Inspired by a refrain of her girlhood—"Your grandfather survived the Cherry Mine disaster"—Karen Tintori began a search for her family's role in the harrowing tragedy of 1909. She uncovered the stories of victims, survivors, widows, orphans, townspeople, firefighters, reporters, and mine owners, and wove them together to pen Trapped, a riveting account of the tragic day that would inspire America's first worker's compensation laws and hasten much-needed child labor reform.
On a Saturday morning in November of 1909, four hundred and eighty men went down into the mines as they had countless times before. But a fire erupted in the mineshaft that day and soon burned out of control. By nightfall, more than half the men would either be dead or trapped as officials sealed the mine in an attempt to contain the blaze. Miraculously, twenty men would emerge one week later, but not before the Cherry Mine disaster went down in history as the worst ever coal mine fire in the US—and not before all the treachery and heroism of mankind were revealed.
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Standing like a twin-peaked hill, a spoils dump lush with vegetation throws shadows across the farmland that buries the St. Paul Mine. Cornfields wave at jutting remnants of the hoisting shaft and other mine buildings, and chunks of coal, shale and rock lie scattered among weeds and wildflowers. Nature and nearly one hundred years have reclaimed what was once the most prosperous coal mine in the Midwest.
At the village's southern edge, tiny Holy Trinity Miners Cemetery abuts a curve in Highway 89, barely revealing its towering stone monument to passing motorists. Dedicated to the two hundred and fifty-nine men and boys who perished there in one of the most tragic coal mine disasters in U.S. history, the monument's bowed and weeping woman grieves over the final resting place of many of them.
Their little-known story is preserved in the tiny Cherry Library, where mine artifacts and photos line the walls alongside poignant missives penned by entombed miners as they waited for smoke, flames and poisonous gases to overtake them.
From a vibrant community of twenty-five hundred in its heyday, Cherry has dwindled to a village whose five hundred residents either farm the land or earn their livelihood in neighboring Ladd, LaSalle, Mendota, Ottawa, Peru and Spring Valley. Many live in the original company houses, most of them renovated or expanded, some with water pumps still standing in the backyard.
Cherry was born on rolling prairies roughly one hundred miles southwest of Chicago in 1904. Mining experts called to the heart of Bureau County's rich coal region by the St. Paul Coal Company discovered a vast, inexhaustible vein of bituminous coal almost unequaled in quality. The company, licensed to mine coal in six Illinois counties, instantly began to sink the state's largest coal mine, certain that within two years the black diamonds buried there would make it a principal coal center in the Midwest.
Forty years before, 62 percent of the world's energy came from wood. By the 1910s, coal had supplanted wood. It owned that 62 percent pinnacle and accounted for 80 percent of America's fuel right before the dawn of electricity while the Wright brothers were still perfecting the airplane and the world traveled by coal steam-powered rail and ship. Today, coal still generates 25 percent of the world's energy, and nine of every ten tons used in the U.S. go to produce electricity.
In 1909, the coal industry was booming. The U.S. mined out four hundred and thirty-one million tons a year, but production was seasonal, tied to winter's heavier heating demands in homes and offices. Families spent about $35 of their average $651 yearly income for fuel, and in 1904, only 3 percent of them used electricity. The first electric range, vacuum cleaner and iron would not appear until later in the decade. Beating and mixing, dishes and laundry were all done by hand. Women cooked on wood- or coal-burning stoves, buying blocks of ice twice weekly to preserve the food in their wood-and-metal iceboxes.
The steadiest call for coal came from industry, shipping and railroads, and Cherry's entire output estimated then at upward of twenty-five hundred tons per eight-hour day, three hundred and sixty-five days per year was already earmarked for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, which immediately built a spur track from Ladd. As the northernmost coal deposit in the state, Cherry was the end of the line, both for coal and the railroad. From there, train cars had to travel the three miles back to Ladd in reverse.
Word of the astounding find spread quickly to surrounding mining communities and even to Europe, as immigrant miners alerted friends and relatives to the opportunity for steady work. Unlike most mines, which shut down in summer leaving miners with no income, Cherry would operate constantly to furnish coal for the locomotives, machine shops and offices of the giant coal company.
Cherry was incorporated in April 1905, and by June the St. Paul Coal Company had sunk $200,000 into developing the mine and the town born to house its workers. It christened both after James Cherry, former Seatonville mayor and the region superintendent of mines put in charge of sinking the hoisting shaft. To ensure lively commerce between the new town and the rich farming community surrounding it, the coal company constructed the largest grain elevator in the vicinity. The Illinois farmers were conflicted about the mining communities springing up in their midst. They welcomed the economic opportunities mining brought with it, but looked down their noses at the foreigners mine companies had to import because few farmers could be lured to the dangerous work. They refused to mine, yet hated the foreigners most of whom had been farmers themselves for earning more working underground than they could eke from their land.
Farmers saw the foreigners as a threat to the country's character and "Eyetalians" were the most disliked, both by the native farmers and other English-speaking immigrants. One farmer interviewed for Herman R. Lantz's study, People of Coal Town, called nine out of ten foreigners "no good." "We would have been a heap better off if they had never been brought here."
The few Americans who did mine were threatened by the immigrants as well. To survive, the foreigners were willing to work harder, longer and at more dangerous mine jobs than the Americans. An American miner told Lantz, "No American would work as hard as they did because the foreigners didn't have any sense."
The mine company's plan for the new town was charming, calling for a park, a school, a bank and several general stores. Expecting Cherry to be its crowning jewel, the railroad built a first-class railway station two blocks from the main business district.
Promising "Money in a New Town," the coal company offered one hundred and twenty acres of land for sale as home and business sites on June 21, 1905, announcing reduced rail fares to Cherry that day and parking a special dining car there to serve lunch. The six-page pamphlet advertising the 10:30 a.m. auction of town lots predicted they would sell out by noon.
The coal company built a fifty-room hotel and fifty modern model homes, and while work on the mine continued day and night under the supervision of experts from across the country, a town grew across the prairie.
Touted to be the largest coal shaft in the U.S., the Cherry Mine was the epitome of modernity and safety both in construction and equipment. The engineer who built the tipple rated it the world's safest, and it was one of the only mines in the entire country outfitted with electricity. Even the darkest areas of any mine, the mule stables and pumping room, were strung with incandescent light. With a tower of steel, a foundation of concrete and its engine, boiler and fan houses all made of brick and stone, the men who built it declared the Cherry Mine fireproof.