, the concrete roof of the engine house was torn to chunks.  One piece was blown more than 500 yards away.  The shock wave was felt as far away as 8 miles and damage was not confined to the mines alone. The glass windows in Monongah were shattered. Streetcars were derailed. People and horses on the streets were thrown to the ground.

    Deep under the earth, those who didn’t die instantly in the blast were slowly asphyxiated by the spread of deadly gases, replacing the breathable air.  Directly after the explosion, only 4 miners stumbled from the smoke and ashes, dazed and covered in coal dust.  They were unable to tell anyone what had happened or if anyone below had survived. Ironically, Fairmont was considered to be a ‘modern’ mine, with technological advances for producing as coal as fast as possible.  At an inspection just two months earlier, officials had praised the operation.

    There were no mine rescue teams in those days. 

    People above ground began to frantically move wood and rocks from the entrance in an attempt to reach those trapped inside. Wrecked cars and heavy timbers blocked the tunnel, but more worrisome was the so called “blackdamp” (methane gas) inside the mines.  The first brave volunteer rescuers were quickly overcome with fumes and had to be rescued themselves. The village of Monongah was unprepared for the disaster.  Additional forces were hurried in from adjacent cities and towns.

    After 6 back-breaking hours, one miner was rescued at about 4 PM.  Volunteers had heard moaning around a crop hole. About 100 feet down, Peter Urban was found crying hysterically, sitting next to the body of his dead brother. A dozen doctors stayed closed to the mine openings all day, but their services were barely needed.  Urban would be the last living man recovered.  The Dec. 7th issue of the Fairmont Times shouted the headline: “All Hope is Gone.”  The newspaper estimated the death toll would be around 425. In a morgue established at the Monongah National Bank, only six dead bodies lay. 

    That first terrible day, frantic women clustered around the opening of the mines.  Their collective moans of agony could be heard into the town. One Italian woman, whose brother, husband, and son were among the dead, tore out her hair. Grief-stricken mothers, wives, sisters and girlfriends waited and wept. Some prayed, some sung hymns, and some became hysterical.

    Miners from as far away as Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio raced to Monongah.

    Rescue crews with just picks and shovels inched through acres of underground shafts and gangways, battling cave-ins and deadly gases. Many acts of bravery were performed by the volunteers who entered the mines in search of survivors.  As ventilation was restored, the mutilated bodies of men and boys—some as young as eight—were pulled from the wreckage. Some had died without moving a muscle.

    Fairmont Mine officials, as well as those of the B & O Railroad, took an active part in the relief effort. The appeal for funds to carry on the relief work for the families met with a quick response. Mass meetings were held in a number of towns throughout WV at which contributions were made to a relief fund for the families. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie himself made a liberal donation to the comfort and care of the survivors.

    As the week progressed, the makeshift morgue overflowed, and bodies lined the street outside. Men dug graves in the hillsides and families struggled to identify their loved ones.  Three days later, the death toll reached 175. Within a week, 337 bodies had been recovered. Hopeful families still kept vigil at the entrance, but rescuers knew the chance of finding any more alive was slim.

    During the clean-up of the mine in the weeks to come, 25 more bodies were found. That left the official death toll at 362 men and boys. But everyone knew that number was much greater.  The actual number of deaths was likely much higher because the mine’s identification ledgers were also destroyed in the explosion.

    There was a great deal of speculation about what caused the disaster. 

    The Fairmont Mine was considered the best equipped in the state. A state mine inspector two months before the disaster had expressed himself as “being well pleased with its condition.” He said there were no traces of gas or dust. So to investigators, there was no grounds, as far as the inspector’s report was concerned, for the explosion being caused by methane gas or coal dust.

    Inspectors wrote that the lack of living miners to provide any information as to the conditions at the time of the explosion, plus the sheer devastation below made determining the cause next to impossible.  In January 1908, Chief Mine Inspector James Paul reported that the explosion was caused by “either a blown out shot, or by the igniting of coal powder.” As to what caused the initial explosion, the evidence and opinions were conflicting.  

    On January 16, the verdict of the coroner’s jury upheld the opinion of Chief Mine Inspector Paul.  They further stated that in the operating of the mine, the company had complied with the laws of the state of West Virginia.  With over 60,000 persons employed in the state’s mines, they recommend that only 6 additional mine inspectors be appointed.

    In the following weeks, 3 other major mine disasters occurred, prompting the month to be called ‘‘Black December.’’ In all, 3,241 American miners were killed that year, the most in a single year in US history. Yet in spite of that number, large corporate mines, including Monongah, continued to ignore safety precautions, like banning open candles, watering walls to prevent dust, and conducting methane gas detection.

    The public could agree on one thing – something had to be done to improve coal mine safety.

    Monongah Mine Disaster Memorial
    Monongah Mine Disaster Memorial

    As a result of the national outcry, Congress was forced to initiate reforms. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt asked for formation of a federal agency to oversea mines. Two years later, the Bureau of Mines was formed. It would be responsible for looking into mining disasters and inspecting mines to make sure they were safe for miners.

    Today, there are two historical markers in Monongah, WV — one for the miners killed and one dedicated to the mothers, wives and children left behind.  There is also one in San Giovanni del Fiore, Italy, where a large number of the miners came from. In 2009, Congress designated December 6th, the day of the Monongah disaster, as “National Miners Day.”

    October 14, 1913 – Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, Wales – 439 Dead

    Universal Colliery Mine Disaster, Senghenydd, Wales, 1913
    Universal Colliery Mine Disaster, Senghenydd, Wales, 1913

    At 8 AM on Tuesday the 14th of October 1913, a methane explosion ripped through Universal Colliery in Senghenydd near Caerphilly, in southern Wales. The explosion was the worst in the history of British mining. 439 men and boys were either killed in the explosion or suffocated from the effects of carbon monoxide left after the blast.  The death toll could have been far worse as 950 miners had been down Universal’s three shafts at the time of the explosion.  

    The Universal Colliery was at the head of the Aber Valley, Glamorganshire, 12 miles from Cardiff. It was owned by Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Limited.  For the last 12 years, Edward Shaw had been the manager of the colliery. The Universal Steam Coal Company had dug its first shaft at Senghenydd in 1891. In the years leading up to World War I, there was an unprecedented demand for Welsh coal, most of it being used on Royal Navy battleships. The privately-owned Universal Company prospered handsomely.

    The village of Senghennydd grew up around the Universal Coal Company. As the demand for coal increased, deep mines became much more profitable to work, despite the difficulties of mining under these dangerous conditions.  Miners worked in confined spaces, with frequent flooding, flammable gas and the ever present coal dust. Senghennydd was very familiar with all these dangers. In 1901, there was a severe explosion in the very same mine when 82 were killed. But 12 years later, there would be another disaster in the same place, the most severe in UK history.

    Universal Colliery coal mine was the largest employer in the area. Following the explosion of 1901, recommendations were made regarding deep mine safety, and the dangers of the Universal mine were well known.  But production continued to increase with little change, as did the number of workers working underground under dangerous conditions.

    At 8 AM on Tuesday morning, October 14th, a huge explosion rocked the town of Senghenydd.   

    On that particular day, nearly 950 men were working below ground. Half would be killed or injured by the violent explosion and release of poisonous gas before they even knew what had happened.  Before the hour was out, it was clear to everyone above ground, miners and their families alike, that this disaster was to be a tragedy of major proportions.

    The explosion was most likely ignited by an spark from electric signaling gear igniting methane gas, “firedamp” as it was called back then. Then the methane explosion caused coal dust lying thick on the floor of the mine to rise up.  This then caught fire and exploded outward in a second gigantic roar. The shock wave caused even more coal dust to rise and ignite. In effect, what happened was a series of cascading explosions.

    The blast was so violent, that it blew a 2 ton cage back up the mine shaft, destroying the winding gear at the pithead. A miner standing close by was decapitated by a piece of flying debris.  The fires spread through the underground gangways, quickly followed by “afterdamp” – gasses formed by the explosion, mainly carbon monoxide.  This meant those miners who’d escaped the explosion gradually suffocated due to lack of oxygen.

    Rescue teams from Cardiff rushed to the scene, but attempts at getting survivors out was hampered by fallen debris, roof collapses and raging fires. Stories of heroism and tragedy were everywhere. They managed to find some men and boys still alive in the wreckage.  By the early hours of Wednesday morning, only 18 had been rescued alive. The anxious Senghenydd families greeted each rescue with shouts of joy and the belief that their own loved ones would soon be next.

    But the hopefulness of the rescue was tinged with anger, as many felt the mine’s owners and manager had failed to heed the warnings of the disaster 9 years earlier. For those who grew up in the village, it was a feeling which never went away. Everyone in Senghenydd was touched by the tragedy as the total number of dead constituted about one in eight of the population. The emotional wounds took long to heal because of the sense it was an avoidable disaster.

    Work continued until all survivors or bodies were recovered from the mine.

    As the days wore on, survivors grew fewer and the carrying of bodies became the norm. The rescue attempt lasted three weeks, although by then, everyone knew the chances of finding anyone alive had long since passed. Some of the bodies had been so badly mutilated that they could only be identified by the clothing they wore. One man was recognized by new boots he’d worn for the first time that day; a young boy by the patch his mother had sewn onto his jacket.

    The official report on the disaster does not even list the victims by name, but rather gives only a number, job, and the cause of death. 421 bodies were identified and eight were not. The number included seven who were brought from the mine alive and later died in the hospital. Eleven bodies were left in the mine, buried under falls too massive to clear, which brought the total death toll to 439.

    Because of the scale of the tragedy, there was much interest across Britain in what had happened. Photographer W. Benton reached the area shortly after the disaster in order to record the event, later publishing a series of 25 postcards. The black & white images were similar to what we would expect on television or the internet today.

    The manager and owners were prosecuted, but the result was a disappointment for the mourning families.  Despite the resulting enquiry, which found numerous errors that faulted the owners and manager; when compensation and fines were levied they came to a mocking £24 on mine manager, Edward Shaw.  As one newspaper commented, it meant that a miner’s life was worth little more than six pence. 

    All charges were dropped against the mine owners.

    Senghenydd Mine Disaster Memorial
    Senghenydd Mine Disaster Memorial

    The Universal Colliery was back in use by the end of November.  The outbreak of World War I, just a year later, sadly obscured the memory of Senghenydd in British minds. Outside of Wales, few Brits recall it, and only vaguely know it had something to do with coal mining.  Very few people appreciate how serious it was, the sheer scale of the devastation, and the raw emotions of the people involved.

    The Universal Colliery mine lasted another decade.  Miners were given just one day’s notice before its closure in 1928. The Senghenydd shaft was finally filled in, in 1979. No memorial for the victims was unveiled until 68 years later in 1981.  Nant y Parc Primary School, which now stands on the site of the former mine, is where the memorial sits.

    The real tragedy of both Monongah and Senghenydd does not lie in just the 1907 and 1913 disasters. The history of the US and UK corporate industrial past is littered with greed, exploitation, tragedy, loss and grief.   But no other mine disasters in the US and UK are worse than Monongah and Senghenydd, the 2 days when similar avoidable tragedies, struck similar unfortunate villages, in the span of just six short years. 

    Today, we see the harmful, climate-changing effects on our planet of burning coal since the start of the Industrial Revolution.  After two centuries however, with the dawn of other sources of energy, the end is perhaps finally in sight for the global coal mining industry.  One can only hope.

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    Published by andrewspaulw

    LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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