One of America’s deadliest mining disasters occurred in the small town of Cherry, Illinois one hundred years ago on November 13, 1909 when 259 miners lost their lives.
Located in Bureau County Illinois—approximately 90 miles southwest of Chicago—Cherry was a newly erected town built near the mine named after James Cherry who was superintendent of the St. Paul Coal mines and owned by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (C.M. & St. P) railroad that had opened the mines in 1905 to supply coal for its trains.
The mine below consisted of three levels or “veins”. The first level was 165 feet below the surface, the second level was 315 feet below the surface and the third level was about 500 feet below. The veins were connected vertically by two shafts 100 yards apart from one another. The main shaft was capped by an 85-foot steel tower which was used to lower and raise a hoisting cage. Located in a fan house off the secondary shaft, a large fan was used to push fresh air into the mine.
Once the mine was fully operational approximately 1500 tons of coal were mined daily (the first vein was not mined because the coal had little commercial value) and used for the railroad. Life was hard for the miners who were paid a fixed rate of $1.08 per ton; a good day was about 5 tons from two miners. A majority of the miners were Italian immigrants many whom could not speak very much English. Additionally, boys as young as 11 years also worked in the mine.
On Saturday, November 13, 1909 like most days in the mine, 500 men and boys and three dozen mules were working the mine. The tragedy began all because of a lapse of safety precautions and a simple accident. Earlier in the week there had been a power outage; as such kerosene torches were used to illuminate the mine shafts. Shortly after noon on that fateful day, the mine and town’s fate were sealed forever when a mine car filled with six upright bales of hay to feed the mules was pushed in a spot where one of these kerosene torches was hung. Tragically and initially unbeknownst to any of the miners, either a spark or burning oil from the torch ignited the hay below.
At first the smoldering fire in the hay load was not noticed by the miners. Efforts to put out the fire proved futile when the blaze spread to the wooden timbers that shored up the walls and the ceiling and then, the coal vein itself. When word of the fire reached the surface, the large fan that was used to provide fresh air was then reversed in the hope that the smoke would be sucked up; this worked initially and allowed many miners to reach the surface.
However, disaster would strike again when the fan house caught on fire that also spread to the escape ladders and stairs in the secondary shaft that unfortunately trapped more miners below.
To prevent the fire from spreading more, the two shafts were closed off to smother the fire. However, this also cut off oxygen to the trapped miners below resulting in “black damp” a poisonous combination of carbon dioxide and nitrogen resulting from the burning coal that would build up in the mine and asphyxiate many of the miners below.
Miraculously, with the fires burning below and the deadly black damp strangling the life out of the men and boys trapped below, nearly 200 miners were able to make their way to the surface.
Twelve of these miners, once they reached the surface, volunteered to go back down into the mine and rescue the trapped miners using the hoisting cage in the main shaft. There were some immediate heroes like miner John Bundy, who made six trips back down into the mine to rescue his fellow workers, perhaps some who were his friends.
However, on the seventh and final trip back down into the mine, the cage operator either got the signals mixed up or misunderstood them from one of the miners and brought the cage and the miners back up to the surface too late. The rescuers and the rescued miners were burnt to death to the horror of family members, miners, mining officials and others who had crowded around the shaft.
Although more than 200 miners had made it to the surface—the shocking truth now sunk in for those with loved ones and friends below: the last exit was gone; there was no way to reach the men and boys still trapped below. As for those still trapped below, some men scribbled out messages to loved ones before the smoke overtook them and died. While most of these miners died a horrible, slow death, 21 miners managed to move to the far end of the vein and sealed themselves off from the rest of the vein and more importantly the deadly smoke.
With only a few minutes of light, these 21 men would sit in total darkness for the next eight days before they were rescued. Without food or water, they ate their own leather belts and shoes and even drank their own urine to survive.
Up above, mine officials sealed off the two shafts with timber and dirt to smother the fire raging below by denying it oxygen. This enraged family members and villagers who thought the company was only concerned about the coal and not the lives of the miners below. The company, fearing the worst requested the governor send the State militia to quell any violence and maintain order in the village. As for the cage operator who got the signals mixed up, he had to flee Cherry for his own safety.
In the meantime, four trapped miners below decided to try to see if they could make it to the surface. They crawled along the darkened passageway over the bodies of their fellow miners and started for the surface. As these brave souls neared the main shaft they were discovered by a rescue party. The company’s steam whistle sounded the good news and family members and villagers rushed back to the mine.
However, the hopes for many who thought their loved ones were still alive were immediately dashed when only 21 men emerged from the mine that day. There would be no more survivors.
It took approximately six months to retrieve all the bodies from the mine. Funerals where held almost daily for the lost coal miners. In the end, 241 men and boys had survived and 259 had perished below the prairies of Illinois and the village of Cherry. Those who died in this disaster left behind 160 widows and 470 children—of these 407 were under 14 years old.
Despite the tragedy which befell this tiny Midwestern community and the loss of life a year later, the St. Paul Coal Company reopened the mine and worked it until 1927 after which the Cherry Coal Company bought the mine and worked it until the mid 1930s.
A year after the Cherry Mine Disaster, the Illinois Legislature enacted tougher safety regulations as well as workman’s compensation laws.
(For further reading on the Cherry Mine Disaster there are two excellent books about the disaster: Black Damp by Steve Stout and Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori.)