The Story of the Cherry
On the morning of November 13.1909,
nearly 500 men and boys went to work in the coal mine carved underneath Cherry, Illinois. The workforce, which consisted
mostly of young immigrants in their first new world job, spent long days 500 feet below the surface and miles away from the
main shaft and escape shaft. The village of Cherry was 2,000 strong and in one way or another, everyone's life was connected
to the town's only industry--the St. Paul Coal Company.
Shortly after lunch, the mine manager ordered some hay taken down
to the mine's underground stables in one of the returning coal cars. Sixty mules shared work with the miners.
Once called the world's safest mine, the Cherry works was one of the first mines in the Midwest to have illumination from
electrical power. However, two weeks before that fall day, the electricity shorted out. Without an existing union
to protest the lack of safety considerations, the miners reverted back to open candles and kerosene lanterns strung through
the anthill-like maze of tunnels. It was under one of these torches that the coal car full of dry hay was left by neglectful
stablehands. Within minutes, the wooden car was totally ablaze.
The first attempts to extinguish the fire were uncoordinated
and unsuccessful. Panic slowly crawled along the black gangways as the wooden timbers shoring up the walls and ceiling
started to burn. Then the coal vein itself caught fire. Burning coal produces a thick black smoke which the miners call,
black damp. The damp started spreading its fingers throughout the miles of passageways. And because there was only
man-to-man communication, the word to abandon the mine moved slower than the deadly smoke.
Sensing a major disaster, the
mine manager next ordered that the fan over the escape shaft, which normally forced air into the mine, be reversed to suck
up the smoke. That action sent fresh oxygen down the main shaft. That helped to clear the air in some tunnels
which allowed many choking miners to reach the surface. Then suddenly the fan house burst into flames, leaving only
one exit, the main shaft, open.
The mine manager, realizing that he had a tremendous tragedy in the making, sounded the
coal company's disaster whistle which turned every head in Cherry and the surrounding prairie. From their fields, schools,
homes and businesses, village residents raced to the company yard. Horrified at the news, friends and family pressed
close around the main shaft as the cage (the elevator) was raised, hauling up gasping men and boys. The manager quickly
organized volunteers to be dropped into the mine to rescue the missing. They entered the mine six times saving dozens
of lives. One of rescued was Sam Haines. Blackfaced and choking, he stumbled off the cage into his freind's arms.
Catching his breath, he asked about his brother. No, he was told, his brother was still underground. Sam looked
into freind's eyes and they both knew that he had to go back down. He joined the heroes on the cage.
Before the seventh
trip into that smoking chimney, the mine manager reviewed the signals for raising and lowering the cage with the lift operator.
Follow my signals exactly,as ordered. The engineer controlling the lift's steam engines agreed. With mere wet
rags over their faces, the 12 heroes once again were lowered through the smoke. The terrified families of Cherry pressed
close to the shaft's opening.
After several heart-pounding moments of silence, suddenly the bell next to the cage engineer
rang ominously. Oh my God, he cried to the men and women near him. Those signals don't mean anything!
'em up, members of the crowd pleaded with the engineer. Something is wrong...
Refusing, the scared engineer followed
his last orders. He waited for a meaningful signal as the bell clanged on and on. Then, it stopped. In the
quiet through the smoke, the crowd stared at each other. The engineer, realizing then that some action must be taken,
shoved the levers into play and pulled the cage out of that deep hole to the surface. The steel cables squealed as they
ran through pulleys pulling up the cage.
When it appeared out the smoke, the village of Cherry died. All of the 12
men aboard the wooden lift were on fire in front of hundreds of their relatives and neighbors. Women fainted. Men screamed.
Crying children ran from the scene. Most in the crowd also instantly realized the even more shocking truth -- the last
exit from the mine was now gone. There was no way to reach the 300 men and boys still trapped in the fire and smoke
Meanwhile, as wails of despair echoed out across the plains surrounding Cherry, trapped workers deep below
struggled to survive in the dark reaches of the mine. Some men had time to write short last thoughts to loved ones before
the smoke overtook them. As most miners choked to death in the damp, 21 of them hurried to the far end of the works
and sealed themselves off from the smoke. With lights for only the first few minutes of their entombment, the men were
to sit in total darkness for eight days praying for a rescue that most thought would never come. They ate their shoes,
belts, pieces of their clothing and drank their own urine in that hell hole. In the blackness, they waited.
mine officials threw lumber and sand over the two blocked exits to deny the fire air. This enraged the grieving villagers
who thought the company was only interested in saving the coal veins instead of saving the missing men. Threats against
company employees forced the governor to send in the Illinois State Militia to maintain order in Cherry. Even the engineer
in charge of the last cageload from the mine was forced to leave town for his own safety. Help in the form of food and
supplies were rushed to the stricken village from all over the Midwest to insure that no family was left cold or hungry.
Even the Chicago Fire Department was sent by train to help combat the fire. They poured tons of water into the shafts.
days after the fire started, four of the 21 miners trapped at the end of the mine decided to make a bold attempt to reach
the surface. To wait there any longer meant certain death and so they crawled out into the main tunnel. In total
darkness, the men crawled over the bodies of their dead co-workers and mules looking for help along the miles of rocky passageways.
As they neared the main shaft, an exploration team surveying the damage discovered the four miracles. The steam whistle screamed
the news to Cherry and once again, all villagers came running to the yard.
The heartbreak sat in hard as the number announced
found alive was so small--only 25 out of nearly 300 men and boys missing returned to their families that day. Each rescued
worker was given emergency medical treatment and taken home on a horse and buggy to a heroe's welcome.
Except for one old
rescued miner, Daniel Holafcak. He insisted on walking home alone. Found dead in his bed two days later, Holafcak
is considered the 259th victim of the Cherry Mine Disaster.
Serious exhumations of the victims in the mine began in the
spring of 1910. Long rows of bodies were laid under white tents as they were each identified. Horse-drawn hearses
carried the caskets to the Cherry graveyard in a seemingly unending parade.
The tragedy is credited with creation
of new and stricter mine safety legislation, landmark settlements in workman compensation suits, and the rise of the mighty
United Mine Workers Union.
Cherry Coal Mine Website