ST.PAUL COAL MINE IN CHERRY IL. Written by: Ray Tutaj
MODEL RAILROADING MAGAZINE (Excerpt from that article is below)
You can get unedited copies of the two issues at the Cherry Library or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE CHERRY MINE DISASTER November 13th
Railroad gives birth to coal mining town
1904, the St. Paul Coal Co. erected a mine site, 90 miles Southwest of Chicago, in Bureau
County IL. Giving birth to a new mining town called Cherry, named after James Cherry, superintendent of the St. Paul mines.
The coal would be used primarily for the steam locomotives of theChicago, Milwaukee & St.Paul Railroad (C.M.& St.
P.RR.) The newly laid tracks into Cherry brought trainloads of supplies and building materials to the new mine site. It also
brought men and boys to work the mine along with their hopes and dreams of settling into their new townsite. Hired by the
St.Paul Coal Co.they would have a means to provide for themselves and their young families. When that first steam whistle
at the mine blew on December 11th, 1905, it commenced the opening of the mine and was a signal to the workers to come and
begin the first day at the new mine. It was a joyous occasion and a new beginning for all. The work would not be easy but
it was a living. The mine was equipped with the latest technology of the time and was considered one of the safest. The surplus
of coal helped keep the C.M.&St.P RR chugging along with no end in sight. The output of the mine was about 300,000 tons
annually. It had a daily capacity of 1500 tons.
But could anyone have ever believed that this very mine site would be the scene of the nation's
worst mining tragedy of the time? Only a short four years later in November of 1909 the nation turned its eyes and ears toward
Cherrys Mine Disaster. The suspense of each passing day was nerve-racking. This couldnt be happening and why here? Well, it
did happen and the tragedy is written in the pages of history as the third worst in the nation.
THE ST. PAUL MINE OPERATION
The coal mine here in Cherry had a vertical main shaft, which was sunk (dug) about 500ft.
There were three veins or levels in which miners would dig basically in a horizontal manner, thus creating tunnels and/or
passageways. The coal and slag/rock etc. all had to be brought to the surface. They loaded the mine cars below and hoisted
them to the surface by way of the cages in the main shaft, which were controlled from the engine room. . As one came up the
other went down. The coal was dumped accordingly inside the tipple where it was sorted out into various sizes and then dumped
into the railroad train cars placed under the tipple. The slag and dirt was run out from the tipple and dumped into the refuse
piles. The head frame of the tipple was the highest point. Here is where the sheaves or pulleys guided the steel cables that
raised and lowered the cages. The engine power required to lift these iron cages with loads of dirt and coal was generated
by six massive steam boilers located in the boiler house. Only three boilers were used at a time, while periodical repair
and maintenance were being done to the other three.
For the men to survive down below, they needed fresh air, which was generated from the 16'
fan in the fanhouse. This forced air down into the mine through the airshaft, which was adjacent to the escape shaft. Electric
lighting illuminated the mine so the men could see while working. The miners also had headlamps, which were worn on their
caps. However, weeks right before the disaster the electrical lighting system had shorted out and they were forced to temporarily
use kerosene torches to illuminate the dark mine below. These torches were placed along the passageways.
On November 13th 1909 on Saturday about noon or so, a load of hay destined for
the mule stable in the 3rd vein below was brought down into the mine. It was pushed precariously to a spot where
a Kerosene torch was hanging directly above it at the escapeshaft/airshaft at the second vein. A smaller cage was to take
the hay load down to the 3rd level. This torch was dripping kerosene and had saturated the carload of hay. A spark
fell onto the hay and started the fire. It started out small and could have been easily put out by some passing miners who
were on their way back up to the surface, but they left it for the next guy. Small fires were somewhat common in mines and
were put out before becoming dangerous.
There were approximately 490 men and boys down in the mine at the time. Many had escaped
through the escape shaft, which was basically a narrow, zigzag staircase reaching from the bottom of the mine to the surface,
about 500ft. A decision to reverse the fan, which blew fresh air down into the mine, ended up being a fatal mistake. They
had figured the fan would pull all the heavy smoke out of the mine. Well, it made things worse and pulled the flames up the
escape shaft and set ablaze the wood staircase. Now the only way to escape was through the main shaft.
THE TWELVE HEROES
There were twelve men who made several trips upon the cages at the mainshaft to rescue the
trapped miners below. Trip after trip they came up with survivors and those rescued got to see the light of day again. They
were greeted by their loved ones after reaching the surface. On the seventh trip after discussing with the cage operator to
strictly obey the signals of the bell. The twelve brave men descended down into the smoke-filled mine and soon sent a frantic
signal to the cage operator, which he did not understand. He waited just a little too long and with the urging of the townsfolk
who surrounded the mainshaft entrance he brought up the cage and there upon it were 12 men burned to their deaths. The screams
of the people who witnessed this ghastly sight shrieked into the heavens, and some who lost their loved ones or friends became
hysterical by the horror. These heroes who saved a number of lives lost their own in trying to save more. Their loved ones
had pleaded with them not to go down anymore but to no avail. A total of two hundred and fifty-nine did not make it out alive.
Many of them had died from a poisonous gas called black damp, which is caused from coal burning in an atmosphere lacking oxygen.
Since the fan house was severely damaged from the reversing of the fan, it then became inoperable; thus not providing any
air down in the mine for those who still might be alive.
THE "EIGHT-DAY" MEN
One of the most fascinating accounts of the disaster story is that of the eight-day men.
It was nothing short of a miracle, there were twenty-one men who had survived eight days down in the mine under such formidable
and tragic circumstances. They went into the far recesses of the mine and entombed themselves in to prevent the smoke and
black damp from strangling the life out of them. They were shut off from the rest of the world with no food or water and a
light that only lasted a few days until they were in complete darkness. On the following Saturday, eight days later, when
the mine was considered somewhat tolerable to enter, an attempt to retrieve dead bodies was made. At the very same time a
couple of the trapped miners who had been entombed came out of their little cave and attempted to make it to the main cage.
Barely alive and dying of thirst and starvation they crawled in the darkness toward the main cage. They heard the voices of
the other men and yelled for help. The rescue team, which was sent down to retrieve dead bodies, heard the cries of the men
and immediately rushed toward them. It was shocking that they had found men alive! The news shot up to the surface so fast
and the joy at that moment was immeasurable. Miraculously they lived to tell about it, surviving only on a thread of hope
and faith, praying they would see the light of day again. They were a handful of the fortunate ones who were able to see their
loved ones again.
These are some of the true stories of the Cherry mine Disaster. It is impossible to share
with you the many details here. I would encourage anyone interested in the story to begin by reading "Trapped" by Karen Tintori
or Black Damp, by Steve Stout. Or come visit the public library in Cherry where it and other items concerning the Cherry mine
story can be purchased. The Model Railroading double issues are packed with exclusivephotos both historic and of the model.
We can learn from history, for history repeats itself in the minds of those who do not know
history. Tragedy can be avoided if we practice safety first, and dont leave a situation for the next guy to worry about.
It can be said that 259 miners lost their lives so countless others in the future could
live. As a result of the disaster, there were mine safety regulations implemented throughout the mining industry and a liability
act, which became the basis of the Illinois Workmens Compensation Act.
Come and Visit
Each year during the Anniversary there are a variety of mine-related displays to view
along with the model layout. In Cherry you can still see the slag hills at the mine site and some remnants of structures.
Also visit the Cemetery to see the Miners Memorial and tombstones of the miners. To see the HO scale model of the Cherry Coal
Mine and other mine related artifacts on this Anniversary Sunday, the library is open between 9:00-4:00 (second weekend of
NOV.). The usual Library hours are as follows: Wednesdays 5:00-7: 00pm or Saturdays 9:00-11: 00am or for special times/
tours call (815) 894-2919. Located on the West Side of Main Street across from the Cherry State Bank, you cant miss it!
Also while in the area, come and visit the Mendota Railroad Museum located 11 miles NE of
Cherry. The Railroad museum is home to another model railroad display built by Ray, plus C.B&Q 4978 and other rolling
stock. Open weekends 12:00 and 5:00pm. Open Wed through Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day 12:00-5:00pm or by appointment
call (815) 538-3800 or 539-3373. The Hume-Carnegie Museum is open weekends 1:00-4:00pm.
I hope you have enjoyed taking this journey with me back in time, to 1909 at the St. Paul
Mine. I hope this article has sparked an interest in this most fascinating story.