November 13, 1909 started out just like any other day at the mine in Cherry, Illinois. There were approximately 490 men and boys, some as young as 11 years old, working that Saturday. Almost all were immigrants.
The Cherry Mine was considered one of the safest mines in the Midwest. And it had electricity for illumination. But a few weeks prior to this fateful day, the wires had shorted out and the mine went dark. The miners had to resort to using candles and kerosene lamps to light their way and the veins of the coal mine.
This particular mine had three horizontal veins that were connected by two vertical shafts. The main shaft had a mechanical hoisting cage, the other pushed in fresh air from large fans situated on top. Both had wooden stairs and ladders.
There were over 50 mules that worked beside the miners. They were stabled in the third and deepest vein, about 500 feet below the surface.
Between 12:00 and 1:00 pm on this infamous day, someone had carelessly left a wagon with six bales of hay under a dripping kerosene lamp. In no time, a spark flew from the lamp, igniting the hay. So the fire spread, licking up the wooden framing of the mine. The miners, young and old, began to panic and scrambled up the stairs, or used the hoisting cage.
A whistle had blown alerting the town of an accident in the mine. People started coming from all over.
Someone decided to reverse the fans so as to suck up the air, hoping to put the flame out. This only spread the fire, lighting up the escape hatch and made matters worse. At this point, 200 miners had escaped.
Here is one lucky miner who got out okay.
But miners were now trapped below in the third vein.
Here is a photo of people rushing to the mine on Sunday morning.
Twelve miners who had escaped went back down in the cage to help rescue their fellow workers. Six times they went down and successfully brought up survivors. On the seventh attempt there was a mix up in the signals as to when to hoist up the cage, and when it was finally lifted, all the men were dead, their bodies still on fire. The waiting families were horrified. Women fainted, men cried, and children ran away from the scene.
It was decided to seal the two shafts to smother the fire. This caused a huge upheaval among the waiting crowd, thinking that the remaining miners would be forgotten.
The downside of smothering the fire was cutting off oxygen to the miners, causing "black damp" which is a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, in turn, suffocating the men and boys.
Soldiers were brought in to control the crowds who were enraged over the sealing of the mine.
A photo of the makeshift morgue:
Three from one family: A father, a son, and a brother
Funeral procession down the street:
But something good happened from sealing the mine. Eight days later, when the mine was cool enough to enter after the fire had gone out, firemen entered the mine with the thought to bring up dead bodies. They could not believe when they heard weak cries for help and found four miners still alive. These miners told them of the other 17 miners that were farther back in the mine. All 21 miners had holed themselves up in an area for 8 days with no food and very little water. Their only light lasted from Saturday until Tuesday. Once again the mine's whistle blew, but this time for joy, as the townspeople ran to see what the news was. In this picture, if you look carefully, you can see the man with his arms raised, exclaiming, "THEY'RE ALIVE!"
When all was said and done, 259 men and boys died from the Cherry Mine Disaster. Because of this horrible event, it caused the State Legislature to establish stricter regulations for mine safety and to pass a Workmen's Compensation Act making an employer liable even when there is contributory negligence.
There is a beautiful memorial in the local cemetery in Cherry devoted to the miners.
Here is a full view of it.
Here is a close up of the same statue:
The woman/angel is wearing a beautiful gown that drapes the stairs. Here's a view of that:
Some of the miners are buried in this little cemetery on the side of the road in the town of Cherry. Here are some of their tombstones.
The only thing that is left from the mine today are the slag piles.
The remaining buildings are fallen down or torn down. The mine is now located on private property.
On Saturday, November 14th and Sunday, November 15, 2009, the town of Cherry will be honoring the 100th anniversary of the Cherry Mine Disaster. There will be a tour of the mine area and cemetery.
For more information click this website by Ray Tutaj He has done a wonderful job and a lot of research putting all the information together on this disaster. All the black and white photos are courtesy of his website. All the photos of the cemetery are mine.