Illinois possesses a fascinating labor history that offers historians an opportunity to explore the working lives of men and women in a variety of trades and industries over the course of many decades. Robert E. Hartley and David Kenney have made a useful addition to that history in their collaborative monograph Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters. Hartley and Kenney present a detailed account of these two mine tragedies of the mid-twentieth century when coal mining was still a major industry and trade for the state''s working class. The authors take the reader on a journey into the mines, the state bureaucracy of mine inspections and party politics, and into the lives of the miners and their families. This comprehensive history is both academically sound and interesting to read. The voices of the historical actors are present throughout the narrative, making this a work of history that could appeal to a popular audience as well as to students of Illinois and labor history.
The authors set the context for the Centralia and West Frankfort mine disasters with a brief history of mining in the United States, but most appropriately in Illinois. They examine the early coal industry in the state, its first workers and communities, mining accidents, and union organization. John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) feature prominently in this introductory chapter and in later sections of the book. In part one, the local history of mining really begins. Centralia''s origins as an important rail stop for the Illinois Central and an early coal source as railroads transitioned from wood to coal as locomotive fuel demonstrates the town''s long association with coal mining. Quickly, the authors move to the issue of mine safety, a major theme of Death Underground. Centralia''s mine No. 5 had serious safety problems, particularly regarding combustible coal dust. The miners realized that there was a serious problem with coal dust and sought assistance from the state. Mine inspector Driscoll Scanlan -- according to the authors -- tried to warn his superiors in the Department of Mines and Minerals and on the State Mining Board, but to no avail.
The death and destruction at the mine in March 1947 left deep anguish for families of the victims and devastating political consequences in its wake. Hartley and Kenney delve into the fallout of the mine disaster with a detailed examination of the political process to determine why the disaster took place and who was to blame. As intense investigations and testimony ensued, Scanlan and his superior, Robert Medill, locked horn''s over culpability. The authors paint a rather sympathetic portrait of Scanlan, though they do mention that he did have the power to close the mine. Moreover, Hartley and Kenney thoroughly evaluate the competence of the state and management of the mine in relation to the issue of mine safety. But what makes this monograph more than an academic treatment of, mine disasters and political intrigue is the authors'' moving portrayal of the lives of miners and their families. Hartley and Kenney narrate the stories of how some miners lost their lives even down to their last moments in which they left brief notes for their families before they succumbed to the poisoned air in the mine following the explosion. The authors also treat the lives of the family members who lost loved ones as well as those who survived the tragedy.
The final portion of Death Underground focuses on the 1951 disaster at West Frankfort. Here, 119 men lost their lives in an explosion at the New Orient No. 2 mine. Again, the authors bring forth the human cost of the tragedy while simultaneously analyzing the political ramifications of yet another major Illinois coal-mine catastrophe. Hartley and Kenney take a balanced approach in trying to determine culpability for the explosion. Was it methane gas or coal dust that fueled the explosion? Was the miners'' poor attention to safety to blame, or did faulty ventilation and inadequate rock-dusting procedures point the blame at management? Could Governor Adlai Stevenson''s mine-safety legislation, which was held up by a reluctant General Assembly, have made a difference? In other words, was the problem party politics? And where did the UMWA fit into this story? Did the union fail to protect its members? The authors try to answer these questions with a thorough analysis of the historical record. They do not take a partisan stand, nor do they have a particular agenda other than to create good scholarship. Ultimately, Death Underground is a significant contribution to a troubling yet highly significant part of the history of Illinois and of America''s working class.