The steady stream of juice that charges our iPads, warms our cold toes, and illuminates our Christmas trees was and is provided by hard-working coal miners willing to descend hundred or thousands of feet into a dusty womb darker than space. A dusty EXPLOSIVE womb. I don’t know how they do it. And given the history of mining accidents in the Midwest, I don’t know how they keep doing it.

The 1932 Moweaqua Coal Mine Disaster

DECATUR HERALD. 12/27/1932

On Christmas Eve, 1932, a catastrophic methane gas explosion rocked Illinois’ Moweaqua Coal Mine, claiming the lives of 54 coal miners. 625 feet underground a mine shaft collapsed after a methane explosion (ignited by the flame of a carbide lamp). It pulverized the mine’s supporting structure and buried the entire crew. Poor ventilation and life-threatening conditions in the mine, including the risk of further collapses, hampered efforts to rescue the miners.

Emergency teams worked tirelessly to free the trapped miners, but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and all 54 were lost. Had the accident occurred during a routine shift, rather than one on the holiday, TWICE as many men would have been below ground.

The Marshall News Messenger. 12/27/1932

1909 Cherry Mine Disaster

“The crowds gathered around the mine.”

259 miners lost their lives during the 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster in Cherry, Illinois. It ranks as the third deadliest mining disaster in American history.

Although the mine had been well-lit with steadier and safer electrical lamps, an outage in early November, 1909, forced miners to break out the old-fashioned kerosene lamps and torches.

In the narrow mine shaft, mules pulled the laden carts to the elevators, which hauled it to the surface. In the afternoon, a cart filled with tightly-bound hay bundles rolled through the tunnel and brushed against a draped torch. A flicker turned to a flame, which turned into a fire.

The Streator Free Press. 12/9/1909.

The fire quickly spread through the mine, trapping the miners underground. Workers attempted to push the blazing bundles into a corner, away from other fuel sources, only to have the timber framing erupt in flames. They tried blowing it out with an air-moving fan and the flames grew higher. Soon the wood-framed emergency exits were on fire, too. A dreadful decision was made to seal a pair of tunnels, starving the fire of oxygen but suffocating the 200 men still in those tunnels.

Of the 500 men in the Cherry Mine that day, about half made it to the surface. Many descended again to save other miners, only to lose their lives in the process.

As news of the Cherry Mine Disaster spread, anxious families came to observe rescue efforts.

The Cherry Mine Disaster had a profound impact on mining safety in the United States. It led to increased regulations and improvements in mining technology, including the use of more fire-resistant materials and better ventilation systems.

The Champaign Daily Gazette. 11/15/1909

Today, the Cherry Mine Disaster serves as a solemn reminder of the sacrifices and risks that coal miners have taken throughout history to provide for their families and communities, and the ongoing need to improve mining safety and protect the lives of workers in the industry.

The 1930 Millfield Mine Disaster

The Sunday Creek Coal Company bragged their Millfield Mine No. 6 was one of the safest coal mines along the Ohio River. It was a point of pride for the company, at least until November 5, 1930, when an explosion in the Ohio mine took 82 lives.

The Newark Advocate. 11/6/1930.

It began in an unused section of the Millfield Mine, specifically called the Poston Mine Number 6, almost two miles from the main shaft. Because of the poorly-maintained track and methane gas buildup, supervisors had ordered the electricity cut and the section emptied. Crews left the area, but the electricity remained.

In the darkness a live wire slipped loose from its bracket and slapped against the trolley track. A shower of sparks illuminated the tunnel like a flashbulb and then weeks’ worth of methane gas exploded, roaring toward the main shaft and tearing tunnel supports and equipment along the way.

The Evening Independent. 11/6/1930.

Of the 250 men in the mine, about half safely scrambled to the surface through emergency exits and ventilation shafts. Within hours, volunteers and fire responders, both in-state and out-of-state, surrounded the mine to help the living and the dead.

Few men died from the immediate explosion. But the destruction of ventilation systems slowly poisoned the air with carbon monoxide. A couple quick-thinking crews erected makeshift barricades in the shaft, using any materials at hand. This slowed down the carbon monoxide’s encroachment. But dozens succumbed to asphyxiation.

The remains of the MIllfield Mine today.

It took five days for the methane and carbon monoxide to dissipate, and when inspectors combed over the site, they decided the Sunday Creek Coal Company was not liable for the accident. They had adhered to every mining safety standard at the time, had responded quickly and effectively to the disaster, and did not endanger more lives by reactionary rescue efforts. It was, as sometimes happens, just bad luck.

Want to Know More? 

Although the page Millfield Coal Mine Disaster is from 2005, it is comprehensive and includes the name and age of everyone who perished in the Millfield Mine that day.

Experience the Story of the Cherry Mine Disaster through the reports of survivors in the short but informative article from the Illinois Labor History Society.

Don’t miss this firsthand history of the Moweaqua Mine aptly titled “The Coal Mine” by local historian Betty Shaw.