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The Tragic Story of the Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History
By Davitt McAteer
West Virginia University PressCopyright © 2014 West Virginia University Press
All rights reserved.
J. H. LEONARD, OILER FOR THE NO. 6 MINE
There is no other period in the nation's history when politics seems so completely dwarfed by economic changes, none in which the life of the country rests so completely in the hands of the industrial entrepreneur. The industrialists of the Gilded Age were ... men of heroic audacity and magnificent exploitative talents — shrewd, energetic, aggressive, rapacious, domineering, insatiable. They directed the proliferation of the country's wealth, they seized its opportunities, they managed its corruption, and from them the era took its tone and color.
— Richard Hofstadter, "The American Political Tradition"
J. H. Leonard was the oiler for the ventilation fan at the No. 6 mine. In Monongah for seventeen years, Leonard had been working as an oiler for the last six. He had worked at the Monongah mine since it opened and was one of the oldest men working there. As oiler, he cleaned fan belts and lubricated the ventilation fan's motor and wheels. Using large oil cans with long spouts, Leonard oiled the motor and wheels hourly and frequently tightened the belt to keep it from slipping, which could reduce or eliminate the flow of air into the mine.
The Monongah No. 6 mine fan measured 9 feet by 11 feet. Manufactured by the Clifford Company of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, the fan turned at 450 revolutions per minute and moved 350,000 cubic feet of air a minute through the mine tunnels. The exhaust fan pulled air through the mine to provide fresh air and to remove dangerous gasses from deep underground. In 1906, mine fan systems required constant attention; an oiler was required on each shift around the clock.
The mouth of the No. 6 Monongah mine was on the west side of the West Fork River. The tipple, the largest steel tipple in the country, spanned the river and carried the coal across to the preparation plant on the river's east side. The three-ton mine cars that had been hand-loaded underground were attached to a wire rope underground and pulled by a mechanical winch up the slope from the mine bottom, some 400 feet to the mouth of No. 6.
The coal then traveled up the length of the trestle, over the knuckle at the top, which was across the river, and then down the far side of the tipple into the preparation plant. There the coal was dumped onto a series of shakers or screens, called picking tables. The laborers, most of whom were disabled miners no longer able to work underground or boys aged eight or older, picked out the rocks and other impurities and separated the coal into sizes before it was loaded into waiting railroad cars for shipping to Chicago, Baltimore, and New York.
In the spring of 1907, Leonard had been assigned the additional duty of manning the derailing switch for coal cars coming out of the mine portal. The cars were pulled out of the mine and up over the steel tipple and then across the West Fork River. The derailing switch was located 25 feet above the entrance of the portal to No. 6 and had been installed because loaded cars would periodically break loose from the tipple as they were being pulled up and over the top. Early that spring, Charlie Dean, the surface foreman and Leonard's boss, decided that because Leonard's job as oiler was near the switch, he should be responsible for flipping the switch that would derail the cars should they break loose.
The mine car pulley system, although one of the most advanced mine transportation systems in the country, had encountered problems in the past. Often, groups of cars would break loose at the top of the tipple and crash back into the mine, where they would tear down electrical wiring, knock out timber props, rip up track, and send sparks throughout the portal bottom and back into the mine entries. The derailing system had been installed earlier the same year in order to prevent that from happening.
In a coal mine, sparks are potentially disastrous. They can ignite what-ever highly volatile methane gas and fine coal dust might be present. In the Monongah mines, small amounts of methane gas had been encountered, as well as large quantities of coal dust created by the mining process. Coal dust also formed as horses, mules, coal cars, and hundreds of miners passed through the mine tunnels.
Fourteen Three-ton Cars
At just before 10:30 on the morning of December 6th, 1907, Leonard watched as fourteen loaded cars rose out of the mine and up the tipple toward the knuckle at the top. Bill Sloan, an underground foreman, was at the bottom of the slope some 900 feet down into the mine. Sloan had coupled the three-ton coal cars onto the wire rope and signaled Ed Fry, the preparation plant engineer, to start the winch. Fry pulled the winch engine arm, winding the wire rope onto the spindle, which pulled the cars out of the mine then up the 400-foot trestle that spanned the West Fork River. When the cars reached the knuckle at the top, they became stuck.
From his vantage point in the engine house, Fry could not see that the cars were stuck. There was, however, an electric light connected to the main current that acted as a warning light when the cars were moving, and Fry did see that light turn off. It was his practice to turn the winch engine off when he saw the light go dark. When the light went out, he could hear the winch engine increase in speed as it took up the slack in the rope; he turned off the winch engine. Leonard, below the tipple near the derailing switch, described what happened next:
They stopped at the knuckle for some cause. They stop there frequently and especially when unloading box cars. They stopped this time and I waited a good bit for them to come back and they did not come back. ... If I have to run to the engine to see if it is running, I just run in and right back; but this time when I run in, just as I got one step in the engine room I heard the trip. I run out and the two last cars were going by. I stood there looking down the slope a little bit and the explosion came.
Leonard had watched as the cars stuck at the knuckle of the tipple, then, fearing the ventilation fan was stalling, he turned and ran toward the engine room to check the fan. In that split second, the fourteen three-ton cars rocketed back down the nearly 1,500-foot slope and back into the mine.
Pat McDonnell was on the mine haulage bridge facing the No. 6 mine entrance and glanced up as the cars broke loose. Remembering the explosion the previous year that had been caused by another group of runaway cars, he raced toward the derailing switch but was a moment too late and watched as the cars hurtled down the track.CHAPTER 2
THE NORTHERN COAL FIELDS OF WEST VIRGINIA
This has been a century of mechanical invention rather than of social reconstruction — a period of rapidly increasing wealth production, rather than its just distribution.
— "New York World" December 31, 1899 Quoted in "After the Civil War," John S. Blay
The Monongah mines were developed by the most powerful, wealthy West Virginian entrepreneurs and politicians and financed by some of the wealthiest men in America. West Virginia's ex-senators and ex-governors had organized and financed the companies, as did John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil Company, and banking interests in New York and Baltimore.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the economy in the United States completed a transformation begun at the end of the Civil War, shifting from an agricultural to an industrial base. This transformation was fueled in large part by the rapid growth of the steel and rail industries, the explosive growth of the Midwest and Great Lakes regions, and the emergence of commercial generation of electricity.
In the decade that closed the old century and opened the new — 1895 to 1905 — railroads, steamships, and the steel industry produced a nearly insatiable appetite for coal. Also, during that decade, more coal was mined in the United States than had been mined throughout its history. Coal was not only the sole source of power for railroads and steamships, it was the sole source of fuel for the production of electricity, the use of which was increasing dramatically each year. Electricity was also critical in the production of iron and steel for the building of the cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, and the other cities along the Great Lakes. Coal was King.
The Lay of the Land
The Appalachian mountain range stretches 1,500 miles from Canada along the eastern half of the United States to central Alabama. Beneath this ancient mountain system is the richest deposit of coal the world has ever known. The Appalachian Coal Field stretches from northern Pennsylvania to central Alabama. It is the largest coal field in the United States and perhaps the world, stretching over 900 miles and covering 63,000 square miles. Within this field, one seam, the Pittsburgh seam, comprises 5,700 square miles of a large and persistent stratum of one kind of rock.
Before the Civil War, the principal coal mining regions of the United States lay east of the Allegheny Mountains and included the Georges Creek Basin in western Maryland. The Georges Creek Basin is a canoe-shaped deposit 25 miles long and six miles wide under the western end of Allegany County, Maryland. In the valley between Savage Mountain and Dan Mountain, the Big Vein Seam is the site where numerous small companies were merged to form the Consolidation Coal Company, which began operation shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. The Georges Creek coal basin had been mined since 1751 and had been somewhat depleted by the end of the Civil War. The search began for new deposits to the west.
But earlier, in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had encouraged a group of northwestern Virginians loyal to their union to carve out the Allegheny mountain region from the Confederate State of Virginia. The majority of these residents supported the effort because they felt little kinship with their eastern and southern neighbors. They were not slave owners and saw their economic interests tied more to the north or west than to the south. During the Civil War, the region was sympathetic to the North, and within its boundaries lay the Baltimore & Ohio tracks, the rail connection between the east coast and the Ohio River. Lincoln understood how vital that link would be to the war effort: control of the rail line through Cumberland, Maryland, and Harper's Ferry and Wheeling — both in what was then Virginia — would be critically important to the war's outcome. The mountainous western portion of Virginia eventually became, in 1863, West Virginia, the 35th state.
Consolidation Coal Company was chartered by the Maryland Legislature in 1860, but its organization was delayed by the Civil War. The small companies that composed Consol, as it came to be called, included the Cumberland Coal & Iron Company, the Ocean Steam Coal Company, Frostburg Coal Company, and the Mount Savage Iron Company. The Cumberland & Pennsylvania Railroad interests were behind the consolidation, and Cumberland & Pennsylvania stocks were the original payment accepted for the subscription bonds on April 19, 1864. A second merger occurred just after the turn of the century when Consolidation Coal Company joined with the Fairmont Coal Company in 1903 and amassed large additional reserves in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.
By 1906, Consolidation Coal was operating more than sixty-five mines and employing tens of thousands of miners, and by 1907 it was one of the largest coal mining companies in the country. From its inception, the merged company adopted an aggressive, combative philosophy toward unions and miners alike. Given its economic, political, and legal connections, especially in West Virginia, Consolidation Coal was able to exercise unlimited control over the workforce, especially at the Monongah mines, which had an unusually large number of immigrant miners.
In 1902, the United Mine Workers of America attempted to organize the Monongah miners. Company officials, with the help of a company police force that was secretly tied to the United States Marshal's Office, successfully obtained a legal but bogus injunction before a federal judge. Judge John J. Jackson was the same federal judge who had for years been receiving a free railcar of coal each winter for his personal use from the Fairmont Coal Company.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had become the first railroad in the country to undertake to build a line from the Atlantic coast to the Ohio River. Beginning in 1828 in Baltimore, the B&O laid a track first to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, then to Hagerstown and Cumberland, Maryland, then up and over the rugged Allegheny Mountains, passing back into what was then Virginia. It then stretched west, first to Fairmont and finally to Wheeling and the Ohio River. In what was a staggering engineering feat, the B&O had driven eleven tunnels and built 113 bridges, including one that was then the longest steel span in the nation. On Christmas Eve in 1852, the track reached Roseby's Rock, eighteen miles east of Wheeling. Here the rail going west met a track that had been laid from Wheeling east. Roseby's Rock, a massive sandstone formation some sixty-four feet long and twenty feet thick, served as a convenient landmark for the closing of the line between Baltimore and the Ohio River. Roseberry Carr, the rail system's superintendent, oversaw the joining of the lines, and his crew carved his name, albeit misspelled as Rosbby's Rock, in foot-high letters into the rock's surface.
By 1853, the B&O railroad stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Ohio River Valley. The rail construction had cost $15,628,963, a record for any railroad construction project at the time, and had required 5,000 men, mostly Irish immigrants, and 1,250 horses to complete. To properly celebrate the completion, 500 citizens of Baltimore rode for eighteen hours to a temporary depot on the south bank of Wheeling Creek, where they crossed on a ferryboat to the center of Wheeling to join their Virginia on January 12, 1863, they attended an elaborate ball at the splendid Washington Hotel in Wheeling.
Many of the principal dignitaries spent the night at the McLure House, one of the region's newest and best hotels. In 1851, John McLure had built McLure House at the corner of 12th and Market streets. The ground floor was doughnut shaped with an opening to the street. The open center of McLure House included a watering trough and hitching posts for the carriages and stagecoaches traveling west from Cumberland, Maryland, along the Old National Road. The hotel's registration desk and lobby were located on the second floor in order to avoid the muddy conditions created by the horses and carriages at ground level. In concession to the dress code of the day, the 12th Street entrance had the word Ladies etched in the arch and was built with a wider door in order to accommodate the popular and fashionable wide hoop skirts.
The largest in the region, the hotel had been built in anticipation of the coming of the B&O, and formally opened on March 4, 1852. The night of the rail line celebration, the party of B&O dignitaries who had chosen to make Wheeling the Ohio River terminus of the railroad, danced the "Tupsey Waltz," a song composed for and dedicated to Dr. John D. M. Carr who was a prominent physician and full-time resident of the McLure House.
The completion of the rail line to Wheeling not only meant commerce from the Atlantic ports to the Ohio River Valley, it also opened up what was to become the country's — and the world's — greatest coal seam to development: the Pittsburgh seam, which now lay within easy reach of rail lines and, thus, within reach of markets both in the east and the west.
The Pittsburgh Seam
Discovered by James Burd, a colonel in the French and Indian War in 1759, the Pittsburgh seam of coal is perhaps the most valuable body of minerals ever discovered by man, certainly in the United States and perhaps in the world. It rivals the Comstock Lode in Nevada and Witwatersrand Gold Reef in South Africa, as well as the gold and silver deposits of California.
Coal is formed beneath the surface in "seams," which lie in strata or beds. Within the Pittsburgh seam is the Monongahela formation, centered around northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. The mines in the Fairmont region, including Monongah, exploit the Monongahela formation. The Pittsburgh seam runs northeast to southwest, stretching from Pennsylvania through West Virginia, Kentucky, and parts of Tennessee, then dipping and reappearing in Alabama. Remarkably uniform in both quality and pitch, in places it stands seven and a half feet high and has a gentle incline towards the northwest. The coal is of excellent thickness, consistency, and height, and — what is most significant — when burned produces a very high-energy output, averaging between 10,000 and 12,000 BTUs (British thermal units) of energy per ton of coal burned. It also produces excellent coke, a by-product critical to the production of iron and steel.
Excerpted from Monongah by Davitt McAteer. Copyright © 2014 West Virginia University Press. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
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