The Cherry Mine Disaster, 1909

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Cherry, Illinois was a company town. Named after James Cherry, the superintendent of the St. Paul Coal Company, mining operations had begun at Cherry, in the Illinois River Valley of north central Illinois, in 1904 in order to produce coal for the steam engines of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad.

The Cherry operation was considered a safe, modern mine by the day’s standards, but on November 13, 1909, a fire started in the mine when torches used to light the mine after it’s state-of-the-art electrical lighting system had broken down set fire to a coal car full of hay that was being taken to feed the mules living down in the mine. There were 481 miners in the Cherry mine that day; 259 died. At the time it was the most deadly mining disaster the country had ever seen.

What follows is a description of what happened in the mine that day, based on first-hand testimony, excerpted from The Report on the Cherry Mine Disaster, published by the State of Illinois’ Board of Commissioners of Labor in 1910.

The Fatal Day

On the date of the accident there were 481 men employed including all occupations, diggers, drivers, company men, trappers, spraggers, etc.

The men entered the mine from 6:30 to 7:00 o’clock in the morning and there was a cage run, mid-forenoon, noon and at 1:30, at which time those who discontinued work at that hour might be brought up. The regular hour for discontinuing work was 3:30 p.m. At about 3:00 p.m. the diggers were permitted to fire their shots. There were no shot-fires in this mine because there was usually less than two pounds of powder used for a charge.

On the 13th of November there were several men who discontinued work in time to catch the 1:30 cage and this in a measure accounts for the fact that there were only 259 lives lost.

Between 12 and 1 o’clock p.m. on the fatal day, six bales of hay, standing upright, were placed in a coal car, which was on the average size of cars, that is, 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, and were to be taken to the third vein mule stables. There were from sixty to seventy mules in the second and third veins. The hay was taken down on an average of once every twenty-four hours. The car in this instance was lowered from the tipple to the second vein and there it was drawn by mules in charge of Charles Thorne (who usually drove six cars with three mules), through the east runaround and up the main passageway over the switch immediately southeast of the third vein shaft or escape shaft. It was left here by Thorne, who hitched his mules to some loaded cars and started on his run to the main bottom.

Robert Deans, the assistant cager, and Matt Francesco, pushed the car some distance up toward the shaft and right close to the torch, which was hanging upon a timber near the bottom at the escape shaft.

The electrical equipment of the mine had been out of use for a month, which resulted from the short circuiting of the main cables due to being water soaked. The torches which had been placed at the main bottom and also at the escape shaft to which we have been referring, were constructed of pipe about 2 inches in diameter, 12 to 16 inches long, with a cap on one end and a reducer on the other in which a cotton wicking was placed. The torches were filled by the cagers with kerosene furnished by the company and were attached with pieces of wire to the timbers. The wire was around the center of the pipe so that the torch would hang horizontally, the burning end would be lowered as the oil was consumed, so the oil would run down upon and against the wick. Frequently the oil would seep through the end where the wick was inserted and drop. The torch near which the car and hay were moved by Robert Deans and Matt Francesco hung so low that the lower end of the blaze was from 5 to 8 inches below the highest part of the baled hay. After pushing the car to this point Francesco and Deans left that place and went to the other track and coupled some loaded cars after which they discovered that the hay was on fire, which was about 1:25 p.m.

The air current at this point was fanning the fire into a blaze and Rosenjack and Deans then started to push the car northwest through the main air course to the sump near the mule stable, intending to get water from that sump and to put out the fire. Upon being unable to push the car to the sump, Rosenjack and Janney, who had just come up from the third vein, on his way home and whom Rosenjack called upon for help, got in back of the car and attempted to push it toward the third vein shaft. The air passing through the main air course fanned the flames into considerable proportions and the pine timbering, which was used generally in this mine, in the main air course, caught fire.

Albert Buckle, a boy of fifteen, Francesco and others were told to get their pails and go around to the main bottom and get some water.

In the meantime Rosenjack communicated with William Smith, the cager at the third vein bottom, and told him they had a car of hay on fire and that he, Rosenjack, wished to send it down to the third vein and inquired if they could take care of it. Smith responded, “Let her come.” Rosenjack requested Vickers and Theo. Dehesse to put the car of burning hay upon the cage and that he, Rosenjack would go down to the third vein and assist in putting it out. The car was drawn partly upon the cage, but the heat was so intense that the car was not accessible and the drivers and others assisting were only able to push the car a short distance upon the cage.

In the meantime Rosenjack had come up from the third vein and as the woodwork at the side of the cage was on fire he signaled to hoist the cage, which was raised four feet, the car and hay falling under the cage down into the third vein sump. Here Smith and Norberg were stationed and they attached the hose which was used at the mule stable in the third vein and put the fire out. This was about 1:48 p.m. Some of the miners who had noticed that the air was bad and that there was smoke in it, left their rooms and came to the third vein bottom. They signaled for the cage and received no response and went up the stairs. Probably the last who came up from that vein was William Maxwell and his son. When they reached the third vein a man was ahead of Maxwell. He lifted the trap door and the smoke and flames were so intense that he said they could not get through. Maxwell, an old man, said, “We must,” and he crept through with his son and went through the east runabout and was finally pulled on to the main hoisting cage and brought to the top insensible.

During this time several signals were given to stop and reverse the fan, etc. The fan was first stopped, then reversed, then stopped and then drawn in its usual course, then reversed until the flames which were drawn up the escape shaft, burned out the doors and disabled the fan.

When the fan was reversed it drew the flames up through the escape shaft from the second vein to the surface and cut off all means of escape from the third to the second vein through the third vein hoisting shaft or the stairway.

At about 1:40 o’clock the last signal was received by the third vein engineer for hoisting the cage to the second vein. The probabilities are that whoever took the cage at that time were burned to death upon reaching the second level and there was no signal after that. …

At the Main Bottom

The cagers at the main bottom were among the first at the main shaft who became aware of the existence of the fire. They continued to hoist coal for some five or ten minutes after they knew the fire was in existence, evidently under the belief that it would be put out. When the serious nature of it became apparent, several of the drivers and company men endeavored to give notice to the diggers, although the fire had burned for at least forty-five minutes to an hour before any such attempt was systematically made. The trapper boys near the main cage were taken up early, and the cages were then continually operated for the purpose of taking the men up from the main bottom.

During the fire there was an attempt made to get into the mule barn, which had been filled with smoke and flames, to attach a hose, but the heat and smoke prevented; this hose was brought down from the surface. Being unable to get into the mule barn they made an attempt to attach it to a nozzle or piece of water-pipe near the main cage. The pipe was too small, the water was hot and the hose could not be held around or against the opening of the pipe. …

Twelve Heroes

The condition of the main bottom at 3:30 or 4:00 o’clock was such as to indicate that all possibility of escape was rapidly disappearing. The flames were very intense. At about this time the cage was lowered with twelve men on it and word was left on top that the engineer should pay strict attention to signals. The signals he received were as follows: Three bells (meaning to hoist); four bells (meaning hoist slowly); then four bells (meaning to hoist slower); then signals to lower and no more signals were received. About fifteen minutes after that the rope was seen to shake. The engineer, after long and repeated pleading and begging on the part of many of the men, hoisted the cage and the rescuers were found, some in the cage and others on top of it, all dead. It happened that one who was rescued seven days after the mine was closed tells that he reached the shaft and found no cage there and using his cap to protect his hands, tried to signal for the cage to come down; that in a measure accounts for the confusion of signals received by the engineer. …

This was the seventh time that the cage was lowered with rescuers upon it after the seriousness of the fire was realized, and each time they had succeeded in bringing up some men alive; each time those who venture down encountered the smoke and came up almost asphyxiated. The fire was getting nearer and nearer the main hoisting shaft; but this last cage of men were doomed to meet their fate in a supreme effort. When the cage was raised eight of them lay on the floor of the cage. Their clothing was still blazing and their arms and hands were in convulsive postures, just as death had seized them and when they had tried to protect their faces from the awful heat. Four of the bodies were laying across the top of the cage where they had died in an frantic effort to climb away from the fire.

When they were hoisted to the surface it was a most pitiful sight. The relatives of these men were there and the scene witnessed was the most heartrending. Strong hearted men broke down. After all, the story of the twelve martyrs is but a phase of the great disaster.

The time that elapsed from the beginning of the fire until the last person came out shows that if there had been some system of notifying the men at work in the mine they all could have gotten out. Or if the serious danger had been realized in time by the cagers and others at the hoisting shaft the men could have been notified by messenger, as some were who escaped and whose stories we here publish. …

As Told By The Diggers

The first is that told by James Hanney, who was president of the local union, and who testified that he was 56 years of age, born in Scotland, and commenced to work in the Cherry mine a year ago last June. He had worked in different kinds of mines before this one, and had worked in the third vein about a year. He says: “We were coming from the third vein and started through the main air course in the third vein. We had to hurry to get to the big shaft to get up at half past one. The shortest route is about 200 feet through the main air course. At the second vein we saw the car of hay on fire and the cager asked us to give him a hand to shove the car back. We gave him a hand and shoved the car back as far as we could stand it, about ten or fifteen yards, and then the heat and smoke were so bad we could not stand it any more, and I went out to get assistance to stop the fire. Nothing was said about notifying the men, for no boss was around. Some one had to get assistance and I went to get it. The cager let us go up because it was time. We took the cage to the top. When I first saw the flames they were probably 5 or 6 yards long. There was a great current of air in the main entry or air course, and the fire was reaching out to the shaft to where the barns were situated, toward the main shaft. Upon reaching the top I told the boss there was a fire down there and to stop the fan, and the fan was stopped. It was about 4:00 o’clock when they covered the main shaft on the surface and I don’t know why they didn’t cover the escape shaft, but I think the people would not permit it. The superintendent said, ‘If I ordered the escape shaft covered the people in town would kill me.’ I worded in the third vein since it opened—that is a year ago last August. There is no fire equipment there; none was ever pointed out. The doors and the entries there are about 5×5, and are timbered with white pine.”

William A. Smith testified that he lived in Cherry and was a cager in the third vein on the day of the fire. He said: “The best I remember of it we were waiting at the bottom for what we thought was empty cars, because when they run out of cars often they would old the cage until they got empties and then send them down to us. There were three bells rung and one of the cagers from the second level came down and the best I remember he told us that they had a car of hay afire up there: this was Alex. Rosenjack. It was shortly after half past one. Then I let up my half past one cage of men. He asked, ‘Should I send it down or could we handle it down there.’ I said yes send it down. Instead of going up with it he said, ‘just bell it away one bell, for the boys up there.’ I did so and waited down there probably five minutes, possibly eight, it might not have been more than four. I didn’t look at my watch and couldn’t say and the hay hadn’t come down yet. Mr. Norbert, the boss of the third level, came out to the bottom of the third level and wanted to know what was wrong. One of the boys told him there was a car of hay on fire up there and he hollered up for them to send that hay down. He got no answer; then he hollered again rather rough and loud and still there was no answer. Then he says, ‘I will go up.’ And he started up and I would not say positive but I think that cager Rosenjack went with him. They walked up the manway. We waited there sometime again and still no hay came down; one of the drivers said, ‘I will go up and tell him if I can’t get it on the cage to shove it into the shaft and we will take care of it.’ We waited some more and then we started. This was Ande Lettsome; and Dave Wright says, ‘I will go with you’: and the two went up. When they about had time to walk up the manway the bell rang four and one; that as to hoist and go ahead slowly and they hollered ‘Look out”: the car of hay and all came down below like a flash in the smoke. I think both car and hay was all afire when it reached the sump. It has fallen 160 feet; we were ready with the hose and turned the hose on it and put it out. It didn’t take long because we had the force pump and plenty of water. When it came down it was very hot and there was fire on the cage; also the protecting sheet of iron on top of the cage was red hot; we turned the hose on that and cooled it down. John Brown and Oley Freiburg had hold of the hose besides me. When the car came down there John Brown, the opposite cager to me, had the hose and I was standing at the water column; the hose is connected to the column and there is a valve on that that you have to open to let it flow out through the hose, otherwise it would go up through the column to the second vein or into the main sump. When the hay came down I opened that valve and threw the water right onto it and it flew back into my face; the water hit me and I could not see anything so I stepped back. I was not in the smoke and it didn’t bother me where I was; then Oley Freiburg took the hose out of my hand and said, ‘go and get some air and let me have it.’ About the time we got the fire out Andy Lettsome came back to see if we had gotten the fire out and he says, ‘there is still fire in the timbers up there that I don’t like the looks of, but I hurried back down to see if you got this out.’ I said some of us will have to go up and see about that. I don’t know how many times we belled but we got no reply from the engineer so I said we will have to walk up. As soon as we got to the second vein we thought there was enough fire to be dangerous. I said we have got to get our men up from the bottom; he says. ‘I will do that, ‘ then I said one of us ought to go up and the other down; one should go up and tell the engineer to go up without signals; he says, ‘you go on up and I will go back after Pa.’ I asked, will you notify the men? He says, ‘sure I will scare them out.’ So I went up and he went down. That was all I saw of the fire. I went up the stairway in the escape shaft, when I got about half way the air was coming a moderate gait about as fast as a man reasonably would requite but suddenly the fan stopped. I didn’t think anything of it because it had stopped once or twice before for a time. In about half a minute I will say from a half to a minute and a half the fan started up again. But they had reversed the fan and I knew that the fire and smoke would come up and catch me on the way so I climbed faster than I had ever climbed in my life before. The smoke overtook me when I got about half way up or a little more I don’t know just how far for I was choking and climbing all the time; I don’t know how I did get up the rest of the way.

William Vickers testified that he lived in Cherry four years, was married, and entered the mine on the 13th at about twenty minutes to seven. “Had worked in the third vein since 1908 and was working in Room No. 1 in the Southeast with his ‘buddie.’ At about twenty-five minutes to three he heard of the fire and heard hollering at the switch to ‘Come out,’ that there was a fire in the second vein, and he says I hollered into the straight East, ‘Come out right away; the shaft is on fire!’ The men were Italians, and did not understand English well. They said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I said, ‘The shaft is afire; get out!’ and one of the fellows understood English a little better and he says, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I said, ‘Fire in the second vein, come out quick; right away!’ and I showed them out from the wall to the road ahead. The bottom is about 300 feet from where I was working. At the third vein bottom I saw a hose in a man’s hand and he was fighting the fire, putting out the burning hay. You could not see the blaze, just the steam and smoke. The man was Ole Frieburg; he is down there yet. It was a short hose. There were twelve or fifteen men behind me, and I was at the escape shaft with my foot on the ladder to go up on the steps. I turned to my buddie and he was right behind me. I told him I was going to take the coal out of my shoes and I turned back and said, ‘Go on up, and I will come up after you.’ So I turned round to Ole Frieburg, who was standing there, and asked him if they were not running the cage, and he said ‘No; it has been quiet for quite a while.’ I got the coal out of my shoes and started up and went up the stairway and just as I got to the last step, there is a ladder there, four or five steps, we have a trap door to go through, and the trap door slammed down and knocked me down a flight of stairs. I got myself picked up. There were two men behind me, so I crawled up and went through the door and the smoke and flames were so thick I did not blame the fellow for letting the door fall on me; but I held it open to let the others go through. I don’t know who they were. I started to holler to try and find out which way to go. I thought maybe some boss would have men stationed there to direct the men which way to go, because there were three roads out, the east and west runway and the main air course. I saw flames all over, but I did not know how far they extended. I thought maybe they would have somebody posted to tell us. Well, anyhow, when I hollered and could not get any answer from this side, I started up in this direction. I could hear men hollering and saw there were four or five cars, or whatever it was I can’t say, were afire there right close to the bottom. When I got up there to this bunch of men, I said. ‘Why don’t you push through?’ and he said, ‘There are mules here.’ I said, ‘To hell with the mules; push through.’ So we got over here to the left hand side, because it is the road that branches off, and I knew that if I went to the left-hand I would not miss my road. I pushed ahead of them up to where the roads branch off. I saw some lights ahead of me and hollered for a light and they would not stop, and I started to run, and the faster I ran the louder I hollered for a light; I could not say how far I ran, but when I go pretty close to them the last man stopped and gave me a light, and I came back here to this turn in the road, and got right close to the left hand side, because the way the air was I knew I couldn’t hold a light in there; I could holler to the men and showed the light the best I could round the corner. As soon as they came up they got a light, and an old man and his son came up. I gave the father a light first and then I gave the son a light and my own light went out. The son started to go on and I said, ‘Come back here and give me a light,’ because I was getting very weak myself, and I says, ‘Johnnie, I can’t stand here any longer, this smoke is getting the best of me; somebody else has got to stay here.’ He says, ‘I have two lamps.’ So I took his lamp and pulled the wick away up and hung the lamp on the beam and hollered to come up and get a light and we could not hear any more voices, so we left. About half way up here both of us got in the dark again. His lamp went out during the time I was lighting the lamp hanging on the beam, and he says to me, ‘You’ve got a good lamp there,’ and just as he said that out it went’; so we put out coats together and struck a match and got both lamps lighted, and got out here after running across a trip with a team of mules. Wethen went straight on and he says, ‘Where are we?’ I said, “I don’t know and started feeling round for the timbers. The timbers in the west bottom are square, and I could tell by them where we were. I says, ‘We are on the bottom’; so we made down to the cage. When I came to the main bottom, Bundy and three or four more were standing there and he said, ‘How is it?’ and I said, ‘The men can’t get out of here, because they can’t see. You should have lanterns strung along the road,’ and he said, ‘All right.’ A cager had rung the bell to hoist the men. I got on the cage and went up. It was about twenty-five minutes to three when I was notified in my working place. It was a quarter to three before I got to the second vein at the bottom of the escape shaft.”

John Stuckert, who had been a miner for thirty-five years, was secretary of the Cherry local of the miners, and who was working in the third vein, says: “At half past two we got smoke in our working place right off the air course. My partner is an Italian and I hollered to him, ‘What are those fellows burning up there, anyhow?’ So the smoke begun to get thicker. He said in broken English, ‘I guess we got to die like mules.’ I paid but little attention. But after a while the smoke got thicker and I said, ‘We better try and make the bottom and investigate what is going on.’ We made toward the bottom, but we could not get on the bottom for smoke, the closer we got the stronger it was; we were driven back. There were six or eight of us going back and we got into my own working place. There were two entries, two roads and I went back to my entry. We waited a few minutes. One man said, I can see light on the bottom.’ I said, ‘If there is light on the bottom, it is clear; let us go out.’ We went to the bottom and some fellow hollered down from the top that there wouldn’t be any more doing today and we had better try and get out. I climbed up the escape to the second vein and there was a bunch climbed ahead of me and when arriving there I found fire and smoke. I tried to light my lamp and it would not burn. I waited four or five minutes in the smoke, then there was a bunch came up after me. When the next men came they did not know which way to go, not knowing the different roads and everything full of smoke. So one of them said to me, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘You have to judge for yourselves, I don’t know,’ and they attempted to climb up further; they rushed up the escape and I followed, two men behind me and a man in the lead and he hollered, ‘For God’s sake, get back quick.’ I said, ‘I am going to make for the old east runway,’ where we go up in the evening. We hadn’t got to the end of what they call the bottom when we were running into mules and empty cars and we had to crawl by the cars to get by the trip and there was a turn made then to the left; then we ran into another mule with empty cars. We traveled around until we came to the bottom. The smoke was awful thick. We had two doors to go through. When we got to the first door it was hard to open. I fell when I got the door open. One man came up and fell over us. He picked himself up and helped me up. And I stood back and I had hold of my own partner and he pulled me up to the next door and we got the next door open and got on the bottom. The smoke was so heavy there that it was like a vise holding you around the chest and taking your breath away. The man ahead held up and said, ‘No further, boys, we are going to die here,’ and he was trying to pull me back. I said, ‘No, friend, don’t go back; I see only one chance for us to make the big bottom; if we can’t make the big bottom we are lost.’ He got away from me and all I remember is that he made a couple of steps back, but who he was or where he landed I don’t know. I stumbled across the bottom the best I could. I held myself up once by putting my hand on top of a railing which helped me a little. I heard mules coming and men hollering among the mules and I crawled along the right side till I got right close to the bottom, then I was completely done and fell. At least I got up again and crawled a little more and I just made the bottom and fell on the cage. I never lost my presence of mind until I reached the top. I walked home and everything was a blank to me. After recovering I went back to the shaft and there was a crowd around there, and the mine was closed.”

Alma Lettsome testified that he lived at Cherry, was married, and was 26 years of age and had worked at the Cherry mine since the 19th day of August, 1908. On the day of the accident he was working in the third vein, his attention was first attracted when the cars had stopped coming and he went out to the bottom of the big shaft, saw a driver standing there and said, ” ‘How is it they are not hoisting in the big shaft?’ and he said, ‘Probably they are waiting for the flats.’ I paid no more attention and walked back in company with two other men to my working place. The three of us stayed down there together for I should judge about twenty minutes, when my son came along and told me the mule barn was on fire. He said, ‘We have been up there and it is all afire.’ I walked up the stairs and saw it and said we must get out as quick as we can. We were then about 750 feet from the escape shaft; we gave the men the warning that were around us and started up to make our way out. There were other men standing at the bottom of the third vein waiting for us to come out and we all started up the stairs one man after the other. When we reached the top of the stairs there was a man standing against the trap door and he wouldn’t go through it; he had lifted it up and seen the fire above and he said, ‘We can’t go through there, it is all a fire.’ I said, ‘We can’t go back we have got to go through there.’ He said, ‘I can’t get through,’ and I said, ‘Well, get out of the road.’ I saw it was all on fire, in fact, all flames. We went through the door and south round the east way, reached the cage and went up to the top.”

Among the many statements made, comprising nearly 900 pages of evidence taken, there were none more graphic, dramatic and clearer than that of Albert Buckle, a boy standing about 4 foot 6 inches high and who was 15 ears of age, who worked as a trapper. Even his statement as to the number of cars of coal hoisted after the fire was discovered is corroborated by the check weighman, and the other incidents related by him are so completely corroborated that we give his story here as among the best, if not the very best, statement made of the affairs that took place on the main bottom.

His story is substantially as follows: “My name is Albert Buckle; my father’s, Otto Buckle; he is dead; he died four years ago; my brother is 18 and he is in the mine; my sister, 12; my mother, Mary Buckle, is sick. My uncle is Richard Schwartz and lives I Norfolk, Neb., I will be 16 on the 28th of November. I was a trapper. We ate dinner and then my brother came down and took a car in. He got a trip and came out in the entries and I opened the door and Matt says, ‘There is a fire.’ I said, ‘Where?’ and he said, ‘At the third vein shaft.’ I was in the east runway when I heard of the fire. I took my pail and set it down and Johnson, the mule boss, said, ‘Bring your pails.’ and we tried to get into the barn for water and we could not get in there for smoke. We could not get any water in the sump, we were too late already. The fire was burning in the main air course. Matt tried to get water with me and we tried to go through the doors (main air course), but the fire was there; I saw a car of hay burning and the timbers were starting to burn. I saw Rosenjack come running out to the main bottom. He got a cage and went up. I saw Bundy, the diggers, cagers and spraggers at the bottom. I was sitting there playing and he said, ‘Fire, come out,’ and I said, ‘Oh, there is plenty of time,’ and he said, ‘There isn’t time,’ and the boss told us to get our water pails and get water. After the fire started there was five or six cars of coal that went up. At half past one the diggers came along and I got my pail and went to get on the cage and the cager put me off and said, ‘Get the pails and put the fire out.’

I think it was George Eddy who told the drivers, ‘We are going to put the fire out and go to work again.’ I remained on the bottom for half an hour. We stood around there and they still hoisted coal. I think it was half an hour from the number of cars that went up. Johnson was running around opening and closing the doors and the smoke was getting strong. Dominic Christo told me that Andrew Timko would tell my brother and they went to tell the diggers to come out. My drive said, ‘Bill, give us a cage; every one is going to die here,’ and he said, ‘No, we are going to put the fire out and start to work again.’ I says, ‘You ought to notify them diggers inside that is working in there,’ and he says to me to run and tell them. It was after that that I told Dominic. They were hoisting coal then with the main cage. Some parties went up for a hose. They got the hose, then put something over their faces and tried to go into the barn to fasten it, but could not get in. My driver said, ‘Bill, if you don’t give us a cage, we are all going to choke,’ but after that he gave us a cage for the smoke was too strong. As we were going up I hollered to McFadden to notify them diggers and he ran back.”

William Maxwell testified that his home was in Spring Valley, but that he had been working for some time at Cherry, and that on the 13th of November he was working in the third vein in the southwest. He said: “I saw smoke coming in at the face and it got so mighty hot and thick that I got a little alarmed and came out to see the cause of it. I thought it was a sheet that had taken afire. I would judge that was about half past two; it was all of that anyhow. I came out to the bottom; the smoke got thicker all the way. I couldn’t see anything because of it until I came to the bottom and I saw there was one man with a hose putting out some burning hay that had fallen into the shaft. The car and all was in the sump. As I started to go up the ladder to go home some one said that the middle vein is on fire, so I went back after my son; he had been with me at the face of the entry. I went back to him and when we returned to the bottom there was nobody there then. We went up the ladder and up the stairway and when we reached the top at the second vein it took two of us to lift that door that you have to raise when you come up. After traveling that distance in that unlivable smoke you are not in a very good shape to lift a heavy door made of sheet iron which was about 2 feet square.

“After my son and I lifted it we came out, but two Italian men who followed us did not get out. They fell on the road between the ladders and the cage in the second vein. My boy dropped about 70 feet away from the cage; there were two parties that went down later and rescued him. I went on staggering to the cage and Mr. Rosenjack helped me on the cage and asked me if I could take hold of the bar myself and I said I could, so I came up alone on the cage. About six or eight minutes afterwards my son was brought, up. I should judge that we were about the last that came out of the bottom vein.”

Robert Shaw testified that he lived at Spring Valley, had been a coal miner for about ten years and that he went into the mine on the second Wednesday after the fire at about 2:00 o’clock. He said: “I went down in the cage to the second level and from there to the third vein. I had to slide down a rope 10 or 12 feet to reach the cage that took us to the third vein. There were four of us and when we got off the cage we stepped into water and walked for about 150 feet, I suppose. We went to the west side first, returned and hollered up and told them we were going to the east side; we walked off and went to the first entry north, northeast is what they call it, I guess. We found men there; and also as we came in we found the canvass, all stuck up round the bottom and the rails stacked up to keep the air from going forward or so the air could get through it. We walked into three or four entries to the second switch and there found many dead men; beside them were three pieces of slate, one piece had marked on it the number of men that came up to this point in bunches. It was beside a fellow that was sitting up against the timber. There was one bunch of thirty-five; another piece of slate had marked on it twenty-three, etc.’ that was the last bunch that came I think; the figures totaled on these pieces of slate 168. The men were all lying right along the road to the left, to the right and to the straight. They were about 500 feet from the hoisting shaft. We counted forty-nine men and merely looked over the rest. They had constructed a fan like the paddle of a little steamer for the purpose of furnishing air for breathing; it was made out of boxes they had down there for their tools. It was about 3 feet in diameter. We found one bucket on the west side of the shaft with a piece of bread and a piece of cheese in it. The bottom was fixed with canvas to keep the smoke or whatever it was that came there away from them.”

Georgy Eddy testified that he lived at Cherry, was 48 years of age and mine examiner for the St. Paul Coal Company. He said: “At about 1:30 in the afternoon of November 13th last I was on top of the shaft sitting down there on the third vein engine house steps, the first knowledge I had that there was a fire was when I saw the smoke coming out of the shaft; I went right down on the first cage; the first thing I did was to ask one of the drivers to loan me his lamp and he said he had only one lamp” I said, ‘Well, lend me your lamp until I go to the cupboard,’ and we have some there so I got a torch and went into the air shaft. Mr. Norberg was ahead of me; there was a car of hay on fire and it had caught the timbers on the lagging and Mr. Norberg says ‘George, the whole thing is afire.’ I says, ‘Yes, it is working on the roof,’ So Mr. Norberg turned about and came back and I followed him out and before we got out somebody opened the two check doors. Then when we got through into the big bottom I went up on the west side to see if we could do anything about getting the fire out.

“I found some empty cars and a team of mules near the air shaft and hay on the other side; there was nobody in there but me and I came up to the big bottom to get some one to help me. There was nothing on the west side of the bottom, the flames were coming through there and I just took my torch and went inside to get all the men out I could. I went up on the second west to notify the men when I met the drivers on the parting and they asked me what was the matter; I told them to get out just as soon as possible, just as fast as they could and leave their mules and everything there and run. They all started out for the bottom and then I went into the sixth south entry. There are twenty-two rooms turned in that entry but they are all finished up to eighteen. That is the first room working; I notified them and got them all out, came out again to the main entry and met John Bundy and told him the shaft is on fire, and he asked me where it was and I told him it was between the air shaft and the main shaft. I told him I had got all the men out there and he said I should go in and get these others to the south, so I went in and notified them and then I notified the men in the seventh and eight south and then I met Mr. Waite and told him what was wrong and he said you finish this entry and I will go in the nine and ten north, so we did that and met on the switch and we waited there until all the men came out.

“When we got the men all out ahead of us and got down to near the mouth of the entry, we could not get out, we were blocked in on account of the black damp and smoke; there were twenty-one men with us’; we went back up the entry and tried to go out another road and we found the black damp was stronger there than it was where we were, so we went back into the main entry again. Then we tried two or three times to get out on Saturday and Sunday, but we couldn’t get out; every time we would try it we were further away from the bottom, so we saw that we were not going to get to the cage because the black damp was pressing us in from both sections and we knew it was going to fill up the face and that we would smother in there, so we went in and built a wall across the second west entry and we built across the first west entry of dirt and we were inside there seven days or until the rescuing party came for us.”

Rescue of Twenty-One Men

The story of George Eddy is particularly interesting, for his experience is connected with the gathering together of twenty-one men who walled themselves away from the fire and smoke by closing up an entry and living therein for eight days, after which they were rescued by parties who had ventured to go into the mine for the purpose of getting out dead bodies, but not expecting to find any one alive.

These men were notified by Eddy on the afternoon of the fire, but after they had collected they could not reach the shaft and after one man had died they were compelled to retreat to a distance where they could find an entry containing a living atmosphere. George Eddy and Walter Waite persisted in the attempt to find their way out. They all then spent the first night huddled together at a safe distance from the main shaft hoping the fire would die out and that they would be able to make their escape, but the next morning they encountered black damp and had to retreat further back; George Eddy and Walter Waite made a desperate effort but were overcome in the attempt. They decided that their only safety lay in walling themselves in until a change in the condition of the mine took place.

Here they remained, with nothing to eat and very little water, for seven days. They had a light from Saturday, the day they were entrapped, until Tuesday, when their oil gave out. They were able with the aid of their picks to dig a few holes, into which there run some water, but it was of so poor a quality that it was not of much value. Here they lived in hope and in prayer that their lives might be spared and that they might be able to return to their families.

The suffering which they endured from hunger, suffocation and the thought of their most certain death is almost undescribable. Here they dwelt in darkness and despair, writing notes to their loved ones whom they had given up all hope of ever seeing again. At the end of a week’s time they were getting in such a weakened condition that they knew they could not hold out much longer, so they agreed that the four who were the strongest were to make a last attempt to get out even though they should die in their efforts. This was on Saturday evening. November 20th.

It was in this attempt, as they struggled toward the escapement shaft finding better air than existed before, that they encountered the rescue party … It was the greatest surprise to the rescuing party to hear voices of human beings in the mine, when they expected to find nothing but dead men. After coming in contact with these four men and after a most heartfelt and thankful greeting they lost no time in finding out how many there were and preparing for their safe deliverance and rescue. They soon run across four others who had followed the first four. Those who were left were not able to walk. …

The meeting of these men with their families and friends was a bright spot in the history of the dark days around the little village of Cherry, for they had been mourned as dead. It encouraged the rescuing parties to search for others that might have so protected themselves, but no more were to be found.


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