TRAPPED The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster
by Karen Tintori
"Your grandfather survived the Cherry Mine Disaster."
Grandma Tintori's simple declaration -- my single childhood
my dad's father -- planted the seed.
I never knew Grandpa Tintori. In January of 1948 my mother stood
bed and told her father-in-law she was carrying his first
grandchild. "I won't live to see the baby," he told her. That
moment with him -- he died the next day.
Grandpa Tintori was the hollow in my
heart I hungered to fill and
quest to know him sucked me straight into the story of the Cherry Mine
Grandma's unembellished sentence when I was about seven
clue I pounced on to begin unraveling his history
as an adult.
Since she and my father were both dead when I began my genealogical
decade ago and my mother knew scarcely more than I did
disaster, I turned to my grandfather's cousin Lester.
He told me his
and uncles were among the last men to escape the burning mine and that
year-old uncle Johnny, my grandfather's first cousin, perished
the fire. He gave me disaster photos, an Italian
survivor's diary and
pictures of Grandpa Tintori as a young man. I didn't know it then, but
research for TRAPPED
It continued with letters to Cherry and to the United Mine Workers
hoping to find John Tintori somewhere in the Cherry story. As
clue led to another, my search intensified. I became
I searched through documents for my grandfather's name and
a story that riveted me. With each new piece of the puzzle, I was
the conflux of ironies,
the twists of fate. Two hundred and fifty-nine
and boys should not have died in one of the safest coal mines in
yet the worst mine fire in U.S. history had consumed a mine declared to
fireproof. The novelist
in me was caught up in a human drama rife with
heroism and cowardice while the journalist in me recognized a story of
historical import -- the disaster was the impetus for the first
compensation laws in the U.S. and for
sweeping changes in mining and
The more I learned, the more I sought.
I became obsessed with the
disaster, with the accounts of the life and death struggle of the
and the terror of the women and children thronged at the
entrance to the mine, praying for the men and boys they loved.
It was a
multi-layered story that had dominated the nation's newspapers in 1909
was now virtually unknown
outside Illinois. It was a story that begged
From newspaper accounts, primary
documents and government reports,
segued to correspondence with descendants of both victims and survivors
gathered the family stories handed down orally. The stack of research
material grew and I began to write.
Yet, like my grandfather's place in the story, one important
document eluded me -- the transcript of the coroner's
inquest on the
of the victims. I couldn't locate those nine hundred pages of testimony
in numerous reports and they were as crucial to
the story as was a trip to the Illinois coal fields my
I'd gathered all the armchair research I could manage. It was time to
of Cherry, examine the artifacts in the library and to
cemetery and the mine.
In September 2000 I finally stood at the ill-fated mine shaft,
culminating a weeklong research trip to Illinois. I had
saved the mine
and the Cherry cemetery until the last, each packed day of final
the moment I would walk the ruined mine property for
first time and then visit the miners' graves. My mood shifted,
and I fell silent as our tires rolled toward Cherry and the giant slag
marking the tiny
town loomed larger, greener, with each mile.
What remains of the ruined Cherry Mine property sits
fenced in the
of cornfields beneath the abandoned slag heap now overgrown with
long cemented over, poke out like rubble in a mine yard
with grass and wildflowers. I watched as my husband
and other visitors
their climb to the top of the hill-like slag pile and imagined instead
boys with scratched and sooty hands sorting from the
each scrap of shale and rock that had gone to build
that huge hill.
While the group climbed I stood alone in the silence at the shaft.
my eyes and imagined myself in that same place nearly one
years before, with the women and children above
ground, with the men
With my nose, with my ears, with my heart, I worked to evoke the people
lived and died the story I was writing and promised them I would do
At the eleventh hour, minutes before my research trip came to an
elusive coroner's inquest transcript I'd
doggedly sought suddenly
materialized. Photocopied by archivists years before, the leatherbound
sheaves of onion skin
carbon copies had been left with Bureau County
genealogists for safekeeping. One of them ran home, suddenly
sort of report stashed in her basement. The rest of the story fell into
hands. The inquest pages were
copied later for future genealogists and
historical treasure is now housed in the Illinois State Archives.
On the trip to Illinois I finally found my grandfather in the
story. I spotted him in a photograph, peering
out at the camera from
row of mourners at his cousin Johnny's funeral. I'd had it all along.
of the disaster photos my cousin Lester had handed me on that very
As I completed
the manuscript, my mother suddenly told me for the
time how my grandfather had survived the Cherry Mine disaster.
was saved, it turns out, by an accident of fate. Despite his legendary
expertise as a wine maker,
he was a only a moderate drinker -- except
Friday night, November 12, 1909. John Tintori, single and 22, awoke
morning with the sole hangover of his life, and 481 miners dropped down
the bowels of the St.
Paul Mine that Saturday instead of 482. By the
the day, more than half of them were buried, dead and
-- trapped in the burning Cherry Mine.
Karen also has another new book out (Jan 07), called "The book of names" Go to:www.karentintori.com for more info.