The New York Times’ headline read:
350 Men Entombed in Mine Explosion. Rescue Force at Work in the Debris of Two Shattered Mines at Monongah, West Va. Poisonous Gas Pours Out.
At about 10:00 am on Dec 6, 1907, a violent explosion of methane gas and coal dust killed hundreds of workers at two adjacent underground coal mines owned by Consolidated Coal Company. The official death toll is listed at 362, but in Davitt McAteer’s new book Monongah, his research suggests the disaster claimed the lives of more than 550 men and boys.
In the days following the disaster, the New York Times article reported
“The finding of six bodies and five badly injured men is the only reward for strenuous and uninterrupted work on the part of the large rescuing force that immediately set to work at every possible point after the explosion which, in all probability, was attended by greater loss of life than any other disaster in the history of the bituminous coal mining industry in America.”
“The two mines [Monongah No. 6 and No. 8] regularly employ 760 men, working in two shifts, 380 during the day and 380 at night.”
McAteer examines the variety of “employee-employer” relationships at the Monongah mines which led to his recount of deaths. Some of the men and boys were employed as “workmen” and “laborers”–not classified as miners—and were not necessarily in the coal company’s personnel files. McAteer writes:
“Miners frequently brought with them brothers, sons, nephews, or employed helpers. These boys and men were not on the company payroll or other records and were paid by the miners themselves, in effect working as subcontractors. For many boys and men, the experience in the unofficial or off-the-books positions served as on-the-job training, preparing them for eventual hire as miners. The practice of having subcontract miners off the books was common throughout the mining industry…”
Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, the Worst Industrial Disaster in U.S. History also examines the sociological, cultural and economic dynamics in Marion County, WV of immigrant families.
“The burgeoning coal industry caused the population to increase from 12,107 in 1870 to 32,430 in 1900; during the last decade of the century, the population increased 56 percent. Much of this increase was due to the influx of Italian and Polish immigrants specifically brought in to work in th mines. …In order to deal with this multicultural workforce, instructions at Monongah mine portals were posted in seven languages… although the instructions were of limited help because many, if not most, of the immigrants were illiterate.”
McAteer writes how the founder of Monongah Coal & Coke Company, Johnson N. Camden (later a U.S. Senator) intentionally used:
“immigrant labor as part of a strategy to provide cheap labor for the newly opened mines, as well as to help thwart unionization efforts. From 1897 through 1902, labor unions, particularly the Knights of Labor and then the United Mine Workers of America, undertook extensive unionization efforts at Monongah. Although unsuccessful, the push for unionization encouraged the mine owners to replace the homegrown part of the work force with immigrants.”
One of The New York Times subheadings read “Foreigners in the Majority”:
“Until about ten years ago the mines were operated almost exclusively by Americans, but during a general strike of miners in the Pennsylvania and Ohio fields many of these West Virginia miners went out in sympathy to prevent the filling of contracts… At that time the mine owners brought a large number of foreigners into the fields to take the place of the strikers…”
Davitt McAteer, former MSHA Assistant Secretary (1994-2000) and lifelong advocate for miners’ health and safety, produced in 1986 a 30-minute documentary called simply “Monongah,” but frequently talked about turning his collection of historical documents about the disaster into a book. Now, 20 years later that vision is a reality in his book published by West Virginia Press.
Former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, now at UC-Berkeley, provides an introduction to McAteer’s book. Reich notes that the Marion County, WV courtroom in which he administered the oath of office to McAteer as MSHA’s chief, was:
“the very same courtroom where the coroner’s inquest had been held barely a month after the massive 1907 explosions in the Monongah mines. That very room was where the first investigation of the disaster was presented and its possible causes were explored.”
On this 100 year anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in the U.S., numerous events are planned in West Virginina communities to mark the solemn date. The Charleston Gazette reproduced its Dec 7, 1907 front page which reads:
Awful Sacrifice Made in Terrific Explosion. Nearly Every Toiler in Connecting Shafts Buried Beneath Tons of Coal when Black Damp Explodes with Great Force. Worst Disaster in History of Mining.
The Gazette’s Tara Tuckwiller writes of the forgotten faces of the loved ones left behind:
“Nobody has ever really talked about what happened to the widows and estimated 1,000 children—mostly immigrants who spoke little English—left to fend for themselves. …Some lost not only their husbands, but also their sons, maybe 9 or 12 years old, who were used to boost their fathers’ tonnage per day…”
This historic event reminds us to remember those who perished, and to give great thanks to those left behind who decided to honor the victims by demanding safer workplaces for all.
Celeste Monforton, MPH is a lecturer and senior research associate at the George Washington University School of Public Health. She worked as Davitt McAteer’s special assistant at MSHA from 1996-2000, and with him on WV Governor Manchin’s investigation of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster.